The marriage of loucheness and cheeriness has always been an attractive one. Who can resist the charms of twinkly-eyed cowboy rogues Ben Murphy and Pete Duel, who starred in Alias Smith and Jones?
These two epitomised the model of cheeky thieving mischief-makers who always stopped to help the old lady across the street on the way to rob the bank?
For a person to be described as naughty but nice is to bless them with a loveable and cheeky magnetism. It’s a phrase that always comes to mind when I look at the Malmaison hotel in Belfast. Dark as a night in hell, the interior of this former Victorian granary designed in the style of a Venetian palazzio, has the kind of allure you might associate with a high class Bangkok brothel.
Yet, the pleasant and helpful staff quickly dispel any such notion, particularly when you visit the Malmaison restaurant at lunchtime and a little daylight casts some colour on the walls.
The restaurant is surprising not just because at this time of the day you can actually see the six magnificent cast-iron pillars holding up the beamed ceiling high above or the warm dark panelling, booths and banquettes providing a sense of intimacy in a hundred corners. It is surprising also because the food served here is delicious, well thought out, local and elegant. It is, however, nearly empty.
The glorious surroundings, reminiscent of a Madrid bodega, make the appetite grow and the menu printed on a broadsheet of heavy paper is that informal yet slick olde-worlde style you’ll see in marvellous places like Café Balthazar in New York. There’s a nice informative bit at the back of this sheet that tells you something about the producers who supply Malmaison and includes Ewing’s fish, Hannan meats, Kettyle Irish Foods, Larrousse and Get Fresh (fruit and veg). It’s a nice touch because most top chefs are quick to publicly acknowledge the quality of the produce they work with when they receive compliments.
Indecision quickly sets in — always the sign of a good menu — and I wrestle over the asparagus spears served with poached egg and truffle vinaigrette of crispy pig cheek with new season peas and sauce gribiche. I explain the dilemma to the server who immediately exploits my weakness, sees a good thing and suggests I have both: the cheek first and the asparagus as a side dish later.
My friend Chris has gone with the citrus cured salmon from Ewing’s served with corn and dill blini and honey mustard dressing.
Both arrive quickly and soon the textures and flavours of the breadcrumbed pig cheek, the size and feel of a Scotch egg, are providing great joy. The dry exterior and flaky meat within, bursting with strong porkiness, are made all the more fabulous thanks to the buttery, creamy gribiche with chopped boiled egg and peas. It is a brilliant starter, having ignited a greater hunger still.
The 35-day aged rib-eye cooked rare is delivered soon after (with that asparagus starter on the side) and the lunch turns into a silent party — Chris, who is having the rump steak and frites, and I are too focused to speak.
There should always be a place for steak and chips on a Friday lunchtime, and while it may sound easy enough to get right, it really is down to good raw materials and sensitive cooking.
Belfast is very good at this. The city’s restaurants that serve steak frites here are top quality and while it’s not cheap — Malmaison’s rib-eye and frites comes in just under £20 – it is something for which the city could be developing a reputation. Belfast, steak capital of Europe.
The asaragus is slightly undercooked — although you might like it this crunchy, the half dozen steamed spears need to be a bit softer to yield to the egg yolk.
Malmaison doesn’t just do good steaks, however. The menu includes Clonakilty black pudding spring roll with pickled ginger and chilli jam, free-range chicken (served with chickpea tagine and couscous), artisan sausage, merguez, trout fillet, Fermanagh pork loin and so on.
The restaurant is a quality operation, the service is attentive, instinctive even, and there is a mood of calm and serenity once you get over the decadence of the dark velvet decor. The darkness is, frankly, exciting. As Anne Widdecombe might have said: it has a touch of the night about it.
Pig cheek £6.95
Steak frites £17.45
Tomato & onion salad £3.25
Large sparkling water x 2 £8
Hospitalet pinot noir, glass £6.50
34-38 Victoria Street, Belfast BT1 3GH.
Tel: 028 9022 0200