BB Eats: Having wanted to do my own food blog for some time, but frankly fearing the scary world of food writers, this column was born during a lovely mid-week lunch with Jeff of Belfast Times, who generously offered me a corner of his brilliant blog. Fuelled by my unashamed obsession with all things edible, BB Eats will document my food encounters in Belfast, from newly opened eateries to classic dining spots, and even the odd takeaway! If you have recommendations for a new food to try or a restaurant worth checking out, give me a shout on Twitter @brittanybreslin.
Alley Cat and the birth of BB Eats
It seems appropriate that my first review on Belfast Times should be of where the concept for this column was born, on a lunch date with Belfast Times blogger extraordinaire, Jeff, at ‘new American restaurant’ Alley Cat on Church Lane in Belfast’s City Centre.
Located just across from hipster menswear retailer Bogart’s and a few doors down from the newly-revamped Muriel’s, Alley Cat is in good company in a trendy corner of town, and its grubby American diner food kicked up a notch appeals perfectly to the noveau-folk loving, ironic braces-wearing, sporting facial hair as fashion statement crowd.
Walking into Alley Cat, I was struck by the diner atmosphere of the front dining room. Massive booths with cushioned banquettes make Alley Cat the perfect place for a long lunch or that awkward meal between work and drinks on a Friday night.
As an American living in Belfast, I find myself sometimes longing for a dingy diner with over-sized portions and bar stools at the lunch counter, and this place certainly did not disappoint as far as aesthetics went. Add in walls of windows on each side of the corner restaurant, and you’re on prime people watching real estate.
My warm and fuzzies quickly turned to disoriented panic when the server greeted us with a “how dare you enter on my lunch hour” tone. “Are you here to eat?” Nodding. “It’s going to be twenty-five minutes for your food” We can wait. “You can eat here or upstairs.” I point to the corner, where there are two empty booths. “Over there?” She walks away.
After a bit of “do we seat ourselves?” banter, Jeff and I find a booth tucked away in the corner, and menus are dropped on the table as the server walks by our table. Off to a shaky start, but the menu looks promising.*
Aware that I was attempting the impossible, looking for a ‘light lunch’ on a diner menu heavy with beef burgers and milkshakes, I settle on a chilli dog (it’s small-ish…right?) with a side of sweet potato fries and glass of water. If I can’t be healthy, I’ll go for smaller portions. Always-dapper Jeff chooses the Posh Burger.
While our meal is prepared behind the counter in an open kitchen, allowing for the odd glow of a rogue flame to brighten up the dining room, Jeff and I admire Alley Cat’s laid back décor. Our cutlery is delivered in a cardboard six-pack bottle holder, something that again makes me nostalgic for the diners of my youth. Signage among the daily specials boast that Alley Cat’s burgers are made of 100% unicorn meat, hopefully implying that they taste like something of fantasies and in no way referring to the still-to-recent horse meat scandal that nearly turned me into a vegetarian for life.
Eventually our jumbo-sized lunch is served in the centre of our table on a rectangular tray lined with greaseproof paper. They mean business. Jeff’s moderately sized Posh Burger with beef patty, melted brie, onion marmalade, mushrooms, aioli and rocket is, he agrees, something of dreams, and my monstrous order of two – yes two –Chilli Dogs includes an accurate replica of the hot dogs from home that I crave once in a hungover blue moon topped with chilli beef, cheese, jalapenos and chipotle mayo are amazing, if not a bit heavy on the bread, and much more food than I had signed up for.
A surprise that wasn’t included in my lunch’s description? Sweet corn. Why this country is obsessed by adding sweet corn as a surprise ingredient in is beyond me, and a habit I am unintentionally adapting into my own cooking, but in this case the sweetness of the corn was the perfect balance to the spice in the chilli beef and chipotle mayo.
Thoroughly stuffed by our gigantic portions, Jeff and I split the sweet potato fries, which were far too good to leave behind. I have ordered sweet potato fries in the past, and each time I have been painfully aware of the fact that they weren’t chips. Alley Cat’s sweet potato fries were, however, the best form of sweet potato I have ever eaten. Not floppy like your typical order of French fries’ healthier cousin, I felt zero remorse for ordering the healthier option. The fries were served with an aioli which neither of us touched. They simply didn’t need it.
In spite of the wait for our food and less than pleasant server experience, I highly recommend Alley Cat for future City Centre nibbles. I will certainly be returning soon to try out the gorgeous thick milkshakes and devour another bowl of sweet potato fries, or to kick off my evening with one of their many delightfully redneck-themed cocktails including the Bourbon Smash or Redneck Pick-up.
2 x water £0.00
Posh Burger £7.50
Chili Dogs £7.00
Sweet Potato Fries £3.00
* Thinking on the unpleasant server situation later on, I decided that the image of the grumpy diner lady is, indeed, something that I look back on fondly from my days in rural America, and perhaps this was all part of an elaborate act to make the restaurant feel even more authentic. Or maybe I’m too optimistic.