in waterclosets lie secret codes

Or not-so-secret as the case might be at Jones Wood Foundry, a new gastro pub on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the bathroom walls are scrawled not with graffiti, but recipes for classic British comfort foods like Mulligatawny Soup and Sticky Toffee Pudding. It seems WC is now shorthand for What’s Cooking. What that means for Toad in the Hole, I can only imagine.

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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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mishdish at the mishnish

A contrast to the al fresco charms of the chippie is Mishdish, the local gastropub inside The Mishnish, a boutique Tobermory hotel. Situated as the far end of the harbor, Mishdish is fitted out in the contempo aesthetic of dark wood and crisp linens and is as inviting as it is mellifluous. It’s also as locavore a dining experience as one could hope for: locally caught, locally sourced, locally distilled, locally prepared, and locally served, the menu bursts with local pride. And rightfully so, I might add. (To save myself from excessive repetition, please assume the modifier “local” before all further nouns unless otherwise noted.) Fishcakes of salmon and haddock are lovely and light with mixed greens and a piquant splash of non-local chili. It’s about as far as you can get from the potato-laden belly bombers I remember as a child and I could easily takedown a second portion without blinking. A bowl of sweet langoustines brings out the skull-sucking carnivore in me. Split-grilled and drizzled in chive butter they come with a crusty hunk of baguette to soak up every last drop of buttery brine. My only regret is that I ordered an appetizer portion and not an entrée. There’s no getting away from Sticky Toffee Pudding, gluten be damned. Interestingly enough it’s square, not a dome, yet geometry does nothing to diminish the criminal pleasure of what is essentially a steamed piece of cake soaked through with buttery toffee and topped with vanilla ice cream. The coffee is good, too – if imported – and strong. It comes with a small chocolate bon-bon that’s as you’d expect, handmade just down the road.

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