[My friend Dara Bratt, an award-winning filmmaker, kindly offered to write a guest post about her recent trip to Belfast. How could I say no? What follows is an epic story of treacherous bridges, overflowing pints of Guinness and a meal so extraordinary, it had to be consumed twice.]
For my husband’s 40th birthday, I surprised him with a trip to Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland. His dad, who passed away before I met him, was born there, and Kieran had never been. To execute this mega-surprise, I had the support of his mom, and in Northern Ireland, my cohorts were Kieran’s cousin Judith and his Uncle Peter.
The surprise was a success and we were Brooklyn to Belfast bound.
As we were leaving, Kieran warned that unlike all of our other trips, this one wouldn’t be food-centric and I shouldn’t expect anything special in the cuisine domain. Boy, was he wrong.
Years since “the troubles” ended, Belfast has become a safe, fascinating city.
We took in the new Titanic Exhibit– a point of pride for the locals. (As they say in Belfast, “It was fine when it left here.”)
We drove up the Northern Coast and walked across one of the top ten scariest bridges in the world.
Another point of pride is the Irish love of drink. And yes, there was a lot of drinking. I mean, a lot of drinking. Guinness, wine, Irish whiskey, gin and tonics, and then back to whiskey. That’s whiskey with a drop of water before dinner, and without the drop after. “Never trust an Irishman who says we’ll eat later,” they advise, as we gorged ourselves on the delicacies of the land.
Judith observed that the portions in Ireland are so gigantic that one often wonders if they should eat the food or climb it. When Peter ordered the “Mega-Fry” at breakfast, we were all horrified. Fried eggs, fried Irish soda bread, fried potato bread, fried black pudding, bacon, sausage, a bowl of baked beans and of course, a side of fries. Sadly, I don’t have a photo but I think it would have taken 10 pictures to capture it all.
Mega-Fry aside, Uncle Peter would have been happy with some minced meat and chips every night, but he was game to try new things.
Fast forward to Day 10, which started with a beautiful drive to Portaferry, County Down, at the Southern end of the Ards Peninsula.
We stopped in at a local pub where Peter had fond memories.
I had a fantastic smoked-salmon salad that was so fresh; it reminded me of my childhood in Montreal, eating bagels and lox from the local Jewish delis. (Although I didn’t like smoked-salmon until much later in life)
As it was our last day, we had to order fish and chips with not-so mushy peas.
Kieran’s full of guilt here because he had just broken his new rule: “No French fries after 40.”
We took the car ferry across the Peninsula to Strangford Lough and then drove to a local favorite pub, called “Daft Eddie’s” with perfectly poured Guinness for the boys, while the ladies enjoyed G and T’s.
The view was spectacular.
Then we drove back to Judith’s house past fields of cows and sheep and comber potatoes (harvested twice a year!) for a pre-dinner glass of wine, and to get ready for the star meal of the day, at Shu in Southern Belfast.
Shu is a fine dining restaurant. Lately, when traveling, I’ve been resistant to go for fancier meals because I often leave disappointed. I live in NY and am so spoiled after all with access to great food and great chefs.
We had been to Shu earlier in the week, and it proved to be so incredible, that Kieran and I broke our rule of never going back to the same place twice on vacation. It was that good.
At the start of the meal, Judith asked us if we wanted to do the tasting menu. Peter, endearingly asked, “Do you mean, before the main meal?” We decided against it because we had already determined what we wanted.
First of all, the wheaten bread, baked in house, was delicious. It tasted like chocolate. I have 3 criteria for determining whether a restaurant is worthy and the first is, “How good is the bread?” This was dense, with a flaky crust, still hot and moist, and not cut until served. I kept indulging, telling myself it was seemingly healthy, although when layered with Irish butter, it became extremely dangerous.
(My other 2 criteria are, “How well do they cook squid?” and “How clean is their bathroom?” Both highly successful here with one being slightly more edible.)
We didn’t skimp on appetizers (exact spelling from the menu):
Drumbeg tomato salad, goats curd, dried olives, green tomato juice
Beef Carpaccio, pickled artichoke, kohlrabi, radish, pecorino
Cured fillet of pork with crispy belly, apricot, sherry and almonds
Salt and chili squid, Shu dressing
Gazpacho, mozzarella, red pepper granita, fennel and dried olive
Cured salmon tartare, crème fraiche, radish, cucumber, chervil and dill
My standout appetizer was the house special. As it wasn’t on the menu, I don’t have the full dish name but it was smoked local Lough Neagh eel.
It was so amazingly light, and tasty, that I wish all sushi Unagi was made from Lough Neagh.
We were all in food awe. Peter summed up the first round perfectly in one word: “Lovely.”
Before the main course, Shu’s owner Alan Reid came over to say hello. That’s him on the right.
Curious to know the trends in NY, I talked with him about “farm-to-table.” Judith noted that all the food they eat comes from local farms.
In Belfast, “farm-to-table” is just called “dinner.”
We got smaller portioned entrees since we ordered several appetizers. (And more wine)
Roast whole lemon sole, purple broccoli, new potatoes, anchovy butter.
Breast of corn fed chicken, violet potato, sweetcorn, tarragon and roasting juices
Braised blade of beef, mushroom and shallot crust, spinach puree, celery, potato croquette, thyme and red wine sauce
The best gnocchi of my life: Basil gnocchi, mozzarella, violet artichoke, tomato, olive, lemon oil
It was like a deconstructed sauce that wasn’t heavy but left you wanting more. How had the Irish mastered this Italian dish?
As Kieran summarized, “Usually a restaurant gets known for 1 or 2 specialized dishes. For a place to consistently excel in every dish it produces—that is so rare.”
I don’t normally do dessert but I was blown away by this one:
New season strawberries marinated in hibiscus and schezuan, honeycomb (aka Irish toffee), vanilla ice cream, strawberry granita
If I could pack it up and take it home with me, I would have ordered 4 more.
I know I’m being overwhelmingly positive but Shu really only deserves praise. Kieran consoled: “If you have to hunt for a reason to be critical, then don’t do it.”
But Uncle Peter seemed the most impressed, declaring: “It was bloody good tonight.” During our trip, Peter Black had become a foodie.
After amazingly paired dessert wines,
and a tour of the kitchen,
we went back to the bar… with a kidnapped sommelier.
With a morning flight to catch, it was time to leave Shu and time to say good-bye to Belfast and Northern Ireland, and our fantastic hosts for sharing it all.