Friday, 9 September 2011

The Belfast Foodie Chronicles - City Centre Snacks

On my recent crusade to sample some of the recent and reportedly delicious additions to the Belfast food scene, I finished my yummy breakfast at Bennetts and then headed into town. After an hour or so of shopping (what, there were sales!) I started getting peckish again and contemplated which of the snacks on my list should be the first to be devoured… all in the name of science you understand.

First up (and not particularly new really but I'd never tried them) was Auntie Anne's pretzels in Castle Court.

Every time I'm going up or down the escalators at the Royal Avenue entrance of Castle Court, a sweet, rich smell envelops me and tries to draw me closer to the Auntie Anne's stand at the bottom. Usually in a hurry (or more likely on my way back from Starbucks), I had managed to resist its siren call until now.

Apart from the rather generic description of "pretzels", I wasn't entirely sure what Auntie Anne's actually sold that smelled so good. I'd tried my first ever soft pretzel at the New York Rangers game when we went to New York last November and I was rather impressed with its pleasantly doughy texture, but all of my other experiences of pretzels had been those hard, crispy, salt-covered snacks you find on buffet tables at parties and they've never held much appeal for me really. Which side would Auntie Anne's come down on..?

I was surprised to see quite so many varieties of pretzel on their menu: there were sweet pretzels as well as several savoury options, and some that could even be baked to order. Battling fellow sales shoppers for the best items on the rails had taken it out of me and I decided I needed a bit of a sugar hit, so I ordered a cinnamon sugar pretzel and resumed shopping.

As I walked around Wallis eyeing up shoes and dresses I couldn't afford (even on sale), I took my first bite of my pretzel. Wow, it was like a flavour explosion in my mouth. First of all, it was still warm, which was like an instant hug from the inside. The texture of the soft, fried dough was comforting yet light - almost like a thin doughnut. The sugar of course made it hugely sweet but the cinnamon cut through it a little and provided some spicy warmth too. I couldn't believe I hadn't tried one of these before and I was actually a little sad when I realised that my diet was due to resume the next day and so yummy pretzels would be off the table for the foreseeable future. Woe and alas!

After a little more shopping I decided I was craving something savoury. Next on my list was Little Wing Pizzeria.

Describing itself as "a taste of Naples in Belfast", there are a few Little Wings in the city as well, as one in Bangor, and I'd heard and read great things about them, but with the Yorkshireman not liking pizza (I know right, what's wrong with him?) I hadn't had the chance to try any of them yet. I noticed that the one on Ann Street had a lunchtime takeaway offer on: a slice of pizza and a can of soda for £2.75. Sold! It's just as well I wasn't sitting in though - they were telling people it was a half hour wait for a table as I waited for my order - evidently popular!

I got my slice of pepperoni pizza and my diet coke after a minimal wait and my first thought was, "what a huge box for a single slice of pizza!". My second thought, upon opening said box was, "ah, it clearly needs to be a huge box to fit the huge slice of pizza in it!" Seriously, this was not a slice of pizza; this was a whole pizza shaped like a triangle! And so, sitting at the little tables outside, I tucked in.

The pizza was very nice. The crust was the thin, cripsy, stonebaked kind, which I'm not usually a fan of, but it wasn't too hard to chew nor did it taste burnt like a lot of thinner crusts do. There was a little less tomato sauce than I usually like but you really don't need much of it anyway - it's the perfect balance between tangy and sweet and the flavour really comes through. There was a great amount of cheese for me actually - I think too much cheese overpowers a pizza and makes it too sickening, but this was covered to perfection. The pepperoni was just right too: nicely spicy but not too hot so as to stop you tasting the rest of your slice.

It's not the best pizza I've ever had but I think that's only because my personal preferences (softer crust, more sauce, etc) are a bit different, and yet even I would still rate it highly. If you're a fan of thin crust pizza and you're looking for a quick, cheap and yet delicious lunch, I would highly recommend it. Personally I'm itching to go back and try their toffee apple stromboli.

As I left the seating area outside Little Wing (fresh from an ongoing battle with a wasp that kept stalking me, which affected me deeply given recent events), I headed a little further up the street to my next port of call: The Cookie Box.

I have a teenage brother and it seems like milkshake and cookie shops are, like, the place to be these days for that age group, and The Cookie Box beside the Ann Street entrance to Victoria Square is especially popular. Given the price (and the calorie content!) of these shops' wares I'm always a bit stunned that teenagers can afford to indulge in them on a regular basis, but then I have to remind myself that it's a different generation, for which Starbucks after school is a right and not a privlege. I couldn't even afford one of those milkshakes with the pocket money I used to get each week! However, in the name of fair and equitable research, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before but I have a weird kind of intolerance to chocolate. It started suddenly at Easter about five years ago (and involved a fun trip to A&E) and since then I've established that whilst white chocolate is fine, milk chocolate, dark chocolate and even flipping Baileys Irish Cream will have me bent double in no time. The latter was discovered a couple of Christmases having downed a whole bottle of it throughout the day without knowing it even had chocolate in it - surprise!

So yes, The Cookie Box's menu (which, by the way, takes up a whole wall and is essentially a glorified list of confectionery that they will happily blend with milk and ice-cream or frozen yoghurt) was somewhat limited for me. I decided against a Love Hearts or Wham Bar flavoured milkshake (how do you even..?) and instead opted for a more classic-sounding white chocolate cookie and a white hot chocolate as part of their £2.50 for any hot drink and cookie offer.

Leaving behind the two teenagers who had just ordered Nutella milkshakes (*shudder*), I stepped out of the shop and took a sip of my drink... and then stepped back into the shop again.

Me: "Sorry but I ordered a white hot chocolate…
Bored-looking Employee: "That is a white hot chocolate."
Me: "But… it's, um, brown..? And tastes of, y'know, normal chocolate."
Bored-looking Employee: "Yeaaahhh… our white hot chocolate is just a regular hot chocolate with some white chocolate syrup in it too."
Me: "Riiiightt… well, do you have a bin back there?"

Seriously though, in what world is a "white hot chocolate" actually a normal hot chocolate with white chocolate syrup in it? When I go to Starbucks and order a white mocha, it's just white chocolate, which kinda makes sense when you think about it! These people are trying to kill me! In other news the white chocolate cookie was quite nice (and happily devoid of any other kinds of chocolate) but it was nothing to write home about and certainly not worth the £2.50 I ended up paying for inevitably only the cookie. I think that's one coffee loyalty card I won't be filling with stamps - I'll leave the teenagers to it!

Sadly that was the end of my bank holiday blitz of city centre snacks. I do have plenty more "must-try" places on my list but unfortunately every time I tick one off my list, an extra pound goes on my hips, so I'll have to space them out a bit!

P.S. For those whose pulse quickened slightly upon reading the word "sales", I felt I should boast that I got two gorgeous dresses for work, buy one get one free in the Debenhams sale: original price £82; purchased for £12.60. WINNING!!!

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