So, a freezing Winter’s afternoon sees myself and Mr Ferris meeting up for an impromptu lunch at The Malt Room – the most recent gaff to be opened by chef Raymond McArdle, and the latest in the dizzying and seemingly endless line of restaurant and bar openings in Belfast over the past few weeks. Although neither of us are ever particularly keen about eating out in December due to an overbearance of turkey, cranberries and office idiots, we figured it was about time we stuck our fingers back into the proverbial pie, and examined a few of these new places. For your benefit, of course.
You probably already know the Malt Room – it occupies that awkwardly-shaped building (on the inside) on Belfast’s Great Victoria St that used to be Bourbon, and which everyone still describes as being “the place that used to be Bourbon”. God, it was awful. Between then and now, it had operated for some time as Restaurant Raymond McArdle, curated by Raymond McArdle, featuring Raymond McArdle. I’m pretty sure that was its full title. Something like that. You probably already know Raymond McArdle as the Northern Ireland contestant on Great British Menu last year who ostensibly served a smoking Titanic coffin in order to embrace the hilarity of Comic Relief. Anyway, this former place had photos and signatures of him everywhere, and the food was really pretty good.
Now, however, Chef McArdle has re-opened the place as The Malt Room, and has given the place a serious scrubbing-up, testified to by the fairly strong whiff of reasonably fresh paint billowing up my nose on arrival. The décor would be generously described as chintzy. It’s all red and silver. I mean ALL red and silver. There are glass chandeliers, and silver tablecloths, and shiny silver cutlery, and the smallest, thinnest napkins in the world (silver, of course). The fittings are silver, and the walls are painted with fairly ropey frescoes in more silver (offset by a dash of red here and there). There are gleaming butler trays on hand (silver, with a Malt Room logo), silver tray-stands, and some tragically naff fake flowers on each of the tables.
It’s like King Midas’ younger, less successful brother wandered around the place touching everything, going: “Mine! Mine! Mine!”. If the intended interior design style was ‘ironic nouveau riche’, then it’s been a roaring success.
You only need to look at the restaurant’s website to see what I mean. The same naffness has permeated online with a background that looks like a cross between an aerial photograph of an Iraqi bunker and those grainy pictures of ‘Bigfoot’ from the 1960s.
But, frankly, none of this matters when the food arrives. Jesus, the boy can cook. And he can put together a menu of comforting, warming dishes that you just want to eat. All day.
“Roast chicken, black pudding, fried potatoes, mustard velouté”? Hells yes.
“Tynedale kid goat (roasted 12 hours), Brandan Guinan’s vegetables and purple potatoes, Cabernet Sauvignon sauce”? Are you joking me? I’ll have 2.
“Rump of Mourne Blackface lamb, lamb bacon, creamed spinach, butter beans”. Oh, Mammy.
Sure the menu contains a few affectations (‘goujonette’?), but these are very easily overlooked, especially when my starter of ‘Ham and Eggs’ arrives: potted ham, horseradish, crispy poached egg, soft herbs. You know those rare moments when you taste an ingredient (like a tomato when on holiday in Tuscany, or a proper fraise des bois), and you’re sharply catapulted back to childhood, when things just seemed to taste exactly like that thing is supposed to taste? That was this ham. Intensely salty but not overly so, with a deep and unctuous meatiness I haven’t tasted in a while. All this, offset by a judiciously-measured, silken horseradish cream, translucent slices of radish, and a few micro-herbs dotted around, and balanced out with a well-judged poached, then deep-fried, egg which eagerly spilled its innermost feelings with the slightest nudge. This was a hell of dish.
Ferris, on the other hand, started with a confit chicken croquette, with heritage carrots. The crispy croquette, whilst doing nothing wrong, plays second fiddle to an arrangement of carrots that’s nothing short of divine. Thin ribbons and chunky cylinders are accentuated by a rich, smooth purée. The essence of the carrots making this a stunning starter.
For mains, I opted for the Braised Brisket, creamed spinach, potato purée with a light pepper cream. This was just comfort food of the highest order, with the beef having been braised into complete and utter submission. The potato purée, done in the style of Joel Robuchon, was an exercise in the majesty of butter – a soft, pillowy puddle of potato-scented dairy product wrapping itself like a comfort blanket around the beef. Pitch perfect sweet/peppered sauce, and some needed greenery in the spinach finished a dish that you could eat again, and again, and again.
Ferris, meanwhile, went for the pot roast pork with various bits and pieces that was just as well cooked. The portion of pork falling apart at the fork and accompanied by potatoes, carrots and some ‘winter beetroot’. The roasting juices, heavily spiced with star anise, was the perfect accompaniment.
A couple of reasonable double espressos, a large bottle of sparkling water, and we were in and out for 30 quid. Perfectly acceptable value.
Although we have to say, the pricing on the menus is a little off. There’s a set menu for lunch, another for early evening menu, and an à la carte. Except the à la carte isn’t really an à la carte, as there are no individual prices other than ‘2 courses for £23.95’. Likewise, the early evening menu is ‘2 courses for £14.95’. And that’s it. When I asked the server how much it would be for just one course off either menu, there was a slight fluster, and some panicked running away to check prices for each menu. Now, whether this approach is by accident or design on their part (to encourage you to order 2 courses), I don’t know. What I do know is that I like to order a single dish sometimes, and I like to know its price. Just put the prices on the menu please.
Service was generally lovely and attentive throughout. Although one server bizarrely kept referring to me as ‘my friend’. I’m not your friend. My actual friends are barely my friends. There’s a buddy-buddy line, and you’ve stepped over it.
But this is just me being pernickety. Ignore the décor, and order at will. There is some seriously top notch cooking going on here, and you’d be a fool to miss out on it.Malt Room
60 Great Victoria Street
Belfast BT2 7BB
Tel: 028 90310008