Restaurant review: Malmaison Hotel, Belfast
34-38 Victoria Street. Tel: 084 469 30650
Failing to highlight local produce comes as a disappointment in a place that once proudly championed the best of Northern Ireland.
The Malmaison hotel in Belfast is housed in one of the most impressive industrial buildings in the city. Designed and built more than 130 years ago, the former granary looks like a delicate Venetian palazzo yet, judging by the stout iron pillars holding up the high ceilings, it's clearly sturdy enough to withstand hundreds of tons of best Ulster grain.
The rooms are dark as a night in hell. They are atmospheric and sexy as a result. There is a very faint sniff of posh seediness about the whole place; it's a bit racy, exciting and mysterious and you feel anything could happen in that intimate and elegant bar.
But the fantasy ends abruptly at the door to the ground-floor restaurant which looks like an Amish joiner's workshop. Whereas the rest of the place might be geared for romance and intimacy, dinner here is less than conducive to any hanky-panky. It will not have the aphrodisiacal qualities one might have hoped for. Not until someone answers that phone which chirruped incessantly throughout dinner.
Four years ago, the last time I reviewed it, a menu which boasted more locally sourced produce than most restaurants in the north stood proudly and prominently on an easel in the hotel lobby.
The menu was unusual in that it told you a lot about the suppliers: producers such as Ewing's fish, Hannan meats, Kettyle food and Get Fresh fruit and vegetables were all profiled and their stories were told compellingly.
But now it's all Wye Valley asparagus, Westcombe cheddar and Ayrshire bacon. Admittedly, Wye Valley asparagus is very good but what's a visitor to think coming to Belfast, home of the best mid-range restaurants in Western Europe and Malmaison is cooking mussels in Meantime beer from London?
I am not a local food nazi (some of it really is not worth the effort), but there is a distinct advantage in the tourism business to putting regional produce on the table. It's what visitors (and increasingly locals) want.
So if the fish is supplied by Keenan's and the meat is from Carnbrooke, they should say so, particularly as the menu is almost identical to the Malmaison Birmingham, Manchester and others which gives rise to suspicion. (Seeing as the "Moules Meantime" were destroyed anyway by overcooking, you might well say the reputation of the local stuff did not suffer by being identified.)
Dinner at the Malmaison used to be expensive, but value for money. Now it's just expensive. I took four visitors from across the water there last week and immediately felt a shiver of anxiety.
You're never going to worry about how things will pan out when you go to dinner in James Street South, Boojum, or All Seasons. It's hard to nail exactly what the problem is: that unanswered phone, the hesitance of floor staff, the menu price range which hints at something flawless?
By the time orders had gone in and their delivery some 40 minutes later, I had a fair idea that all was not well and my nerves were shredded. That said, there were few complaints about the quality of the food when it eventually appeared. I had gone for the cheaper "Summer of Mal" menu and was disappointed.
A sea bass ceviche with chicory tacos, pink grapefruit, coriander, fresh lime and red chilli had everything but the fish. I found a tiny scrap of translucence which might have been fish, but couldn't be sure.
Those mussels had shrunk from neglect into miserable little pieces of used chewing gum. The pommes frites were wilted and soft.
But the rest was good. The four guests were happy with their roast cod, satisfied by the fish pie and complimentary about the scallops. The server's choice of wine, a £35 chardonnay, was a good call.
Eating at Malmaison is a strange, out-of-Belfast experience. They use local suppliers, but focus instead on telling us about the imported stuff. That Meantime beer, for instance, features heavily across the menu: there's Meantime cod 'n' chips; onion rings Meantime and the mussels. And you can't order a glass of it.
It comes down to missed expectations. A slight rewrite of the menu (and sharper eye on those mussels), tighter and more confident service and a mild refurbishment of the dining room and this place could be back to what it was in no time.
Sea bass ceviche £8.00
Scallops (x3) £37.50
Ahi tuna tartare £9.50
Moules Frites Meantime £14.50
Roast cod £16.00
Tuna mignon £18.00
Fish pie (x2) £30.00
Bottle Chardonnay (x2) £70.00