Eating In: 'I pledge allegiance to the baba ganoush of Umi Falafel'
96 Botanic Avenue
AFTER a full month of stuff oozing out of burgers and blanketing vats of chips, it was time to clean things up.
Both the last review on this page – BAPS by Freight – and the one before it – Baker Street Kitchen – were singing from the same, melted-cheese-stained hymn sheet. Street food, dirty food, loaded food. Good food, too. Under the dirty facade were clean, distinct flavours, precisely thought out and executed, with quality ingredients.
But it turns out – if you really want a change – you can get all that all that without adding a bucket of macaroni cheese to an already precarious tower of meat.
Umi Falafel, the Belfast outpost of the Dublin-based mini-chain – there are a few in the capital and another in Cork – will also make you something stuffed into bread, whose generosity makes it difficult to control. But it’ll do it in a way that makes you feel virtuous, or at least think you are.
It’s a menu of Middle Eastern standards, pulled off without fuss and hitting every note just right. It’s all vegetarian and a lot of it’s vegan, but in the best way. Nothing pretending to be something it’s not and ending up the square root of even less.
The eponymous falafels are just the way you’d want them, a world away from the dry blandness that passes for these chickpea fritters a lot of places you find them. These come in a Palestinian sandwich, referring to the bread, a puffed-up pocket of flatbread struggling to contain the falafel, hummus, fried aubergine and piles of veg and parsley.
It’s a handful, but one that leaves you feeling a bit better about yourself as you try to avoid cucumber going down your front rather than fried onions.
It’s not just a lack of meat that makes you feel like you’re doing yourself a favour – it’s the squeaky freshness of absolutely everything. In the fatoush, parsley, mint and lemon are the stars, leaving you refreshed even in the face of pomegranate molasses and shards of toasted bread.
Another salad of giant couscous and roasted vegetables feels muted by comparison – it’s not really, it’s just going for the sweeter, earthier crowd, even with sharp but not overly so feta crumbled through it.
Deciding that if we’re going to be good we may as well be really good – and maybe miss the point – the menu gets a thorough going over, enough to keep the fridge occupied a couple of days.
So there’s vine leaves stuffed with bulgar wheat, hot little filo rolls stuffed with spinach, and a textbook hummus. Pickled veg is the only miss – too salty –but the best of everything is a baba ganoush, a minefield that can get you every way imaginable – too sharp, too smoky, too creamy, too salty, not enough of any the above.
This one’s perfect, the epitome of pale and interesting, with that smoke coming through from the grilled aubergines carrying all before it. It’s a bowl of vegetable dip to pledge allegiance to, and I’ve honestly no idea if it’s good for me or not. And I really don’t care.
Palestinian falafel £5.50
Baba ganoush £5
Stuffed vine leaves £4
Spinach filo rolls £5
Giant couscous and roast vegetable salad £5
Mixed pickles £1
Minted lemonade £2.75
Heartbeet juice £3