EATING FOR BRITAIN: BELFAST, DULSE, THE MERCHANT HOTEL and CAYENNE
The journey continued the next morning as Neal pointed our hire car North from his uncle’s house and towards The Giant’s Causeway, that odd little outcrop of rock which the locals claim was built by Irish giant Finn McCool so he could walk to Scotland to have a bit of a barney with his Scottish counterpart.
On the way, we stopped off to sample another one of the potential dishes for my EATING FOR BRITAIN trip, Dulce. Although, little known outside The Six Counties, Dulce is a bit of an obsession in Northern Ireland and is basically seaweed harvested in the early morning and dried on the rocks before being bagged and sold in shops and pubs just about everywhere.
I had wanted to meet one of the producers, but as most of them seem to do this as a sideline while still signing on it was understandable they were a bit reticent to talk to me and were a little less than enthusiastic when we stopped to have a look at where it was laid out to dry. Still, the shopkeepers were more welcoming and for £1.50, I was able to buy a large bag, which Neal and I sampled as we took a chance to look at the stunning scenery on the way to the Causeway. It’s odd stuff alright with the first taste of the chewy seaweed just being of salt, which is why they probably sell it in all the pubs. But, after a few times around the mouth, it begins to release layers of flavour and is actually quite addictive.
The bar at The Merchant Hotel recently won three major awards at the prestigious “Tales of The Cocktail” event in New Orleans, including one for “Best Hotel Bar” Walking into the plush room, it is easy to see why and, by 7pm it was already packed, primarily with visitors rather than the locals who are still coming to terms with the “hideously priced” cocktails.
Er, they should come to London, £7.50 struck me as a bit of a bargain, particularly when the drinks prepared by bartenders, Jack and Hayden under the auspices of manager, Sean Muldoon are up there with anything on offer in the capital. This is a serious bar and the drinks we tried including an excellent Martini, a Manhattan and a Sazerac, three of my tests of a bartender’s skill, were all produced with great presentation and perfect balance.
Definitely worth a visit if you are in Belfast.
If the bar at The Merchant Hotel is worth a visit, Cayenne, the remaining restaurant of the former Paul Rankin empire is, unfortunately, one to avoid, not just for the expense, which is comparable to anything in London, but for its confused menu and poor execution.
I am a fan of Paul Rankin’s. Few UK chefs are as associated with their region as he (Rick Stein and Nigel Haworth, perhaps?) and fewer still have worked so hard to promote the food of their area. Yet, despite the trumpeting of local ingredients on the restaurant website, the menu at Cayenne is a perfect example of what Jay Rayner once described as ‘culinary Esperanto” a mish mash which allowed for “gazpacho” to sit next to crispy duck and “Carpaccio” next to “Thai fish cakes” on the list of starters.
The mains too sat as uneasily on the page as they later did in the stomach. Duck with an “aromatic curry glaze” was offered as an alternative to lamb fillets with “Ras-el Hanout” leaving you imagine that Rankin had given his head chef the challenge of using every last ingredient in the store cupboard and he had proved himself more than up to the task.
Had the execution been up to scratch such an oddly matched parade of dishes might have come over as quirky, unfortunately, the plates that we were presented with had little merit and just came over as ill conceived. Neal’s starter of lobster salad saw three little blobs of decent seafood hidden under over dressed leaves and under cooked potatoes. Yours for a slightly less than good value £10.
My own starter of squid at £8 was better, cooked perfectly beneath a crisp coating and a fiery nahm jim sauce adding all the heat needed without having to dip into a slight incongruous spicy mayonnaise.
The standards again dropped with the main courses. Monkfish, the main event in my special is an expensive ingredient, but for £20 I probably could have expected slightly more fish than the less than palm-sized portion I received. The kitchen had tried to compensate with the addition of broad beans, peas and brown shrimp in a burnt butter as well as a quintet of little potato dumplings, all of which made sense, but the end result was an oily, greasy mess that did its best to hide the purchase of some excellent fish.
Neal’s lamb proved to be the winner in the WTF? Stakes. Cooked perfectly pink, I am sure it was bought from somewhere pretty and the lamb was very happy until they stunned it. It would have been a good deal less sanguine if it had any idea how it would end up, on plate which looked like it had been dropped and reassembled in a hurry.
What tastes of the lamb there may have been were lost in a wash of sauce and Neal pushed far too many slices onto my side plate for me to believe he was enjoying it in any way. He wasn’t and declared “the more I think about it the worse this meal gets”
Side dishes did little to improve his mood and a dry mashed potato with little evidence of the advertised horseradish made him, a good Northern Irish boy, wonder if the province's recent rediscovery of tarring & feathering could be put too better use. I thought the same, but of the shameful handful of string beans that came as a side order.
Our experience to date convinced us that desserts would be little better and we asked our young server, whose charm was the highlight of the meal, for the bill, a breathtaking £86 including service and a bottle of something red, which could arguably reflect the ordering of premium ingredients like monkfish and lobster if they were not served in such tiny portions, but really reflects a menu savagely overpriced for the quality delivered.
I remain a fan of Rankin, I suspect this oddity of restaurant fulfils a need in Belfast. For the life of me I can’t quite think what that need may be, but the place was packed. I can’t help hoping he finds enough restored confidence in the local produce of which he is such a proud advocate, that he soon sheds the need to hide their beauty under such a multi cultural bushel.
So, it may have been a disappointing ending to our restaurant eating in Northern Ireland, but it did not manage to dampen our enjoyment of a part of the country, which impressed me with its friendly people, gorgeous countryside, and on the whole surprisingly lovely food.