Joris Minne: The Malt Room
Belfast's newest culinary odd couple are a match made in heaven for diners and charity as hospitality and flavours hit right note
Those internet photographs of fierce leopards cuddling up to baby monkeys, rottweilers with a kitten on their heads and ducks on a lead held by an alligator give us hours of amusement, but they have nothing on Belfast's newest odd couple.
The restaurant business surprise of the year has been the joint venture between quietly-spoken peer Lord Diljit Rana and culinary wildchild Raymond McArdle.
McArdle has been at the top of his game for 20 years, but he has lost none of the fervour, the edge-of-reason commitment and eye-popping, vein-busting, fork-gripping passion of his youth. Rana is rich. It's a perfect match.
The magic ingredient binding this potent mix should promise to keep things on track: the restaurant is intended to benefit Barnados. Regular readers may remember a previous review of Dr B's, the popular café/restaurant in Belfast's Bridge Street.
This excellent café doubles as a training centre for young people with learning difficulties and you'll not find a more dedicated team of chefs intent on getting their trainees out into the 'real' world. McArdle has provided a route to this real world for many years, recruiting staff from Dr B's and getting them into commercial operations and earning a wage.
So the Malt Room is a good thing. But is it any good?
My wingman today is from Tyrone. He has enjoyed and eschewed dinners in some of the best restaurants in the world. We are both a bit suspicious about the Malt Room and its motives. But within seconds of sitting down, the distinct impression is one of honed hospitality.
You can see the kitchen and head chef David Mageean very clearly from most points in the dining room and the servers are on full, but friendly, alert. The grey interior and lighting create a steely, silvery atmosphere. Trompe l'oeil wall paintings and ornate post-Victorian decorations imbue the place with a compelling Lemony Snicket mood.
The downstairs room retains the same layout as the former Bourbon, with a little raised dais, intimate, high-seated booths and round tables. Upstairs, the natural daylight creates a spectacular effect, playing off the grey, silver and red colours. It is striking.
A simple menu offers two courses for £12 and includes six promising starters. There is roast spiced pear, sliced pata negra ham with hazelnuts and malt toast, Leggygowan goat's cheese gratin with onion petals and puree, gingerbread croutons and rocket, and a few other equally intriguing and very Paul Ainsworth-style dishes.
Tyrone has the day's potato and leek soup, whch provides the first surprise. A shallow bowl dotted with six roundels, three of potato and three of leek, is set before him. He's been having a rough day and I'm thinking he might kick off now. But the server then pours a jug of creamy green soup over the lot. We both enjoy the showbiz in this quirky little act. The flavours and soft, but firm, textures in the roundels play well with the salty soup. It is a success.
I have ham and egg, which involves a crystal clear glass bowl half filled with potted ham flakes in horseradish and herbs on top of which sits the 'crispy poached egg'. Defying the simplest laws of physics, the poached egg is soft and runny, with the breadcrumbs on the outside crispy. It's a small miracle. Again, the flavours are outstanding.
The fish special is hake on a bed of crab and shrimp, with added prawn veloute in a little jug on the side. The generous hunk of hake is fresh, firm and frankly flawless and the bed on which it lies luscious and plentiful. Two finger-sized spring rolls are packed tightly with shrimp. It's a delight.
A bill of £12 for this makes The Malt Room December's unexpected sensation and it's a tough month to be competing, with quality newcomers like Howard Street around the corner.
If this level of quality is maintained and the show hasn't just been put on for Tyrone and myself, then what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is something quite extraordinary. And the picture of Rana and Raymond doesn't feel so odd any more.
2 course lunch x 2............................ £24
Double espresso £3.80
Bottle of Prosecco £17
Great Victoria Street, Belfast.
Tel: 028 9031 0008