Thursday, 6 June 2013

Restaurant review: Mourne Seafood Bar, Belfast

Dulse on Ballycastle beach with Rathlin Island in the background 

"Mind you, that typical English reserve doesn't get you far, and in the pub you won't get a word in edgeways without a fight. The Blarney stone doesn't even cut it!"

I wonder what the demographic is of the average Gastrolad reader? The blogger analytics service tells me what nationality you are - mostly Brits with Americans in second place and Aussies in third - but what sort of people are you?

Are you the type of chippy northern sod who reads the Guardian? The type who posts disgruntled comments underneath Jay Rayner's reviews about how London-centric the media is these days and that Manchester or Leeds has more quality restaurants than you can shake a stick of rhubarb at?

Well, evidently not, because I haven't seen any of these comments under my posts. But I am aware that all my restaurant reviews, bar a couple of travelogues and a brief mention of a place called The Dogs in Edinburgh, are in London. However, this is all about to change: a bank holiday weekend trip to the bright lights of Belfast introduced me to one of that fair city's finest restaurants. And now I am going to introduce it you!

As well as not knowing what type of person you are, I also don't know whether you've ever been to Belfast. But if you haven't, I would urge you to go without hesitation. Despite Ian Paisley Junior giving the opposite impression on Question Time the other night, I can assure you the locals couldn't be more welcoming.

I haven't come across many friendlier places; compared to London it is a genuine breath of fresh air and I don't even get that much stick for being English... Mind you, that typical English reserve doesn't get you far, and in the pub you won't get a word in edgeways without a fight. The Blarney stone doesn't even cut it!

Anyway, that's my gig with Discover Northern Ireland sorted, so back to the food, which on this occasion was lunch at Belfast's Mourne Seafood Bar. The Mourne Seafood is something of a local institution by all accounts, and I don't need any encouragement to go in search of a fish supper or indeed a fish lunch. So with a couple of fellow Belfastians as our luncheon partners, VD (a native) and I headed down into town with high hopes.

They don't take bookings at lunchtime, so fortunately there was time to wet the whistle next door in Kelly's Cellars, reputedly home to Belfast's best pint of Guinness. I'm not a regular Guinness drinker, but two swift pints took the edge off nicely and made the wait for a table much more agreeable than that at Bubbledogs!

I know that you're only supposed to eat oysters when there is an R in the month, but I couldn't resist half a dozen done Rockefeller style, and Kurt the waiter's assurances that the rocks were freshly in from Donegal that morning was all the assurance I required. Raw oysters have a time and place, but the crisp crumb, creamy spinach and plump oyster made a very satisfying mouthful.

Around the table there was a very creditable piece of Japanese style miso salmon, which went beautifully with a glass of the albarino we'd ordered, and a bowl of moules mariniere, which did exactly what it said on the tin.

On previous social outings I'm sure you'll have seen and resented fellow diners or drinkers who seem to be best buddies with the staff and get preferential treatment as a result. You sit there, thirsty and hungry, itching to clip those smug tossers round the earhole while they reminisce with the barman about the time they almost got arrested trying to steal a hanging basket at university.

Well this time, reader, I was that smug tosser. Dining companion Stephen and waiter Kurt went back many years, which resulted in the intra-course delivery of a small bowl of excellent seafood chowder, an oyster and a glass of the bar's own stout on the house. Eat that, that the rest of you (or not!).

Kurt's next trip to the table brought a piece of beautifully cooked hake, although I felt the accompanying bouillabaisse vegetables were under-seasoned and underwhelming. A whole gurnard with sauce vierge looked and tasted like a winner, but the real star was the Mourne's version of fish and chips.

Surprisingly so maybe, but I haven't encountered a better battered cod in many years: the moist, pearly flesh was encased an immaculate, crisp and golden batter. Even though I had already polished off the oysters, chowder and hake, I managed to hoover J's leftover fish without any problem.

Excellent food then, and this might sound patronising, but surprisingly excellent. I had had high hopes for lunch, but they were exceeded. And that wasn't the only plus: for good quality fish and good quality cooking, the prices were staggeringly cheap. For all that food, plus a £23 bottle of albarino, a couple of beers and a round of coffees, the four of us got out for £25 a head. At a recent trip to Pollen Street Social that would have bought you two thirds of a main course. But I can tell you that I enjoyed this fishy lunch more than that fancy dinner!

Mourne Seafood Bar, 34-36 Mount Street, BT1 1HL

028 9024 8544

Open for lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday. Lunch only on Sunday

P.S. If the picture at the top confused you, I didn't take any good ones of the food at Mourne Seafood. However, I thought this one of a bag of dulse (dried seaweed- a traditional delicacy in those parts) sitting on the beach in Ballycastle deserved a wider viewing.

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