Not only does Molly’s Yard brew its own fine beer, but it also serves up some fabulous food
Is it me or are towns in Northern Ireland looking better than ever? Maybe I don't get out much, but I can't help noticing how brilliant Derry city centre looks and feels with that flow of shoppers crossing the walled town to and from the Foyle centre, the brilliant and atmospheric pubs in Waterloo Street and the better-than-decent hotels that have popped up in the last five years.
There's been much talk of a cultural renaissance and Derry is a good case history. So too are Armagh, Coleraine and Dungannon — so I'm filling the car with diesel to go and see what the crack is in the likes of Omagh and Enniskillen, which also seem to have been blessed with regeneration projects.
Belfast must be the chief benefactor of this drive for regeneration and while many new edifices have sprung up in the last decade (the trend kicked off by Belfast City Council's unparalleled foresight when it built the Waterfront Hall), much of the old stuff has been restored and refurbished and put back into use after years of dereliction.
Urban dereliction in Belfast used to know no limits. It was not confined to the poorer areas of the city. Places in the city centre were run down just as badly as any industrial city in the UK.
Belfast became a hotspot for urban dereliction, but it wasn't just the Troubles that was to blame — it was policy.
More socially conscious economies in western Europe could see the benefit of publicly subsidising many industries and keeping people and therefore buildings employed.
We applied the Thatcherite free market philosophy and look where that got us. Decay got into every nook and cranny of commercial life as the rat race took on new meaning and the survival of the fittest meant closures of small businesses everywhere.
One sad little corner of dereliction was right beside Queen's University at the top of Botanic Avenue. Disused stables that were once attached to the neighbouring College Green House, a charming cluster of red-brick coach house, yard and workshop lay forgotten and rotting.
But new life has been breathed into Belfast through a commitment to restoration and city centre living and one of the beneficiaries has been this place, now known as Molly's Yard, which is a micro brewery and restaurant.
This intriguing combination makes Molly's Yard irresistible as an architectural must-see, an example of how a restoration project's shock waves ripple out to bless neighbouring areas with new life and renewed reputations. That aside, Molly's Yard is also a fine restaurant.
One's footsteps resonate throughout the tiny two-storey restaurant's bare wooden floorboards and minuscule winding staircase.
There is a bar downstairs that beckons to the beards and new agers with a range of local beers that includes the irresistibly named Belfast Blonde, which is a lager and chocolate stout.
Upstairs is the more comfortable and mildly more formal seating and it's like the old-fashioned pubs that used to have a public bar and a lounge. It's the height of cosiness, all stripped and wood-panelled Victorian modesty, humbly lit and discreetly decorated with burgundy velour banquettes and little co-ordinated cushions. Its mood dial permanently set to somewhere around Christmas 1890.
The Victorians were big grubbers and Molly's Yard pays full tribute to this by putting great volumes of food on the table. A broad menu with plenty to choose from, the food is on the robust side of fine dining if the titles are anything to go by.
Among the starters are carpaccio of cured Finnebrogue venison with rocket, scallions and horseradish aioli, cockles and mussels steamed in Belfast Blonde lager beer with wheaten bread, citrus marinated duck breast with broad beans, baby spinach and Bellingham Blue dressing and soup with chocolate stout wheaten bread. The nod to seasonality is further confirmed with grilled mushrooms, asparagus and Parmesan on toast.
The adviser and two friends approached all this with balance and a full spread of starters arrived, including the smoked salmon on fadge with dill crème fraiche. Ulster fadge works with smoked salmon even better than bagels, complementing the silky smooth cuts of smokey pink fish with the sturdy potato-cake base, the dill crème fraiche making light of it all.
The venison was cut thicker than a usual carpaccio but the adviser felt this more robust approach allowed for more flavour. The aioli was a triumph and made a very decent partner to the venison with the scallions and rocket.
Spring lamb cuts, including a finely cooked cutlet and a little fillet, were delicate and not overpowered as some lamb can be. Matched to a strongly scented mound of basil and potato crush and the deep and tangy ratatouille, this was well judged. It was a display of sensitive creativity and respect for high-quality raw materials and I could eat it every week for the rest of the summer.
The adviser's sea bream was further proof that kitchen standards at the tiny brewery have nothing in common with the slap-dash you'd expect from anyone in the business of making beer. High precision, orderliness and the know-how that means the fish comes with the right buttery sauce and nothing which will obscure its freshness and perfectly timed cooking, are a hallmark of Molly's Yard.
The devotion and dedication to making everything right is coupled to a profound knowledge of what actually is right. It's not just clean, well run and organised — it's all these but managed by people who really love good food.
The desserts are an equally generous list of freshly prepared surprises including a Jersey ice-cream sundae with raspberry coulis and lavender shortbread, rhubarb and ginger bread and butter pudding with crème Anglaise and warm Belgian chocolate brownie with rich chocolate sauce and Molly's Chocolate Stout ice cream.
My strawberry posset with chocolate chip cookie was as rich and creamy as the lime one at Coyle's some weeks earlier (I've only ever had possets in these two places). Simple but decadent, the posset is a charming dessert, particularly in these surroundings which evoke a time long gone.
The Irish cheeses with Ditty's oatcakes and Molly's chutney are an equally evocative mix that received full approval from the adviser — well kept, bursting with soft, pungent odours and given a fillip of texture with the oatcakes and sweetness with the chutney.
If you had to define Belfast by a single restaurant it probably would be Molly's Yard, with its working micro-brewery, its local produce and its stern but comfortable interior. Next time you are entertaining out-of-towners, your guests will be mightily impressed if you bring them here.
3-course meal X 2: £72
Belfast Blonde: £2.95
Chocolate stout: £3