House of Zen is probably my favourite Chinese restaurant in Belfast, certainly the one that I eat in the most.
The menu above is the lunch menu and the bulk of this review will be referring to Sunday lunchtime, however I have been in the evenings as you'll note when I get to the inevitable mention of taking a date here. The evening menu is broader and the portions larger, and the quality is just as high.
I'd love to tell you about how nice the variety of starters all are but I always order the delicious Signature Starter: king prawns in a light batter on a bed of curry leaves with roasted garlic and sliced chillis, with one oven cooked birdseye chilli just for punishment.
The other starters all look very nice though.
I've sampled a lot more from the mains and I can genuinely say that I haven't had a bad meal in House of Zen. I'm quite fond of the asparagus and ribeye steak rolls, tender steak wrapped around spears of asparagus on a bed of onions and a black pepper sauce.
The Chinese Roasted Duck is another pleasure to sample, and their salt and chilli chicken is fantastic (something I usually use as a barometer for how good a Chinese takeaway is the quality of their salt and chilli).
The restaurant itself is dimly lit in a comfortable way, with well-cushioned chair if you're planning to sit around having a particularly enjoyable date, although the service is always prompt and efficient so you probably won't have any other reason for sitting long. I did however take a date once and the table next to us had rotated through four groups in the time it took us to finish up our conversation, so fair play to Zen that they didn't move us on.
They have a good selection of gins and other spirits available, and a few nice beers too, but sometimes it's just nice to sit back and relax with a nice pot of tea.
Unit 3, St Anne's Square, Belfast BT1 2LR
Monday to Friday, 12-11.30 (Late Friday), Sat 1-Late, Sun 1.30-10.30
St Anne's Square multistory part of same building
I'm starting to think that I have a type when it comes to wee cafes and restaurants as the word 'kitsch' tends to come up a lot in my reviews. Of course I could justify this in saying that I particularly look out for restaurants expressing their own sense of individuality rather than a corporate job like TGI Friday's where no matter the store you'll see the same Darth Vader mask staring at the same Elvis record with the same dead-eyed staff singing a royalties-free version of Happy Birthday whilst silently wishing for death.
So there's something I really like about Harlem Cafe.
Maybe it's the lady who was working in it who had a sort of air of oblivious happiness, of course I didn't know until I came to write this review that said lady was actually the owner. She projects a nice and untroubled air that really filters down into the restaurant, and the attitude seems to be reflected well among the staff who were good humoured and professional.
Visiting for Sunday brunch with my friends and a hangover I got to play 'guess the celebrity and what did they die from' looking over all the old black and white pictures of rock and punk stars on the wall. It's a good game to play, but you can't just say 'drugs' for every answer.
I went for a simple poached eggs breakfast with bacon, sausage and rocket on sourdough, a simple breakfast with a nice twist, and had an espresso milkshake along with it because of the aforementioned hangover. And you know what, after cappuccinos and martinis I think I've found something else that espresso goes great with.
Also on our table was a scrambled eggs breakfast which also involved smoked salmon, avocado and rocket, and there was also a breakfast bruschetta which I'll admit almost gave me food envy except I was really looking forward to my poached eggs.
I can't pass any comment on the lunch menu as I've never had it but if the food is of similar standard to the breakfast then I imagine it will get the same review: simple with a twist and very tasty.
I think Sunday brunch in Harlem is something that I would enjoy doing with my girlfriend... so I'm going to have to look into getting a girlfriend.
34 Bedford Street, Belfast BT2 7FF
Monday to Friday, 8-5 (Late Friday), Sat 9-Late, Sun 8-4
On street, several multi-storey parks within 5 minute walk
I'm being a bit cheeky in writing this review as I'm doing so in the coffee shop that used to be managed by the lady who now owns the Granary.
The Granary is one of those places that I never really wanted to go to, I had always thought of it as something of a greasy spoon cafe, one of those relics of a bygone era in which the menu choice was chips with brown sauce or chips with ketchup. And me being a snob about my foamy coffees and overpriced under-filled sandwiches it wasn't the place for me.
