Belfast's Botanic Avenue has suddenly become a culinary United Nations. Barely 600 yards long, the avenue is home to 29 restaurants and cafes.
The range is staggering and includes the Pakistani-Mexican Kurrito and the Nepalese Kathmandu at the bottom of the hill, Build-a-Burger, Boojum and Bao by Dead Famous halfway up, and various chip shops, pizzerias, cafes and curry houses, Chinese, French, (well, there's a French Village) and a sushi bar. I've tried most of them and the quality is good across the board. They wouldn't survive if they were not good.
Now the Middle Eastern staple food, falafel, has a toehold on the avenue in the shape of Umi Falafel.
Falafel, the most exotic thing to hit Belfast since the Europa introduced Chicken Maryland in 1971, is probably the most mispronounced food item of them all. Just so you know, the emphasis is on the second syllable.
Moist little ping pong ball-sized croquettes, falafels can be addictive if well prepared.
As common as bread itself across the Middle East, falafel is a healthy, vegetarian food made from crushed chickpeas. Think of arancini made from risotto and you're in the same kind of field.
I've had falafel which is so dry it strips your mouth of any moisture resulting in the most unpleasant sand-like texture. In cases like this the only option is to spit it out. But if properly made, as is the case in Umi Falafel (it replaces the much-loved and lamented, late All Seasons Chinese restaurant), falafel is delicious, nutritious and inexpensively luxurious. Umi's approach is democratic with a fast takeaway service which probably outstrips those who choose to sit in.
It's comfortable, busy and hectic but not frantic or chaotic. I went in during fresher's week, possibly the most congested time of the year for Botanic Avenue thanks to the crazy seduction techniques deployed by pizzerias and fast food outlets to capture the innocent hearts and fattened wallets of the new first years.
Yet I was very quickly shown a table, the order taken and served up within five minutes. This is exactly what city centre restaurants should be doing. Despite cute messages on their menus about "good things come to people who wait (we only cook your falafel to order)" the wait is very short. Yet the All Day Umi Plate for Two (I was hungry) was a substantial affair, with four stuffed vine leaves, two spinach rolls, a bowl of hummus and eight falafels, plus a salad chosen from the list of six.
The salads are seriously lush and rich. The tabbouleh features a much lower ratio of bulgar to fresh chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley and mint soaked in light lemon and olive oil than we are used to. It's fresh and crunchy and the kind of thing you could graze on for the rest of the afternoon.
The falafels are crunchy and brittle until you break through the shell into the minced chickpeas and 14 other secret ingredients. Your classic falafel would feature chickpeas as the anchor with a fair amount of ground coriander, leek, parsley and cumin.
The plate for two is actually a great introduction to the uninitiated because of the variety on offer. The hummus is a belter but with no garlic aftertaste which can sometimes taint your afternoon relationships, the spinach roll is delightfully salty and light, the spinach within the brittle filo pastry hot and tangy. I'm not mad on stuffed vine leaves but those who are fans love these.
The reason why this place will work, however, is because there is so much more to discover: who wouldn't want to try a Palestinian falafel sandwich made with Palestinian flat bread opened and filled with hummus, tomato, cucumber pickles, fried aubergine, flat parsley with chilli and tahini or the grilled halloumi sandwich, which currently makes frequent afterschool appearances in our house. There are traditional mezze choices including baba ganoush, sweet potato fries, spiced wedges, breaded halloumi sticks and those salads.
Prices are remarkable: you can get four falafels on a red and white cabbage salad with garlic mayo and tomato and coriander for £4.
I love this place because it does everything a restaurant should do: offer hospitality (despite the crowds, servers are on the ball from the second you walk in), provide good food and make it habit-forming by keeping the prices reasonable.
Umi Plate for 2 ..............................£13.50
Bottle of water ..............................£1.00