The notion that certain restaurants are more boudoir than garage, more fire station than cosmetics counter, makes sense. If restaurants can have moods, they can also have genders.
The firey, satanic bellowings of Niall McKenna’s josper grill in James St South Bar and Grill is testosterone on toast, while the intensity of Joery Castel’s cooking at Bangor’s Boat House is down to a distinctly defined sense of masculinity.
All this drama is best kept behind the closed kitchen door, however, when all you want is a nice meal with a glass or two of wine. And if niceness rather than top-end, cutting-edge culinary innovation is the norm in Belfast, then I wouldn’t knock it.
That’s because the nice meal and couple of glasses of wine is what most of us want after a hard week trying to hold onto a job and paying the mortgage.
And, to be fair, Belfast restaurants are, by and large, better than nice. There is now a collective group of restaurants that have created a level of general bistro excellence that would be perfectly acceptable in any European city of much bigger size.
So when on a weekday lunchtime I walked into the cute‘n’cosy confines of the low-ceilinged, museum-like Muriel’s in Belfast city centre, my expectation-o-meter was set to medium.
I’d heard great reports about Muriel’s, particularly its Sunday brunches, and had tried unsuccessfully to get there. But its lunches had been positively reviewed by people whose views most of us would respect.
Formerly a milliner’s of the same name, all the décor focuses on the ladies’ fashions from th’olden days and makes the place very feminine. The downstairs interior is charming, inviting and beautifully lit, like a stage set in an Agatha Christie drama. Upstairs, the late Edwardian epoch and mood are even more enhanced and refined. The colours are rich but subdued, lots of soft textiles and wood. Up here there are more tables. Which is necessary as there are only a dozen seats or so downstairs.
It’s so intimate that I had to ask if it was ok to sit down after having spent a few minutes at the bar chatting with my guest. Although I wasn’t quite barked at, the sharp response I received indicated that I had somehow intruded. We sat at one of the three tables and laughed off the abruptness. Soon a pleasant young server was bringing us leek and potato soup with three small slices of ciabatta on the side.
The soup was fresh but too thin. Expectations and the human condition mean that the two words ‘leek’ and ‘potato’ extend to mean vichyssoise but it’s not always the case and this certainly wasn’t the case. It was neither creamy (nor cold) nor deep in flavour.
The day’s special was an irresistible-sounding crab claws in Thai green curry sauce with salt-and-pepper fries and rocket salad. All four feature highly in my fantasy list of top desert island dishes. And when the appetising dishes and bowls arrived, the generosity, volume, variety and choice appeared utterly compelling.
Crab claws in this country are fabulous even in their cheapest form, and these were big and plentiful. But served in Thai green curry, they had suffered overheating and flavour loss. The curry was lacking punch, too, and the burden of having to fish out and
eat crab claws from the deep bowl became too tedious. It wasn’t worth it and I gave up and reached for the salad and chips instead, which were fine.
A very decent cupcake and some excellent coffee cheered us up. While there were no desserts, the cupcake stepped into the role regally with its crown of vanilla pastry cream sprinkled with gold dust. The sponge bun held the whole thing very nicely together.
One day I intend to explore the cupcake phenomenon. In the meantime, those served in Muriel’s are exemplary, as is their coffee.
Even if the dish of the day was far from fabulous, there is a palpable, mildly nutty charm and mood in Muriel’s that may explain why so many people love it.
Crab claws x 2 £23.90
Gls red wine x 2 £9.60
Coffees x 2 £4.50
Service included £4.39
12 Church Lane, Belfast BT1 4QN.
Tel: 028 9033 2445.