Snap forward to when the Granary was taken over by the aforementioned lady who used to run one of the local chain coffee shops in town. Apparently it wasn't a greasy spoon before takeover, but at the risk of sounding ageist it was an 'old persons' cafe, and according to my mum all the regulars were leaving because 'they introduced a load of healthy stuff onto the menu'.
But it seems to have bounced back, good food tells the tale.
As a wife and husband team the Granary has a great friendly atmosphere, good coffee, good food, and the kind of kitsch 'creaky floorboards' surroundings that people are paying big money to replicate in Belfast.
I went for a Power Bowl plate of steamed green veg with grilled chicken fillet, somewhat healthier than I was planning and the portion was bigger than I was expecting. I was torn before ordering because the chicken burrito special on the menu board sounded quite awesome.
Whilst I was waiting for my food I saw several large plates of sandwiches and paninis coming from the kitchen, so the one thing to take away from this review if nothing else is that you will not go hungry dining here.
The pastries all seemed to be homemade, which is a big bonus in these days of desserts that have been blast frozen and then defrosted on the day like the food had been put into hypersleep and then reawakened in time for a Weyland Yutani plot twist.
Sorry, there're the movie references spilling over from when I did the review for Sam Neill's Two Paddocks Pinot Noir.
The Granary is a cosy little spot, I'd say seating maybe 20 plus a couple of tables outside, but during the half hour I was there I also counted about two dozen people getting lunch to go which is a pretty good testament for their product given the level of competition in the town.
So long story short I think it's a pretty good spot for a healthy lunch or a good sandwich, and a nice coffee. And with a good friendly atmosphere that will keep people coming back.
50 James Street, Cookstown BT80 8LT
Monday to Saturday, 9-5.30 (9pm Thursday)
Ok, this is going to be a mixed review. I'm putting that out there now because I'm trying to express my opinion in these things without using a star or number system, so don't go away thinking that I'm entirely negative on 44 Hill Street.
The staff were really friendly and created a nice atmosphere, background music was pretty cool, and there were a nice range of wines on display. The decor of a trendy Mediterranean bistro struck a nice balance between homely and cool, it's a nice place.
Ok, so you've probably gathered that my foibles are with the food.
We ordered 3 tapas dishes to start. The lamb belly tapas was genuinely lovely, very tasty little dish of crispy lamb and olives, but seeing a flavoured mayo drizzled over it gave me pause. The prawn slider tapas again was quite heavy in marie rose sauce or other flavoured mayo, and the squid (which was perfectly cooked) also came with a dollop spicy mayo.
Maybe it's just me but reliance on mayos is just lazy, and not particularly 'Mediterranean'. The squid for example could have easily been served with a nice chilli and ginger glaze, something with a nice kick. The lamb belly would have been fine by itself, or with just a dash of olive oil. The prawn slider was literally just prawn cocktail in a roll, I would suggest maybe something like prawn pil pil or a zesty slaw. The mayo usage just seems like the lazy approach you'd get in a chain restaurant rather than in a restaurant trying to forge a reputation to equal their previous venture 'La Bastille'.
For main course we both ordered the smoked chicken tagliatelle. Too much oil and too much pesto (at time of writing it's seven hours later and it's still all I can taste), there was a nice flavour with the chicken, tomato and parmesan, I would have thought that a light pesto cream would have created a better overall balance.
Obviously I can only critique what I sampled and I wouldn't presume to call out the entire menu, but I do feel that from what I sampled they do need to re-examine what it is that they're trying to do.
I'll say again that the lamb was lovely and crisp, the squid was cooked perfectly (and squid is very easy to bugger up and leave tasting like rubber boots), the chargrilled chicken had a nice flavour (it was just buried in oily pesto). If you miss Prezzo or fancy something different to the Cuban chain restaurant that used to be Vaudeville you'll find the menu to be of the same standard. I just think that they're trying to achieve more.
I'll finish with saying that I do think 44 Hill Street has got everything else right, they just need to tweak (not change, just tweak) the dishes and it would stand alongside any of the top restaurants in Belfast.
