Restaurant review: We take a bite out of Maisons
Mary Street, Rostrevor. Tel: 028 4173 8281
Raymond McArdle is one of the great heroes of the Irish restaurant sector. His combative approach to business and cooking is matched by a tremendous sense of loyalty to his staff. He is supportive and encourages his young chefs and managers to strive to be the best.
But sometimes with that dedication and unflinching confidence and strong leadership a degree of mission creep can enter the equation due to the absolutism of the man in charge. That absolutism may be so rigid that cracks can appear in the actual quality of what is being presented because of an oversight: the diner.
McArdle has scored big culinary hits in the last two decades. He created the reputation for Nuremore as a high-class restaurant 15 years ago. He subsequently opened excellent restaurants in Belfast, Tyrone and Warrenpoint.
Now he's back in his home town, Rostrevor, and the new Maisons restaurant is around the corner from where he lives. The charming and robust early-19th century double-fronted house sits in the middle of Rostrevor, which on a sunny day could pass for a north Italian village.
The exterior's cosy appeal shouts comfort and warmth, but the interior is something a bit more austere. It's more youth hostel canteen than £40-per-head Great British Menu quality.
But what disappoints the most is that not all the food is a hit. This is the man whose extraordinary "stout" soup seduced Matthew Fort, Pru Leith and Oliver Peyton. It was a lesson in innovation and daring: a truffle soup with bacon mousse, done up to look exactly like a little pint of Guinness. The colours were exquisite and the flavours out of this world. There is none of this magic, or flair, in Maisons.
What there is includes a promising and classic McArdle provocation: "Injected fried duck doughnut with smoked Thornhill duck and duck ketchup". The name itself makes it irresistible. But the actualite is a stodgy, tasteless dough ball inside which there lurks some confit.
The confit is good, as are the strips of smoked breast adorning the top of it. The duck ketchup isn't bad, but it isn't very assertive and could be mistaken for some tomato paste.
On the other hand, a barbecued fillet of Kilkeel mackerel is sweet and pearly. There is absolutely none of the acrid, tongue-searing bitterness which often accompanies a poorly treated mackerel.
Crispy fried squid is on the greasy side and the batter too heavy; it does little justice to the well-cooked and fresh white meat within. An accompanying dipping sauce would help matters.
The mains are a different story, however. A slow-cooked mediterannean-style lamb with tomato and grated olive is interesting and tasty. There might have been more emphasis on the olive flavours, which are as deep as the lamb's, but their appearance is restricted to a sprinkle of grated crumbs on the side of the dish.
The hake is glistening and just remembering the look of it on the adviser's plate after she lifted the beautiful dark skin from the meat makes me salivate. It is bright and glossy, flaking under the knife.
Accompanying vegetables of petit pois, snow peas and broccoli, all perfectly al dente and the most glorious verdant green, make a huge impression. Roast chicken comes with a gravy which is beautifully balanced and displays Raymond McArdle's real talent for flavour.
Desserts are entertaining and the peach melba with panacotta is one of the oddest, yet most appetising dishes I've seen. A perfectly symmetrical affair in a large glass bowl revealing the panacotta at the bottom, precision-placed raspberries around the sides and then the peach atop a thick foam like a big orange emergency button you hit with your fist on your way to the lifeboats.
Maisons deserves a visit because Raymond McArdle is brilliant. He just needs to prove he can put enough wow factor on the table to take our minds off the decor, because even at £19 for three courses, you still can't help think that it's dear for what it is. And it's his fault for raising expectations after what he did with Restaurant 23.
Squid (x2) £8.00
Duck doughnut (x2) £8.00
Hake (x2) £22.00
Chicken (x2) £22.00
Bottle La Grille £21.00
Chocolate millefeuille £4.00
Peach melba £4.00
Coke (x2) £3.80
Diet Coke £1.90
Lrg sparkling water £3.50