The Michelin-starred master goes casual with his Seafood Bar.
Some European and American hotel chains have taken the unusual step of creating two hotels on the one site. You often see these pairings around airports. One is posh, the other budget. It makes commercial sense for two operations to share the same infrastructure, reception, restaurants and so on but in these days of belt-tightening you have to wonder just how successful the posh bits are compared to their low-cost twins.
The technically brilliant Michael Deane, a man who knows more than a thing or two about food and business and how to make both work, has applied a similar concept by creating Deanes Seafood Bar on the same floor as the eponymous Michelin-starred operation in Belfast’s Howard Street. Both restaurants share the same front door — you turn left for the seafood bar and right for the restaurant.
But here’s the thing. The two words ‘seafood’ and ‘bar’ evoke a number of images in people’s heads. To me, such images include creaky bleached wooden floorboards, Mississippi Delta softshell crabs and clams served to the table in a plastic bucket, rickety chairs, pitchers of beer and cheap white wine, informality bordering on anarchy and possibly live Cajun music played by ancient French-speaking men called Hector and Octave.
Andy Rea’s Mourne Seafood Bar has captured a little bit of this vibe (the rickety chairs and floorboards) through an interpretation of seafood-bar-as-French-bistro-and-fish-counter just like they have in most French ports. But to achieve this kind of relaxed seafood bar mood requires more than just a look. It also demands precision in the menu content. For instance, it should have lots of cheap choices like mussels and fish cakes. Robust staff training is a must to ensure the right level of shoulder-shrugging but friendly coolness; and the drink needs to be priced just right to encourage fast flowing turnover. The Mourne Seafood Bar has firmly nailed all of these components — all they need to do now is take mercy on their loyal fans and put an end to the misery of having to queue for a table by taking bookings.
Food as art and expressive luxury is too important to Michael Deane for him to start messing about with his brand. Spit and sawdust are not his way. Even when you eat at a lower budget Deane’s restaurant like Queen’s or the Deli, the whole experience is imbued with that unmistakeable sense of Deane class. The interiors are all impeccably tasteful and clean-cut, the staff are highly trained and finely tuned (some are even charming) and the food is invariably reliable and occasionally stunning.
And so it is with the Seafood Bar. Deane is a Michelin-starred chef and has been for years. The quality of what he does is international standard. His is a world of fine dining and no matter how hard he tries to shake this off in his seafood bar, his natural tendency towards formal brilliance remains too strong to overcome. For instance, in a nod towards jolly informality, there are no menus. Everything you need to know is on the black board. Just like in a seafood bar.
This is the first and indeed last sign of Deane letting his hair down. The beautifully angled bare wood furniture stands elegantly in an equally elegant but austere and modern dining room. The servers are as polished and self-effacing as church brass but cannot loosen up. It wouldn’t be right for them to loosen up here. They are a perfect complement to the environment. I think Michael Deane recognises this and believes that while they are suited to the very formal restaurant across the floor it’s probably too much to ask them to switch mood between the two. This is not a criticism. It’s a reflection of just how much a perfectionist Deane is.
Much more comfortable in its own skin is the established restaurant on the other side of the front door. The restaurant, paradoxically, seems cooler and more laid back even though it’s the epitome of fine dining in the city.
That’s not to say that you can’t eat cheaply in Deanes Seafood Bar. A large chowder or bowl of mussels with bread (the bread is staggeringly good whether it’s wheaten or the brown baguette I had last week) is plenty for a lunch and won’t cost you more than £7.
But my first foray for lunch with a friend went beyond £70. This included three glasses of wine, one of which was a belting (and romantically monikered) 2005 1er cru Montmain, Domaine de Bois d’Hiver Chablis at £8.50. And even as I paid the bill I had to remind myself of the meals consumed only moments earlier (isn’t it amazing how quickly you forget what you had when it comes to paying the bill?): a large and beautifully cooked piece of plaice dotted with little brown shrimp and butter, a prawn curry with the equivalent of five or six very large langoustines in a fine and rich massala sauce, precisely executed desserts of vanilla cheesecake and chocolate brownie with warm sauce. It was absolutely top-end dining. There is no difference in the quality of the food served here and that served in posher next doors.
Michael Deane is a chef’s chef. He’s technically brilliant and has a deep sense of balance and marriage when it comes to flavours and textures. He’s also pretty hot at marketing with a great eye for design. But on this occasion his Seafood Bar has to be reconsidered. Perhaps if it were the Seafood Restaurant the expectations might be better aligned with the offer. Hell, what do I know? The day we were there it was pretty busy. I’m sure I’m not the only one to want to eat plastic bucketfuls of steaming spicy shellfish in a wooden shack in the middle of a swamp to the beat of savage accordion dance music. But Michael Deane has a far better idea of what more mainstream diners really want. With a bit of tweaking and readjusting, he’ll be onto another winner sooner rather than later.
Prawn curry £10.50
Gls Chablis £8.50
Gls Octavie £6
Gls Chardonnay £4