quarter potted and besotted

Stimulated by the revitalizing efforts of enterprises like the Merchant Hotel, Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter has shaken off its cobwebs to become the city’s up and coming cultural hotspot. The magnificent St. Anne’s Cathedral is a focal point but the cobbled streets are dotted with gems of all kinds: galleries like the Belfast Print Workshop, Catalyst Arts, and Belfast Exposed, which focuses on contemporary photography; music ranges from traditional sessions at the Duke of York to local emerging bands at the Front Page; plus there are pubs aplenty, including the smart Northern Whig, and The John Hewitt, known for its lunch, as well as for impromptu readings. Each May the Quarter hosts a cutting edge festival, too, with an emphasis on bringing arts to unorthodox places. If Belfast is slowly gaining a reputation as a smart destination for the cosmopolitan and culturally aware, much of the credit can be found in the Quarter. Then there’s the food, which in my humble opinion is as much a reflection of the change happening across the city as anything else: from pub grub with a locally sourced twist at The Morning Star in Pottinger’s Entry, one of the city’s oldest pubs; to the shabby chic global eclecticism of Made in Belfast, where you’re just as likely to find falafel with harissa as sinfully good beef fat chips; you can feast affordably inside Mourne Seafood Bar, where the fish and shellfish are impeccably fresh or splurge on the plush ritual of a proper afternoon tea in the Merchant’s Great Room. All the more impressive is how this hive of activity is evolving within the space of just a few square blocks. Another of the dining highlights is The Potted Hen, which remains one of the most talked about restaurants in the Quarter, though it opened almost 18 months ago. A bistro-style establishment on St. Anne’s Square, it’s modern and welcoming, chic yet comfortable. The menu is imaginative and wholly unpretentious, which goes a long way towards explaining its continued local popularity. Chicken liver is not an uncommon starter in Northern Ireland but at the Hen the house parfait melts in your mouth, like velvet, encased in a ribbon of buttery fat. (That it comes with a steak knife must be someone’s idea of a joke.) Piquant onion marmalade is made in-house and in place of the customary toast points, a freshly baked brioche loaf in miniature. Paired with a jammy glass of Malbec, it’s hedonistic heaven. Black pudding and celeriac puree accompany my entrée, a slow-cooked rondel of pork belly topped with a cool coupe of apple sorbet. Savory, sweet, hot and cold, the multiple textures and flavors coalesce in a delicious forkful, quickly subverting what could’ve easily turned into an overworked pork cliché. Another welcome surprise came in a featherweight version of sticky toffee pudding. (My fondness for the classic dessert is almost as well-known as my lack of self-control.) Dusted with crushed honeycomb it felt closer to a souffle than a pudding, which was more than fine by me. It allowed me to exit the boisterous dining room sated but not stuffed – and glad for a leisurely evening stroll through the Quarter, silently ruminating on how none of this could have been imagined – let alone lauded – less than a decade ago.

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pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag

I’m back at the sumptuous Merchant Hotel in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, site of a rather infamous party I threw almost three years ago. (let’s just say people are still talking about it, thank you very much.) It’s posh, for lack of a better word – meaning attentive, attractive, and very well-proportioned – with an Italianate sandstone facade of columns and capitals backed by carefully restored High Victorian interiors. In fact, the former Ulster Bank headquarters wouldn’t look out-of-place in London or Paris. For a city which ten years ago had but a single boutique hotel, the Merchant is a perfect example of how much in this city has changed. Even at the height of the property bust two years ago the hotel was able to build an Art Deco extension and more than double in size, adding rooms, a spa, and the city’s only authentic jazz bar. To call it a success would be an understatement. From the soaring grandeur of the Great Room Restaurant (where even the profiteroles are swan-necked), to the perfectly judged and beautifully friendly staff, to the overstuffed beds and ample marble bathrooms, the Merchant is an all-out triumph.

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