Joris Minne: Mourne Seafood Bar
The Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum would make the perfect spot for Sunday lunch — if the food actually matched what’s on the menu
Promises, promises. Sometimes you have to forgive those restaurants that try hard to generate fresh business by promising all sorts of things designed to draw you in. Apart from the promise of decent food, they will offer all sorts of inducements: cheap Tuesdays, all-you-can-eat Wednesdays and thirst-quench Thursdays with free beer.
But you can never forget those restaurants that don’t live up to their promises. There aren’t many of them, mind. But there are enough of them to leave a sour taste in your mouth once in a while. This can happen when you are powerless to make any complaint — a family day out, a business lunch or dinner or a romantic dinner a deux are typical scenarios in which you are prevented by good manners and consideration towards your fellow diners from making a complaint in case you destroy the mood or create a bad atmosphere.
These experiences keep you suspicious and alert every time you go into a restaurant. After all, you could be dropping big money in the place so you might as well be as sure as you can be that you’re getting value for money.
Thankfully, the restaurant industry in Northern Ireland is among the best in Europe, so chances are you’ll have a great time. But detail is everything. Whereas I might have complained in the past about the quality of the food, I find that the gripes are moving away from this because the food is becoming so reliable nowadays. No, the sources of complaint are now narrower and one could be in danger of becoming pernickety and pedantic. Take the Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum, for instance, sister to the Belfast operation of the same name.
Simple, unpretentious and well priced, this restaurant is housed in one half of a huge old double house right on the main road to Newcastle, and the MSB is all clattery wooden floors, dark wood furniture, seascapes and framed scientific posters of seashells and fish on the walls and pleasant, professional servers. There’s no sign of an actual seafood bar in the place but I guess the mood at the tables is relaxed enough to match the laid-back feel one might expect from a seafood bar.
Since I hit 50 last April, I realise I am becoming increasingly grumpy and actually turning into my dad and this may explain why these small factors are significant to me. But put it this way, if you opened a seafood bar in New York, there would be a bar at which you would enjoy seafood. If there wasn’t you’d be chased out of town for making false promises.
But I’m used to half-kept promises and the adviser reminds me not to be so pedantic from time to time. So when six of us recently went on a Sunday afternoon trip to MSB, I inwardly shut down the grump switch and ordered the rollmops with tomato chutney. The pickled herrings were fine, no better than those I get out of Tesco for 99p for two, but better presented. The tomato chutney, however, was suspiciously like apricot jam. I didn’t want to ask the adviser for her opinion as I knew she’d just think I was being a crashing bore again. Quietly I slipped a morsel of the jam to the in-law in front who is well versed in chutneys. She confirmed my suspicion with a discreet nod and nothing more was said.
The other starters were applauded — the prawns, the squid were excellent, well prepared, fresh and zingy in all the right places. (The bottle of Muscadet was, at £15.95, perfect. It’s not great wine but it really is just the job, with its hints of brine and sea breezes, with cold seafood starters.)
The lemon sole that followed was firmly encased in a croquette-like crispy, brittle, deep-fried crumb casing that looked on the verge of being overdone. But once cracked open, the steaming delicate white fish within was beautifully firm. This is a dish that needs to be eaten quickly as the fish continues to cook inside its golden jacket and the generosity of the portions means there are two decent-sized fish to get through.
The adviser’s hake fillet with chickpea stew was a feast of subtle yet robust flavours and my smoked haddock on new potatoes with mustard sauce was equally fine. Mustard sauce is not everyone’s idea of the perfect accompaniment for fish, but when it’s married to crushed little boiled potatoes the combination is mouth-wateringly lush, slightly bitter and leaving a final smooth and rich after taste.
The champ that came with a chicken supreme was text book: buttery, salty and with plenty of scallion kick. Chips were fresh-cut and wonderfully irregular.
Desserts beckoned even after this heavy load although this is one of the marvels of seafood — you can eat a hell of a lot of it before you start feeling uncomfortable.
The desserts, or at least the apple tarte tatin, were about to provide the second disappointment of the day. While the chocolate fudge cake with ice cream was totally acceptable, the tarte tatin turned out to be something else. It was an open-topped apple pie, a not very good one and a very mean little slice of one at that. The thing about tarte tatin is its immediacy and the upside down nature of it. Most places warn you of a 15-minute wait for tatin because it has to be freshly made. It’s not hard to make so what a disappointment that the cakey crust under this one was far from the anticipated flakiness. Nor was there any of the melted caramel to marry to the soft sweet apple slices.
A menu should be a promise unless the server tells you otherwise. What’s there in print should be what you get. If NI Railways sold you a ticket to Galway because it looks a bit like a ticket to Cork you’d be pretty hacked off when you got there. Same goes with the restaurant menu. If it’s not on, say so, and show some respect to the paying diner.
King prawn starters x 3 £17.85
Roll mops £5.50
Prawn cocktail £5.95
Hake fillet £11.50
Sole x 2 £21
Kid’s meal £4.95
Desserts x 3 £14.85
Diet coke £1.90