Joris Minne: The Oyster Bar
The Mourne Seafood Bar has extended|to bring Northern Ireland foodies another superb dining experience at the right price
Sometimes evolution happens very quickly. It took only a few years for Belfast’s restaurant landscape to be transformed following the arrival of two places to eat — Nick’s Warehouse and Roscoff.
They were the Adam and Eve (sorry for mixing the metaphors) of eating out and they spawned a whole new generation of Euro-class restaurants.
The future would be cool and modern and the choice of three potatoes, buttered slices of a Keady loaf and a pot of tea with your dinner would be banished.
The opening of the Mourne Seafood Bar in Belfast some four years ago had a similar cage-rattling effect on the city. Instead of relying on high-priced fine dining for a quality restaurant experience, the idea was to cut costs, keep things simple and use fabulous locally grown and caught produce.
By introducing the rustic charms of dark wood bistro-style furniture, slick and attentive service offered by cool young people in black aprons, and food from the sea, Northern Ireland was at last going to get its share of low-cost quality that was a feature of just about every town and city in the rest of Europe.
Chef patron Andy Rae, formerly of Roscoff and ever-youthful and enthusiastic, has now extended his reach in the city centre venue and opened the Oyster Bar and cookery school on two floors above the existing seafood bar.
Lots of shiny white tiles give the Oyster Bar a distinct late Victorian, early Edwardian vibe and the cookery school is fully kitted out with high worktops, clear views and plenty of elbow room.
Lunch in the Oyster Bar with culinary savant Chris R on the day it opened showed no signs of teething problems or wobbly service. I had expected to be forgiving and generously spirited, but no need. Everything worked pretty much flawlessly.
Raw, recently shucked and chilled oysters were brought to the table with a choice of very lively mignonette vinaigrette, an appley alternative, Tabasco and lemon.
At this time of the year, oysters are milkier than usual as they are in breeding season. This gives them a mildly heavier, smoother flavour and texture than the clearer, brinier ones you would find in colder months.
Among the oyster choices are Japanese-style, where they are served raw with shredded cucumber, pickled ginger and spiced soy dressing or fried in breadcrumbs to produce a kind of Oyster Rockefeller.
While the oysters are a big draw, naturally enough, the real reason for going to the new bar is the small plates. This very happening restaurant trend has been adopted by Mourne and perfected.
Where else in the world can you order any of the following for £4: peel and eat langoustines with home made mayo (there were nine mid-sized langoustines piled high on the plate); pan-fried crab claws in chilli butter, salt and chilli squid with napa slaw and chilli jam; Thai fish cakes with mango salsa; salmon mayo with lettuce cups and focaccia crisps; crab mayo with the same; scallop ceviche; piri piri prawns and more.
After a dozen oysters we have a couple of small plates of langoustines. Mains of half lobster and a cold seafood platter arrive soon afterwards as a steady rhythm of eat-drink-clear, eat-drink-clear is established.
To get close to the levels of joy and happiness ignited by plates of beautifully cooked fresh seafood, you’d have to dive into the mild waters of Strangford Lough itself.
The half lobster is generous and large, cooked with cream and served with small, hand-cut, skin-on chips and salad. Cooked on the button, the lobster meat is firm and juicy and not overdone. The huge claw provides lots of a more finely textured meat and the lot is delicious.
The cold seafood platter is equally appetising, with choices of oysters, mussels, langoustines and fish served with hunks of dark and earthy wheaten and mayo.
Rae and his business partner Bob McCoubrey, who farms oysters and mussels in Dundrum when he’s not running the sister ship of the same name down there, are committed to creating an experience that, to those who’ve had a taste of it, is addictive.
The Oyster Bar should perform as an overflow facility to the ever-busy Mourne Seafood Bar downstairs. This might relax some of the table-turning rules and diners will feel they can stay on a bit longer. Being chased from the table minutes after finishing your meal has been an issue for regulars and newcomers alike, who complain that nowhere else polices the double shift quite so robustly.
On the other hand, it could be viewed as a democratic and business-aware move on the part of the management to ensure that as many get in to enjoy the food and as much revenue can be generated from the limited space.
Whatever. The Mourne Seafood Bar and its new OysterBar are important to Belfast’s reputation as a classy city-break destination.
Only a century ago hungry Belfast folk scavenged the shores for oysters and shellfish as a last resort.
Now the restaurant has brought the fruits of the sea to us, and what delicious pleasures they bring.
Pint Oyster Stout x 2 £6.50
Dozen oysters £13.50
Langoustines small plate x 2 £8
Half lobster £9
Seafood platter £10.50
Bottle Picpoul £17.50
Mourne Seafood Bar, 34-36 Bank Street,
Belfast BT1 1HL. Tel: 028 9024 8544