Restaurant review: Margot - 18 Donegall Square East Lower Ground Belfast
You've got to hand it to Mark Beirne. He gets it right every time. If Mr Beirne was in London or New York he'd have a much bigger palette to work with and I bet he'd be up there with the likes of Corbin and King (The Wolseley, Brasserie Zedel, Colbert, etc) and Keith McNally (Brasserie Balthazar, Pastis, Café Luxembourg), such is his talent for good design, service and matching food.
What is most impressive about him is that he manages to create attractive and hip restaurants and bars in lil' ol' Belfast which is notorious for its demand for trained restaurant workers and its very limited leisure development potential.
Years in the business which saw Beirne develop and deliver Tatu, Miel et Moi, Ciro, Sweet Afton and more recently, with Jim Conlon, the Jailhouse and Henry's Bar in Joy's Entry, have proven his ability time and again. Belfast would be a much more modest place without these pubs, lounges and restaurants.
Yet strike again he has and this time its bang in the heart of the city on Donegall Square East.
Famous for the bus drivers' former dark underground playroom and also for the neighbouring Basement bar, Margot now fills the windowless space with a charming, stripped back, bare bricked bar restaurant with good soundtracks and charming servers.
Descending into the bowels of this fabulously atmospheric Georgian edifice, a building which would have faced the original Linen Exchange which was demolished to make way for the City Hall, you get a real sense of louche pleasure and escape from the daylight and real world. Subversive and underground go hand in hand.
Yet there's nothing seedy here. Cool yes, but unsettling, mildly threatening or hostile, no. There is a Persian carpet here, some bare concrete floor, there are tables, chairs, high stools, high risers and even high booths plus lots of dark corners (which some of you will be flocking to) but everywhere is comfortable and modishly retro.
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The menu is pubby and buzzy, uncomplicated and appetising.
Grilled langoustines, spatchcocked chicken, scampi, pork belly bites are just the kind of thing you want at lunch or a light midweek dinner. There is a rich vein of vegan and veggie healthiness running through the menu and my celiac rear gunner today is hugely impressed with the gluten-free list of options.
None of the "well, if we take away the bap from the burger and the pasta from the spaghetti carbonara and the toast bits from the club sandwich, you should be safe enough" shoulder-shrugging here.
Instead, a careful and considerate walk through the options making very clear what is and what isn't possible.
The list of flatbreads, for instance, is a no-no, but apart from that, just about everything else is possible.
And that spatchcock chicken is excellent having marinated long enough and grilled robustly well to create char and retain moisture. Gunner says he loves it. The halved langoustines have been briefly grilled and have a smoky cayenne bite.
They sit atop a lush little mound of linguine shot through with grilled courgettes, tomato sauce, ricotta and dill. It is lively and sparky and demands a decent glass of chardonnay which they sell by the glass.
Cocktails are a key Margot feature and today's millennials take this kind of thing very seriously. Which means therefore that you will find Margot's own spin on the Irish coffee. Drinks here are "curated".
I know this is a bit self-conscious but I much prefer the approach given a bit of polish than a sloppy pint flung at you by an unhappy and insolent bar tender. Margot's posh drinks are served by people who have embraced the whole mixology thing and transform having a drink into an occasion.
This is to be welcomed. It may be an expensive way to enjoy yourself, but it heralds an unspoken, disciplined maturity which moves us away from the culture of banging volumes of drink in as quickly as possible for a result.
It's a cool, confident and very Belfast kind of place.
Long may Margot be with us.
Grilled langoustines and linguine..................................£11.50
Glass of Chardonnay...........................£6