Last year, a new restaurant-club-bar opened in Belfast that mixed fine food, bad-ass music and a fresh attitude. If the restaurant sector could be compared to the music industry, Love & Death was the Sex Pistols.
It sat in the city centre beside Cornmarket and above the Little Wing pizzeria and its forbidding and grotty entrance had all the charm of a dodgy tattoo parlour. But once you’d climbed the stairs and entered the louche bar and restaurant, the front-of-house staff were quick to settle those of a nervous disposition with a warm, friendly welcome.
A talented young chef, Chris McClurg, produced miraculous dishes in the cupboard kitchen and very quickly a reputation was established for food that sparked, popped and fizzed with brilliance.
There were all sorts of dishes served on small plates. Rabbit stew, Dexter rib-eye, fresh fish, a whole Sunday roast chicken presented on a carving board, and a matchless potted pork with capers that would have a Le Mans rillettes manufacturer salivating, became instant classics. Even the mighty Matthew Fort was a fan.
Naturally, co-owner and manager Brian McGeown was keen not to overplay the importance of McClurg to Love & Death’s survival. Instead, he wanted people to appreciate that the same levels of quality were to be found in Love & Death’s other offerings: the club bar upstairs, great DJs and new bands.
The food had to be good, but then so did all the entertainment, the cocktails and everything else.
Nonetheless, within a few months, McClurg’s departure to pastures new (Paul Ainsworth’s restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall), raised some questions about quality and what was Love & Death going to become without the punky genius in the kitchen?
Enter the saviour, Stephen Spratt, the new head chef. The saturnine Spratt brings with him, despite his youth, a wealth of experience picked up in some of Britain’s best restaurants, including Peter Rimican’s Bentley’s in Jersey and Tony Borthwick’s Plumed Horse in Edinburgh.
Lunch last week quickly proved he is just as good as McClurg.
In true art-for-art’s-sake style, the chef offered us a tasting menu of his five favourites cobbled from both the lunch and evening menus.
Both menus are well judged and ample without being over-stretched. We were in the hands of the chef’s whim this day, but among the choices are the McClurg dishes that set Love & Death so very firmly on Belfast’s culinary map.
The rabbit stew with winter veg, Dexter burger with chips and home-made piccalilli, potted Fermanagh pork with cider jelly and mustard are happily present and among them a few newbies such as the macaroni cheese with truffle, wild herb and soda bread and chilli squid in sauce romanesco with bacon and shallots.
A bottle of Chilean red at £17.95 was ordered but in its absence we were instead offered a more famous 2010 Chateau Musar from Lebanon at a very reasonable £24.95. (There are some protocols surrounding this kind of thing: if your chosen wine isn’t available, a good restaurant server might come back to you and offer you a decent alternative that, if you accept, will be charged at the price of the original choice.)
We were given three special starters to kick off: foie gras in chocolate and orange on skinny slices of cinnamon and raisin toast; pigeon breasts with more foie gras on a Savoy cabbage puree; seared scallops with white pudding and honey bee pollen. Each was exquisite in detail, perfectly timed, crunchy, melting, golden or dripping where and when they should be.
An egg yolk glistened underneath the transparent and protective shell of balsamic glass, which begged to be cracked and penetrated. This was proper third-dimension stuff — lunch with audience participation.
Then followed a composition of roast hake with fennel and chopped tomato and olives. Three small, deep purple potatoes dominated the dish crazily and glamorously. They come from Drew Frazier’s farm, the same place the purple carrots at Home come from.
A crispy pork belly ring joined by a cylinder of potted pork with those lovely capers and an big apple crisp rounded things off nicely.
But Spratt is a committed pastry chef and the peanut parfait is one thing, but the chocolate tart shaped like a Seventies watch strap is a must.
It’s breath-taking stuff. There’s still plenty of atmosphere to keep the young interested, the live music is pulling in the punters too.
And while the dining room might not be to everyone’s taste, Love & Death has something that will reawaken the adventurous in you — no matter how old you are.
Chateau Musar £24.95
Tasting menu x 2 £50.00
Coffees x 2 £4.00
Small sparkling water x 2 £3.60
10a Ann Street, Belfast BT1 4EF
Tel: 028 9024 7222