There’s no surprises at this Belfast favourite, which is why I keep going back for more
Readers have been in touch asking why I review restaurants that have been around for years. The answer is: if I waited for a new restaurant to open in Northern Ireland this column would only appear twice a year at best. So I go to the old ones and approach them the same way a second-hand car reviewer might.
Reviewing a new car is good because people want to know what the new vehicle is like, how fast it is, how many cup holders it has and so on.
But equally important is the review that looks at the vehicle as a second-hand proposition a few years later after the warranty has expired, when bits are falling off and the metallic paint has dulled. Is it still safe, does it still go, is it as reliable?
Similarly, restaurants are invariably brilliant when they open. Some remain brilliant for years afterwards and develop great reputations, acquire stars, rosettes and commendations in guide books and become must-do destination eateries.
But many become quickly tired and tedious. Their decor and furniture will be fading and creaking after they get passed the desperately hard first year of business survival, long periods will go by, months even, before menus are changed or updated, and staff will have developed a shoulder-shrugging, eyes-to-the-ceiling, clock-watching approach to the diners, the food and the business itself.
The Morning Star is one of the oldies in Belfast but thankfully its gloss just keeps on shining and the awards keep coming. There are some flaws in the decor (avoid eye contact with the carpet) but this is allowed in a place so historically important and that still serves fabulously short-haul local food.
I used to be a regular and even celebrated my 35th birthday here 15 years ago. Back then, on top of the regular dishes, it served weird things including kangaroo, alligator and ostrich, all of which was a bit of craic, mildly macho and slightly Dan Dare.
These have gone and what is on the menu nowadays is conventional. The Morning Star is to Belfast what the 250-year-old El Botin restaurant is to Madrid or Brasserie Lipp is to Paris. These restaurants share the same approach — you know what to expect and there are no surprises.
The Morning Star is established; it is a central component in the fabric of our city and its time-tested presence, honest-to-goodness cooking and robust dishes help define who we are.
But first, the bar. The bar downstairs is worth a stop for aperitifs. The staff here are among the elite in Belfast. This is bar staff as special land forces, an active service unit that prides itself on its appearance, its rapid response and its unfailing professionalism. If you ever want to pursue a career in the hospitality industry, a stint in the Morning Star could be the mark of the gold standard.
Gather your strength here before tackling the narrow and steep staircase up to the restaurant. Once you reach the summit, the restaurant's Victorian decor — with dark furniture, booths and old framed shots of the city — will make you feel at ease.
Attentive servers here are as slick as their counterparts downstairs and at night time there is a bustle that keeps the whole place cheerily, and occasionally raucously, humming along. It's old-fashioned, inner-city Belfast where the voices are raised higher than the glasses and outbursts of laughter are frequent, like intermittent gunfire. A firm hand ensures good behaviour and as well as maintaining high service standards, the formidable Corinne — who constitutes half of the husband (Seamus) and wife team who own and run the place — commands the restaurant with absolute authority.
At lunch time, it's more genteel and the mood is business-like. A recent outing with respected journalist DH started shakily because the piped rock music was too loud. A quiet word and the place fell instantly silent. DH was at peace.
Menus were brought and all the food you would want from a place like this was present. The Morning Star has huge character and the dishes need to be revitalising, restorative and voluminous if they are to match the mood of the environment and create the perfect experience.
The lunch menu includes Cuan oysters, seafood chowder, different soups and goat’s cheese bruschetta among the starters. Among the mains is lots of fish, with pan-seared seabass with noodles, salmon with herb crushed potatoes and lemon butter, red snapper, haddock and chips and small or large pots of fresh steamed mussels.
Plenty to choose from and nothing scary, just the way we like it — that is until you get to the chef's specials, where the trencher man is firmly in his mind: traditional pork sausage with champ and gravy, red pepper and chorizo tortilla, garlic bread and salad; honey mustard chicken with Lyonnaise potatoes; roast pork with herb sausage stuffing, red onion mash and wild mushroom sauce; roast Ulster beef with herb stuffing and and gravy or pepper sauce and a clatter of different steaks and meat cuts all with wonderful sides of chips and vegetables.
My seafood chowder arrived looking like a main course to be shared among three people. A vast creamy ocean dotted with islands of potatoes, salmon and other bits and pieces, it was warm, smooth and sea-salty. It was a great, big, thick, deep and stabilising soup, fit for a trawler skipper, yet as delicate as a New England potage. It changes every day according to what fresh fish has come in.
Barely able to finish it, I moved on to the pork belly with colcannon mash and apple jus. While it doesn't sound like much, once you see it on the plate and start eating it you realise it is having the same impact on your mouth as watching a 3D movie with those funny glasses has on your eyes. It's cow-pie territory, where everything is appetisingly big and obvious. The dark green leaves of the cabbage bursting through the tasty potato mash, the powerful pork flavours shouting through the tender, fibrous textures and the contrastingly sweet jus all sing together in harmony.
There is more to the Morning Star than meets the eye — behind the kitchen doors they have their own butchers where they pickle pork, make their own sausages and bratwurst and hang their home-cured Parma (or surely Pottinger’s Entry) ham.
With this kind of plain-for-all-to-see foodie love on display, only a tight-lipped vegan could fail to be seduced by the Morning Star.
Seafood chowder: £4
Caesar salad: £5
Pork belly: £9
Apple crumble: £3.50
Sparkling water/dash: £2
Bottle wine: £13