Restaurant review: We take a bite from The Muddler's Club
1 Warehouse Lane, Belfast. Tel: 028 9031 3199
Gareth McCaughey's Club deserves its place at the top table as comforting hideout delivers with a small but hugely impressive menu.
Well, it didn't take long for the Belfast restaurant circle of life to produce a new offspring. Only two years after opening, Ox has a Michelin star. It is also spawning its first chick, The Muddler's Club.
The creation of Gareth McCaughey, The Muddler's Club has all the hallmarks of a successful restaurant. It's up an alley no one knows is there, it's in Cathedral Quarter and it was designed by those ice-cool dudes at Oscar & Oscar.
I don't think of Oscar & Oscar as restaurant people so much as special effects and set designers. How they achieve that age-old industrial, post-war, partially worn, patina-rich interior is miraculous (although a firmer hand on the furniture-maker would have helped, but more on that later).
The Muddler's Club feels like a club in the old sense. Being tucked away between Waring Street and Exchange Place, the place is a proper hide-out. There's a comforting informality to its exclusivity and the warm welcome of Barry, the manager, sets a behavioural pattern which trickles through to the rest of the staff.
It's a hospitable place with a bar at the entrance end and full-on kitchen views in the dining room - like a smaller, more stylish version of Nick's Warehouse.
The quality follows through to the menu. The lunch menu reflects the tones from nearby Ox, where Gareth McCaughey worked previously. The design is not dissimilar and the prices are in the same budget. Three courses will cost you a pound more. And it's pleasantly simple.
Three starters today include white onion soup with smoked haddock and curry oil; gnocchi squash with chestnut and parmesan; or duck rillettes on brioche with fig and almond. All three have a wintery appeal and I watch them served elsewhere before going with the rillettes.
In France, rillettes are traditionally associated largely with pork and Le Mans and come in pots sealed with half-an-inch of salty, white fat. Rillettes are a monument to French resistance against healthy eating and are, as a result, the stuff of heroes.
Duck rillettes in The Muddler's Club are a much healthier, although equally tasty, variant. The meat is mushed and mixed up with some capers and some gentle spices and spread thickly on to a roundel of perfectly toasted brioche. A slice of fresh fig, a little fig compote and a couple of salted almonds complete a great starter.
The choice of three mains features flat iron steak with horseradish potato and burnt hollandaise; monkfish with white beans, Romanesco, samphire and mussels and a pithivier of wild mushrooms and nuts with aged cheddar.
If you're putting together such a tiny menu, you couldn't do better than this choice and I can't help thinking how much heartache and decisiveness it must have required to settle on this.
I see the beautifully golden pithiviers delivered to the vegetarian table, but the temptation is out-gunned by the monkfish tail, which arrives surprisingly and unexpectedly smoked. It is excellent and generously large and is well backed up by the sea-salty cassoulet and blanched Romanesco leaf.
Three desserts include warm chocolate and mint ice-cream, blackberry parfait with white chocolate and sablé biscuit and cheese with spiced apple and caraway crackers. As it's the season of mellow fruitfulness, the blackberry wins the beauty contest.
It's an autumn delight, the tangy fruitiness of the parfait playing along with the warm, sensuous white chocolate creme, which has hints of the country and cow parsley about it.
A very impressive meal with smooth, helpful service is marred only mildly by the worst table I've eaten at since school. I always vote for style over content in debates, but not on this occasion.
The table is either an inch too high, or the chairs too low and, on top of this, it's not flat, which means your plate wobbles, or sits at an angle.
This won't stop me coming back, though. The Muddler's Club is up there among the top half-dozen in Belfast, wonky table or not.
Green beans £4
Muddler's Club beer £2.75