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Arenacross Tour 2019
Place your family notice

Bia Rebel and check out the best noodles in town

TEAMWORK: Jenny Holland and Brian Donnelly TEAMWORK: Jenny Holland and Brian Donnelly
By Tom Mallon

WHEN you’ve been educated in Italy, worked as part of the Pulitzer-winning New York Times team covering the 9.11 terror attacks, and lived in Dublin during the property boom, there really is only one challenge left: setting up a noodle bar in south Belfast.
Thus does the irrepressible Jenny Holland find herself most evenings fielding orders for crispy kombu, enokitake, hoi sin pulled pork and even Celtic Pho at the counter of the Bia Rebel eating house, nestled between an Orange hall and an Italian ice cream shop, on the increasingly cosmopolitan Ormeau Road.
But take note: this is so much more than your run-of-the-mill takeaway. They take their food, and especially that great Asian staple, ramen noodles, very, very seriously here.
Bia Rebel is a temple of the good food movement, with the homemade noodles being created in a daily — sacred, some would say — process which to this onlooker is closer to meditation than to manufacturing. But that dedicated, ponderous process at the back end transforms into fast-food service for the hungry customers who flock to Bia Rebel each evening to pick up meals ordered via the restaurant’s own app or to pull up a seat at its communal table.
“In 2016, myself and my partner Brian Donnelly started a small business focused on quality ingredients to create great meals but the idea was too broad,” explains Jenny Holland, between taking and handing over orders on a busy Friday evening. “We decided then to focus on just one product and hit upon the iconic Japanese noodle which is loved across the world. However, we quickly found out that it was impossible to source fresh noodles here so Brian, with the help of YouTube videos, decided we would make our own.”
The couple found the tasty noodle dishes were a smash hit. “On our first outing in St George’s Market, we sold all 20 portions we had prepared so it was clear enough people liked what we were doing,” says Jenny. A step-up to a food truck followed but when walking her son Danny to school, Jenny’s eye was caught by an empty unit on the Ormeau Road. “Fortunately, for us, the owner wanted to lease to a small business so in February 2018, Bia Rebel was born. It’s a big risk in terms of the expense of rent and rates but we’re also in a great, vibrant, pedestrian-friendly area where people know their food and that gave me a warm feeling from the very start.”
Born in the Dublin but brought up in New York and Italy, Jenny moved back to Belfast at the age of 15 with her parents, her New Yorker mum Mary Hudson and famed journalist dad Jack Holland. After the ceasefires in 1994, she attended university in Dublin before heading to New York and life as a junior journalist on the New York Times. Five years ago, the wheel turned full circle when she returned to Belfast with her Big Apple-born son Daniel. She came back to a different Belfast.
“Some people may think Belfast is not the right city for a ramen shop but in fact this city, despite its inferiority complex and lack of government, has a lot going for it. It has clean, fresh air and you are always close to the countryside with its lush, rain-soaked pasture. Ramen may not, yet, be the obsession it is in Tokyo or Paris or San Francisco but Belfast is a really safe place to bring up a child and the people are kind, down-to-earth and family-orientated — and ramen mania is growing.”
Providing top quality food is an obsession for Jenny and Brian. They care about their community, their environment and their city but most of all they care about their food.
“Noodles are made with just flour and water so it’s a pure process but it also takes great commitment and dedication,” says Jenny. “And we want every ingredient we use to be true to our mission.”
Eggs are sourced from just one local farm; ditto for pork. Finding quality chicken “not pumped full of water and hormones” is a challenge when you are determined to use “old-fashioned farmers”, says Jenny.
“Farmers are told they have to compromise on quality and get to a huge scale in order to be successful but we want to make their small size and their willingness to allow their livestock to stay close to nature a strength.”
That refusal to compromise when it comes to the quality of the dish is echoed by Brian, a French-trained chef who has 20 years experience of working in top restaurants.
“This is really about investing time back into food,” he says. “In the restaurant business, we are always told that you need to save time in the kitchen but when you do that you lose the chef’s touch and the flavour. We are investing time back into the food at the backend in our preparation so that the customer can get the food fast with the full ramen experience when it’s ordered.”
Bia Rebel is cramped, informal and bustling but don’t mistake this for a soulless, fast-food joint. Step back a little and you might just get the feeling that this closer to a church than a café.
“When we served our meals in bowls, we were surprised when people brought the empty bowls back to the counter without being asked,” explains Brian. “It was as if they were giving thanks to us for sharing our food with them. It is as if, when they sit down with the bowl of food, they enjoy a moment of quiet. I watch people stop looking at their phones as they start eating and enjoy a moment of quiet and reflection.”
For Brian, making noodles is a reflective, even Zen, practice. “I had a new guy start today and told him that everything you need to know about yourself, you can find out by making noodles.”
The good news for food-lovers and ramen-fans, on the experience of this first-time patron, is that Bia Rebel doesn’t just talk fresh ingredients and flavour-popping, mouthwatering dishes. It delivers the goods as well. Bon Appétit.

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