The speakeasy mood of prohibition-era Chicago has taken a foothold in Belfast with the arrival of Cabaret Supper Club, above AM:PM in Upper Arthur Street. It was bound to happen sooner or later.
The northern capital is the cradle of music in all its forms, producing great classical and jazz musicians and orchestras, quality rock and pop bands and brilliant traditional Irish music players. So it was only a matter of time before someone would try to recreate a glorious pre-World War 2 period when decadence was the only escape from economic depression and moral standards were allowed to slip a little and paying punters offered a bit of ooh-la-la excitement.
And while some of us might confuse burlesque with something altogether less savoury — there have been no religious pickets outside the doors, which indicates it’s all pukka and cultural — we haven’t really had anything like the Cabaret Supper Club before.
Cabaret delivers all the imagery of an old-fashioned jazz joint. Bright red leatherette furnishings, lots of chandeliers and crystal, an army of smart servers and a remarkably big stage with high curtains. The stage’s proportions seem to be a magical act themselves, as this is a densely developed part of the city centre and you’d never have dreamt anything so generous in size could be squeezed in.
The night we went singer Roisin Starkey and pianist (and day-time professor of mathematics) Paddy Walsh worked their way through a 22-song set, each of them a jewel, including top tunes from the Carpenters, Bobbie Gentry and Nina Simone. Meanwhile, the adviser and I and our support team sipped cocktails and eased ourselves into the vibe.
When the fire-eating Ciara Fraser burst on stage allowing Starkey and Walsh a rest, we wondered if our moral fibre would hold up. But Fraser is seriously impressive and has all the attributes and athletic qualities you’d expect from an accomplished burlesque dancer, and she’s distinctly more gymnast and gravity-defying circus-performer than louche temptress or seductress.
Meanwhile, the place was filling up nicely and there was a buzz about the place. There’s a touch of Goodfellas about it; a certain glamour you’d associate with New York or LA.
I mentioned this to former owners of Thompson’s Garage Eugene Kielt and Anne Cunningham, whose joint venture this is and they took us to the roof of the building where work is under way to create a covered garden and barbecue area. At night, with a little squinting of the eyes, you could almost imagine you were in midtown Manhattan.
So while the environment and the cabaret acts (the big night is at the end of the month, but there are dancers every night) are very impressive, the question is: does the supper part of the deal stand up to it? A two- or three-course choice that is offered on the Friday night menu, which features three starters, three mains and a few desserts, is simple but appetising.
It seems reasonable enough at £19.95 for two courses and this includes entrance and entertainment. But if you factor in an £8 supplement for the sirloin, the price starts to bite harder.
The starter of celery salt squid is good. The bite-size squid chunks were not rubbery or overcooked, their salty cocoon tasty and not overpowering and the accompanying salad fresh and well dressed.
The sirloins were very good quality with the deep meaty flavours of aged and well-hung beef. An unnecessary topping of spinach leaves and under-soaked porcini, which were chewy and tasteless, didn’t enhance the sirloin. Ask for the steak plain, and you’ll be happy.
The desserts, a chocolate fondant and an apple and cherry crumble, need some attention — they tasted fusty and old and I suspected the crumble was off. I couldn’t eat it (and wasn’t charged for it).
Yet this wouldn’t prevent a revisit. The food is an intrinsic part of the supper club concept, obviously, but so are the wines, cocktails and what’s happening on stage, all in equal measure. And the environment. The comfort and luxury of being entertained, having drinks brought to you by an attentive and friendly staff (the booths each have their own butler button) and being in pleasant, well-lit surroundings is something worth paying for.
Cabaret Supper Club is a triumph of enthusiasm over expertise, but the owners have the right idea and it will keep improving. I’d go as soon as possible because soon you’ll have to wait weeks to book a table in this club.
Two-course x 4 £79.80
Sirloin supps £32
Chips x 2 £7
Green veg £3.50
Seaglass sauvignon blanc £21
Bellini x 2 £19.90
Long Island iced tea £7.45
38-44 Upper Arthur Street,
Belfast BT1 4GH. Tel: 028 9024 9009.