Restaurant review: We take a bite from Malone Golf Club
240 Upper Malone Road, Dunmurry. Tel 028 9060 6754
Since this column started eight years ago, readers have suggested all sorts of places across the north and south for me to visit. I have heeded many of these and am grateful for the guidance, which has revealed fabulous places as well as some dreadful holes.
One recurring theme emerging from these regular reader suggestions has been golf clubs. I should go to such-and-such club, because they do a great steak. If I've heard this once, I've heard it a hundred times: They do a great steak.
I know golfers. They wear funny clothes and have stressful jobs. For them, the club is a sanctuary in which to let off steam, play 18 holes and get away from it all. This generates appetite and, when you're hungry, a steak-and-chip dinner is pretty much the perfect answer (or chicken Maryland for the vegetarian golfer). That's fair enough.
Having been to a few golf clubs and endured lunches and dinners which were so awful I would have faced violent retribution if I were to write them up, I recently and shakily accepted an invitation to a fundraiser dinner in Malone Golf Club.
The last time I was in such a beautiful parkland I had to run for my life, as it belonged to a cantankerous and belligerent old white supremacist in West Virginia, who did not like trespassers one bit.
The place was so vast I thought it was a publicly owned national park and had stumbled into it with some friends and some beers. Redbone coonhounds were released and we had to run for the fence.
Anyway, I was instantly reminded of the exclusivity of that West Virginia spot, its mature woods, lakes and lawns, as I nursed a pint at the Malone GC bar overlooking the lake, the greens and the ancient trees beyond.
I felt very out of place, but the dinner was for the Cancer Fund for Children, everyone was in black tie and it would not do at all to sneak away.
Golf clubs being golf clubs, no matter how posh, I was braced for a prawn cocktail and chicken dinner. But chef Sean McCann had other ideas. The menu displayed five courses, kicking things off with a tomato and mozzarella fritter and a salad of asparagus and quail's egg.
A beautifully composed dish was set down before us immediately after the speeches and something I had never expected happened: I sat beside Pamela Ballentine, a woman who knows good food. She remained completely silent for all of three minutes while we ate. When she spoke again it was to express delight at what she had just eaten.
I think she was as shocked as I was: neither of us are golfers and both of us take issue with mediocre food. This was excellent. Runny little quail's egg halves nestling among the generous, moist salad and the crispy fritters made a dish of contrasts and flavours which worked very well.
The ensuing steamed sea bass with ginger, scallion, shiitake and pak choi was a classy hit of fresh, perfectly flaking fish in a miso-like bouillon. Surely they couldn't keep this up, we thought.
But then they topped it with a venison loin, which melted in the mouth and, as it did, left deep, gamey flavours on the tongue. This was impressive stuff.
I had only ever seen the accompanying salt-baked crapaudine beetroot prepared this way in Ox. The truffled broad bean crostini was a bold and imaginative interpretation of a traditional French accompaniment to game.
The choice of courses was courageous. Normally these fundraisers are the worse for the organisers not wanting to take any risks, not wanting to offend, or put off any potential donors and providing something which results in complete blandness.
But Malone GC chef McCann must have been relieved to find himself working with event organiser Caroline Mawhinney, because what he ended up putting on the table would have been memorable if Niall McKenna, or Michael Deane himself, had prepared it (both of them hate mediocrity and would rather entertain you with a bit of risky culinary madness than be accused of being ordinary). Not that this was a crazy menu, but it was out of the ordinary.
If this is what golf clubs in Northern Ireland are doing now for their members, where do I sign?
Five-course dinner, John J McIlroy Invitational: £40
(guide price only: excludes wine and golf)