Aoife Carrigy tucks into a tasty short break in Belfast
Belfast's train station is just a short walk from the atmospheric St George's Market, which was voted UK's Best Large Indoor Market 2014 and makes a perfect lunchtime pit-stop. Pop in, and you could be enjoying a flavour of the city's flourishing food scene within moments of arrival in the city.
Saturday's City Food and Craft Market is an attractive mix of local crafts (think quirky but quality candles from the Bearded Candlemakers) and regional flavours, from glistening fish or Armagh apple juice to Suki Tea and Fifteen buns. Or you could pop into Sunday's market to pick up some cabrito (kid goat meat) or Antrim coast seaweed from Broughgammon Farm (broughgammon.com).
Food-lovers shouldn't miss the iconic Sawers Deli (sawersbelfast.com) near Donegall Square. Established in 1897, this true food emporium boasts floor-to-ceiling offerings of every conceivable spice blend and exotic game meat (rattlesnake anyone?) alongside local heroes such as Broighter Gold Rapeseed Oil, Young Buck raw blue cheese and the superlative Abernathy Smoked Butter.
Northern Ireland's blossoming restaurant scene has much to tempt, whatever your budget. But for the best of the best, make a beeline for the feted Ox (oxbelfast.com), where the tasting menu might feature Finnebrogue venison with fermented kohlrabi and black garlic, or Himalayan salt-aged Chateaubriand with chicory and Chinese artichoke.
Chef Stephen Toman worked with his co-proprietor and sommelier Alain Kerloc'h in Paris's seminal L'Arpège, and their pedigree shows in both ability and ambition.
Conveniently, Ox's sparse dining room is a stone's throw from the old-school glamour of The Merchant Hotel (themerchanthotel.com), where the cocktail list (pictured right) is a thing of wonder - but don't let that rule out a drink in the new Ox Cave winebar. There, you can nibble on Comte drizzled with truffled honey and further acquaint yourself with Alain's lovingly curated wine-list. Going to press, the Merchant had two nights' B&B with one dinner and Belfast sightseeing tickets from €258pp.
A newfound artisan sensibility is creeping into all aspects of eating and drinking in Belfast. Grab a quick coffee at Established (facebook.com/establishedcoffee), the Cathedral Quarter's slick canteen, and you'll spot 3FE coffee leading the charge of the barista brigade. Or pop into the Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street, where you'll find that the National Trust-listed Victorian gin palace now has several cask craft beers on offer.
Cocktail Bar, The Merchant Hotel
If you're spending the weekend in Belfast, factor in that many of the city's shops and restaurants are closed on a Sunday morning - fine if you're happy doing little more than a lazy brunch and mooch around St George's market, but otherwise a possible frustration.
If you're not driving, grab a coffee and catch the Enterprise Train (irishrail.ie) for a relaxing 2.5-hour ride from Dublin. See discovernorthernireland.com/food for delicious insider tips on Belfast and beyond, including restaurant listings, food festival details and even foodie cycle trails. Ask for Food NI Producer and Taste of Ulster pocket guides in the tourist office (nigoodfood.com), too.
The two-hour motorway drive from Dublin offers fab foodie detours such as the village of Moira, where you can stock up on McCartney's sausages or The Meat Merchant's cured pork cheek and Himalayan salt-aged beef, see themeatmerchant.com.