This quirky new restaurant is good enough to impress me and one of the UK’s most respected food critics on our recent visit
Until recently I was sceptical about the whole notion that today’s young chefs are on a par with rock stars in terms of celebrity status and fawning fans. Nice thought, but not really true. Admittedly, the growing visibility of chefs as celebrities has been sustained by constant TV appearances. Even ageing rockers including Paul Rankin, Antony Worrall Thompson and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall are still strutting their stuff on the telly. But comparing Jamie Oliver to Robbie Williams? Wise up.
My scepticism, however, was instantly snuffed out last week by the appearance at new Belfast restaurant Love & Death of chef Chris McClurg.
The wild-haired, restless and alarmingly thin 21-year-old is so rock’n’roll he grabs your attention in the same way as a tarantula on your chest might render you motionless as you wait for it to bite.
McClurg is the Mick Jagger of 1967, the Jagger who, when ordered by a magistrate to get his hair cut, turned round and snarled: “What? And look like you?”
And then there’s the place in which he works. It suits him perfectly because it’s as drum-kit-bashing and Stratocaster-burning as he is.
Love & Death Inc, which opened five weeks ago, is very different from other trendy restaurants. The former Capstan/39 Steps bar is on two floors above Little Wing pizzeria in Ann Street. Visitors of a nervous disposition should not be discouraged by the heart-and-skull sign above the door, which might indicate the place is actually a tattoo parlour.
First impressions of seediness are cleverly designed to draw you into a world of post-teenage, leather-clad-biker, stool-leg-kicking darkness. But it gets no more sinister than that, because once you reach the top of the stairs (disability access is not good, but if you don’t mind being carried up the stairs the staff are very willing) you are greeted by a smiling server who only has your comfort and enjoyment in mind. If Love & Death Inc were a person it would be Russell Brand.
The first floor houses a cocktail bar and restaurant serving food from 12 noon until late, seven days a week. Go up one more floor to the music hall and you’ll find bands and DJs in an unexpectedly pleasant and high-ceilinged room. It’s all dead trendy, a wee bit goth and dungeon. Your grannies will love it or hate it.
Special guest joining the advisor and me in the night’s adventure was a startled Matthew Fort, the posh one on the Great British Menu judging panel, and a regular visitor to Belfast.
Not that this matters too much to the restaurant, as it’s so dark in there as to make it impossible to identify anyone. But once the eyes become attuned, we realise we are in a strange world of aquamarine plush velvet walls, swimming pool-tiled tables and a bar that is more like a stage on which the mixing skills of Anthony Farrell are performed for all to see.
The menu quickly settles the nerves and fears that perhaps we had come to the wrong place altogether soon disappeared. There were various appetising oddities, none exceeding £8.50 and indicators of some kind of intelligence in the kitchen.
Gypsy eggs, potted pork, rabbit stew, Dexter beef are all there and more besides. Casually dropped on the table while we wait for cocktails, two pots — one containing root veg crisps, the other popcorn — reveal something of the quality values. If the crisps are an indicator of what’s about to come, we are in for a treat.
Very soon, a trio of Champagne flutes filled with Guinness and a big oyster on individual plates arrive — all ice-cold and excellent. A potted pork pate with additional gherkins and toast is shared by the three of us. A kind of rillettes with tarragon, it’s warm and rich and packed with porky heaviness — a delight. Then follows a large dish each of hake steak with langoustines and clams in a white wine jus with herbs. Fresh, light and quite classical, we are all charmed by the flavours. Fort leaves nothing on his plate. Nor does the advisor.
We think it’s all over when more arrives — this time rabbit stew with turnips, carrots and lots of mustard grains. It’s as if Beatrix Potter has been slagged off. Even then the meal hasn’t reached its climax. Three small but perfectly formed dishes of Dexter beef steak and alumette chips appear.
Then the boy chef steps out from the phone booth-sized kitchen to introduce himself and we are enchanted. Astonishingly, he talks of his experience with Richard Corrigan — he was in London for two years — and how he’s looking forward to a short stint with Heston Blumenthal.
On the menu are desserts including crème brûlée, sticky toffee pudding and rice pudding with brandy-flamed apples. Of course, by now we are close to overload but room is made for a little cheese and frozen grapes.
The experience is sensational. I look to the great critic Matthew, who nods in approval. Does he still think we are ten years behind? Catching up fast, he admits.
Love & Death is the kind of place that will appeal to foodies, clubbers, live music lovers and cocktail drinkers (the mai tai is sensational). It is an essential destination point in the city for anyone who wants a sneaky sip from the cup of urban loucheness.
Root crisps: £2.50
Jack Daniels popcorn: £2.50
Bread, olives, tapenade: £3.50
Soup X 3: £10.50
Potted Pork, toast, gherkins: £5.75
Rabbit stew x 3: £21
Hake x 3: £28
Dexter & chips x 3: £25.50
Bottle wine: £18.95