Restaurant 23 review: Raymond McArdle should never be overlooked as one of the greats
Balmoral Hotel, 13 Seaview, Warrenpoint. Tel: 028 4175 3222.
Eating out is a risky game. You can never be sure if it's going to be brilliant, hopeless or in between. I hate the in-between experience almost more than the bad one.
There's nothing more deflating than having to pay for a meal that is not bad enough to send back but which is so mediocre, it has sucked the life out of a moment you had been looking forward to.
Eating out, in modest places like Slums or Boojum or fancy brasseries like Meat Locker or James Street South, should be a moment of joy and celebration, a pleasure and an indulgence.
Thankfully, joy and indulgence were abundant this week in Restaurant 23 in Warrenpoint. Three courses for under £17, and each one a diamond.
Restaurant 23 is on the first floor of the Balmoral Hotel, whose address, challengingly, is 13 Seaview. You can get a table at the window with the view, but book early: it's in big demand.
Raymond McArdle, however, doesn't rely on the view for his success. In fact, he could relocate 23 anywhere, at the back of a sewage plant, next to an abattoir or a government department, and I'd still go.
That's because the enfant terrible of Northern Ireland's culinary community is brilliant. The brilliance comes out in expletives and profanities most of the time, he's mustard that way, but he's also creative, committed and commanding.
The creativity shines through in his Great British Menu-winning truffle soup with bacon mousse, done up to look exactly like a little pint of Guinness. The colours are exquisite and the flavours are out of this world. It's also very sensual.
The soup is dark beneath the cloud of bacon mousse. As you put it up to your mouth you realise it's as much about the scent as it is the flavours. There are hints of miso, seaweed, Marmite and Bovril and breathy, musky truffles that smell rude and taste of adultery. And you have to drink this through the mousse, which is fully flavoured but not overpowering. It's not so much a soup as a sex toy. If you're planning a swingers' party, you need to call McArdle for a few gallons of this stuff.
Gurnard, a fish I loathe, has been transformed into a beautiful white nugget of firm, glistening slipperiness under a crispy black and silvery skin. Gone is the usual translucent grey and glutinous texture I normally see. He serves it on a bed of tomato and bean ragout.
The advisor is enchanted by her pork belly and tempura prawn starter and then stops talking when the rib-eye arrives with a bearnaise that has been boosted with horseradish. She says it's heavenly. Everything is good. Breads include little dark brown treacle wheaten loaves covered in oats and tennis ball-sized baps of light brioche. Roast chicken with root vegetables and rump of lamb, pink, succulent and accompanied by baby roast parsnips and a roundel of fondant potato, the whole lot infused with just the merest hint of mint in the lamb jus, are all memorable.
Desserts of lemon ice-cream slider and an Oreo with peanut butter ice-cream maintain the quality standards. The slider wafers are a couple of well judged mille-feuille pastry sheets that crack and shatter into the ice-cream.
We are transfixed by all this and, meanwhile, the restaurant is buzzing away quietly and happily, floor staff doing their thing with no fuss and plenty of warmth and care.
Raymond McArdle should never be overlooked as one of the greats. I remember him back in Roscoff, Deanes at Helen's Bay and then the Nuremore.
He came up the hard way but his support of young chefs is exemplary (James Devine in the Black Cat, Trevor Cunningham, Danni Barry and Andy McFadden are among many who have worked with him in the past) and he has an evangelical love of food and restaurants.
And I'm a now a devoted disciple.
Three-course lunch x 4: £67.80
Bottle red wine: £22