Joris Minne: Hooligan
It’s got a punky interior, hit-and-miss food and staff with attitude. Just make sure you visit the cash machine before you arrive ...
It’s good to know and wise to assume that when you complain in a restaurant following a crap meal, poor service or draughty by-the-bog-door seating, you may be likely to get a mouthful of invective back. As a sector, restaurants in Europe by and large have turned their collective backs on the broadly accepted norm that the customer is always right. Even Gordon Ramsay, whose mantra of not putting on a plate what he wouldn’t pay for as a diner, has a few things to say about citizens’ charters.
In Northern Ireland, however, old habits die hard and a diner faced with a bowl of vomit-inducing effluent so repulsive even a sewage treatment plant would reject it on the grounds of public safety, will still nod happily that everything’s grand, thanks very much.
Some restaurants rely on this collective reluctance for their continued survival. This explains why there are still too many places getting away with over-priced, sub-standard service.
Take Hooligan, the follow-up to the excellent Made in Belfast restaurant. Hooligan opened in Talbot Street in early June and I phoned to book a table. A booking for 6pm that same evening was taken by Timmy over the phone. Timmy was a delight and using all his charm to fill the place up: “Looking forward to seeing you if there’s anything I can do ”
If you are familiar with Made in Belfast, then you will quickly feel at home in Hooligan. Made in Belfast, beside the City Hall, looks like a Presbyterian church that has been torched and then restored by Satan. The same sensitive approach has been applied to Hooligan’s interior.
Glued to the walls — and just about every other surface including some of the chairs and the ceilings — are lots of old commercial signs and bits of scrap paper with hand-written scribbles on them, cut-out words randomly pasted here and there and pages from magazines and books defaced with marker pens used as wallpaper. The furniture and fittings look like poor salvage from a township dump and it feels dead rebellious and punky. To a point.
The thing is that when staff actually do put up notices for toilets and fire escapes or to warn customers that their card machine isn’t working and it’s cash-only, we tend to walk right past them obliviously, assuming perhaps that the scraps of cardboard on which they are written are part of the mad-fab décor.
Therefore at the end of the meal when the bill was requested and I presented the card, the announcement about the broken card machine came as a surprise. “You can walk to the cash-point.” What if I’m in a wheel chair? What if I took my full daily cash allowance out earlier? “There are two notices as you come in the door.” And why did the lovely, helpful Mr Timmy not say anything about this when I booked it?
That might be because the place is only new and Hooligan would rather get the punters in at any cost rather than risk losing them with an early warning down the phone when making a reservation. If they don’t come in, then that’s Hooligan’s problem. If they’ve sat down and had their meal, it’s the diners’ problem.
We cobbled together what cash we had in the end but on the way out I quietly gave off to the woman in charge of front of house. I could tell this was a sensitive point by the way her face turned away and curdled. Face-pulling maitres d’ are one thing, but to express displeasure behind the customers’ back yet within the adviser’s military-grade line of sight shows daftness if not complete disregard for their own safety.
Whatever ... was the food any good? Not as good as Made in Belfast. Potted duck with sourdough toast looked fabulous. The texture was pure rillettes and the pot generous, but not a grain of salt nor any visible seasoning meant the starter was as tasteless as it was chilly.
A Bangla burger of Asian-spiced lamb with tomato and coriander chutney, mint yoghurt and chips was altogether more exciting and accomplished. The burger was a deep-yellowy patty of solid-packed mince and displayed the might of the curries and spices within.
The Tamworth pork chop with bubble and squeak might as well have been from a regular Cookstown pig for all the difference the flavour made. This is a disappointment because the excellent chicken and rib-eye steaks are from the supremely reliable Kettyle’s Irish Foods in Fermanagh.
The chicken here, served as a half-bird for £13.95, which is dear, is as good as in the mother ship (and by far enough for two chicken-loving children). The rib-eye tastes like a proper aged, dry and iron-packed meat with lots of flavour and not too much chew.
The rhubarb, apple and hazlenut crumble was, however, magnificent and worth all the discomfort. The nuts are a fabulous addition. Where everything is warm, liquid, sweet and fibrous, the occasional crunch on the nut is a welcome entertainment.
The very good Rhubarb, Harlem and Macau restaurants all operate, or did when I went, without card machines and clearly communicate this at the time of booking. It never puts anybody off from going back because diners who know the craic are happy diners.
Half pint prawns x 2 £13.90
Potted duck £6.95
Half roast chicken x 2 £27.90
Tamworth pork chop £12.95
Bangla burger £9.95
Sauvignon blanc £14
Fanta x 2 £3.80
Red stripe beer £3.50