Independent retail week has been and gone and it definitely got me thinking about how hard things must be for independent businesses of any kind these days. That’s why it’s so encouraging to see independent shops doing well. One shop in particular which has become a bit of a Belfast institution for all things desirable when it comes to home and kitchen ware is Equinox Shop and Cafe.
Owned by Kay Gilbert and in business since 1985, I’m sure Kay has seen all the ups and downs that can be thrown at an independent retailer. However she has weathered the storms and managed to carve out a niche for her shop by combining high-end luxury products with a modest sleek cafe under the one roof.
Winning awards for its customer service and window displays, Equinox has become ‘THE’ place to shop in Belfast for designer gifts and luxury home and kitchen ware. The range of kitchen items is a foodie’s dream, I was definitely feeling some serious Kitchen ware envy as I perused such desirables as the sets of Global knives, electric espresso machines and beautiful Kitchenaid mixers. I’ll get my pinny!
Sally and John McKenna’s Bridgestone Guide has it right, Equinox is full of ‘chic, covetable kitchen and home artefacts.’ It is a shrine to classy contemporary design but what about the food and could it really be Belfast’s best kept secret?
Tucked away at the back of the shop is a small cafe and dining area under a Victorian lantern roof giving a feeling of space and light, it’s a kind of slick urban conservatory. The cafe serves up simple light dishes based on quality ingredients, including gourmet sandwiches, interesting salads, quiches, pasta, cakes, bakes and treats, along with great coffee and teas. There is also a substantial brunch menu which includes porridge, a cooked breakfast, pancakes, scrambled eggs, bagels and croissants.
As we took our table, we clocked the Bridgestone awards which is always a good sign and our co-diners of well to do ladies and gentlemen who like to lunch. With the jazzy laid back tones of the Buena Vista Social Club playing on the speakers, it felt very reminiscent of an up market ‘Avoca-esque’ eatery somewhere in D4 Dublin. But make no mistake, Equinox is no Avoca! Kay Gilbert’s taste is in clean lines and stylish contemporary design, with a much welcomed lack of twee!
The special on that day was a meatball and mozzarella focaccia, soups of courgette and dill, or leek potato and watercress, and a Moroccan orange cake. The impressive list of home-baked goods is rather tempting and includes chocolate cake, raspberry macaroons, brownies, caramel squares, teacakes, lemon and berry polenta cake, and scones. If you don’t fancy brunch or lunch, then afternoon tea is taken care of.
We went for a brunch dish of scrambled eggs, with smoked salmon on a toasted croissant and my fellow bruncher couldn’t resist the sound of the meatball foccacia with mozzarella.
My scrambled eggs were well seasoned and silky buttery smooth, which went very well with the decadent thick ribbons of smoked salmon, which had a meaty texture and a good hint of smoke but not too much. The salmon was from Ewings on the Lisburn Road and I have to say it was some of the best I’ve tasted in quite a while. The sweetness of the toasted croissant went well with the salty fish and the side salad was a good mix of peppery leaves drizzled with a really tangy mustard dressing.
I love the decadence of this brunch dish, scrambled eggs are so full of childhood nostalgia, but now as an adult teamed with delicious smoked salmon, you realise how luxurious scrambled eggs can become when matched with one of the great artisan food delicacies this country has to offer.
I have to confess, I ignored the upmarket clientelle, and piled my croissant high with scrambled egg and slices of smoked salmon, creating a very posh sandwich, and used my hands! But you really have to taste all the elements together in one mouthful!
The meatball focaccia was also a winner. The meatballs were tender and juicy, well seasoned with lots of herbs, slathered with good tomato sauce and drizzled with freshly made pesto in which you could taste the basil, garlic, and parmesan cheese. The mozzarella was melted and stringy, the freshly baked focaccia was light and airy, with whole cherry tomatoes pushed right into the dough. This was about as good as a meatball sandwich can get!
We gulped down four delicious coffees and sparkling water, and to finish we shared a slice of the Moroccan orange cake. The cake was incredibly moist, with aromatic orange and ground almonds. The sponge was flecked with plenty of zest, sticky and sweet with orange syrup, baked with a light touch and very moreish. Our bill came to £26, which I think was good value as the food was such a high standard, and after all Equinox is not your average cafe.
In an age of globalisation, with every town across the UK turning into carbon copies of each other, successful independent businesses like Equinox are a shining example of what is possible. The cafe is a little oasis of calm and indeed if you can drag yourself away from all the desirable items in the shop, then you’re in for a treat.
Kay Gilbert and her friendly attentive team of staff obviously have great taste for the finer things in life, evident by the products stocked in the shop, but this taste and eye for detail comes through in the food produced in the cafe.
Equinox is high cafe society done properly, with a touch of class – quality bistro cafe style food made with care and attention, based on excellent ingredients. This is comforting light food with lots of flavour and a slight hint of the Mediterranean. The baked treats will make you swoon and their Italian coffee is possibly some of the best in Belfast.
Hopefully Equinox keeps going for another 25 years and longer! Get in and check it out quick before it becomes Belfast’s worst kept secret, people will talk when it’s this good!
Equinox Café & Design Shop
32 Howard Street, Belfast, Co Antrim
t: 028 90 23 00 89
Open Monday – Saturday. 9.30 – 16.00