44 Hill Street, Belfast BT1 2LG
7 days a week
Some on street on Talbot Street, St Anne's Square car park two minutes walk.
Yep, pretty much where you go for a good burger.
Big thick juicy burgers, cooked to your taste and served to your liking in the same traditional wrap reminiscent of the American burger bars of old. I ordered mine cooked medium with all the toppings, with tasty hand cut fries on the side, and a lovely strawberry milkshake. My only complaint: as tasty as the milkshake was, it was not worth £4.
From the menu to the fit-out everything was minimalist, but I like that. You know what you're there for and know what to expect: burger. I like what they've done, it's basically back to the bare bones just like how McDonald's started, but don't take that as a parallel of quality.
The staff are well on the ball, with good cleanliness and quick, friendly service, they do the place proud.
It's pretty cool that the simple menus are presented as business cards on your table, small menu so why waste space on massive big boards.
My mate Aidan has become somewhat of a regular and is a big fan of the double burger, however today was my first visit and I'd already had a nice breakfast in the National so opted for the single burger. The single is still a big lump of meat so the double must be a bit of an epic feed.
I forgot to get them to take the tomato out which was a whoopsie on my part that I only noticed when the bun started to disintegrate. I never got the tomato slice in the burger thing. Thankfully there are plenty of napkins on the table next to the condiment bottles. There were big, ignorant slices of pickles in the burger though which made me happy.
I'll probably just end the review here because there's only so much you can say about a minimalist place that does tasty burgers.
I wasn't aware at the time that Bunsen is actually a Dublin chain, I'm hoping now that they are eyeing up a few other sites in the North.
6-8 Hill Street, Belfast BT1 2DX
7 days a week
Some on street on Waring Street and Talbot Street, St Anne's Square car park two minutes walk.
Made in Belfast City Hall is one of those wee places you might not find if you didn't know where to look, or one of those little gems that you stumble into. It all depends if you're having a goal orientated day or waiting to see where your feet will take you.
The interior is very 'urban cafe' with mismatched furniture, random tiles, posters and graffiti, and exposed brick and pipe. It all looks very cool and I find is a great place to impress when you're out with a few friends.
But lets talk about the food, that's the important part when reviewing a restaurant after all.
The food is awesome.
Myself, I'm fond of the flat iron steak (served medium rare) with beef shortrib, buttermilk onion rings, and beef fat fries... today as any other day it came out to perfection.
Their burgers are a nice big handmade affair, and of course there are baskets of chicken wings, cups of soup with tasty big lumps of foccacia bread, big pots of mussels... oh I could go on and on.
They make a big thing about having sustainably sourced and ethical foods, which I'll admit I always think is a gimmick when I see that in any restaurant, but I do get the feeling that MiB is actually trying.
The menu caters well for vegetarians and vegans, but to be honest given that I've waxed-lyrical about the flat iron steak I'm probably not the man to talk to about that.
Cocktails is something that Made in Belfast has a good reputation for, although since I'm normally driving I can't say I've sampled anything, and the last date I took there considered gin and tonic to be the only cocktail that she needed. Fortunately the gin selection is fantastic, so there's a reason for you to go and check it out.
The beer selection is pretty decent, although craft beer is exclusively Whitewater Brewery. If you've been following my reviews you'll know that I think this is no bad thing, but it is an area I think Made in Belfast have room to broaden their horizons given the sheer spectrum of local craft currently on the market, perhaps as beer specials or a beer of the week.
Last to mention about Made in Belfast City Hall is the service: I can't speak highly enough about the team. They're friendly, on the ball, and (for example) when you land in on a rainy day with a party of six and no booking they'll do their best to squeeze you in (I promise I won't make a habit of that).
Units 1 & 2 Wellington Building, Wellington Street, Belfast
7 days a week
On street and nearby multistorey
This review applies only to Made in Belfast City Hall. I haven't eaten in The Grill restaurant mentioned on the website, I'll do a separate review whenever I have. It also does not apply to the Cathedral Quarter restaurant.