Restaurant review: The MAC Cafe Bar in Belfast
St Anne's Square, Belfast. Tel: 028 9023 5053
Running a restaurant in a theatre, art gallery, museum or concert hall is probably the toughest challenge for any caterer. Opening times, quiet moments during shows, private functions and weird licensing laws here combine to make this form of business as specialist as some of the art displayed and performed in these centres.
So it was no surprise to see some recent changes of personnel and operation in a variety of museums and arts centres.
The excellent Yellow Door restaurant and cafe in the Ulster Museum departs after close to 10 years.
It will be replaced by Compass, the international catering company which already services many of national museums of Northern Ireland's other customer-facing operations.
Exceptionally, NOW Group, the social enterprise behind the Loaf Cafe on Belfast's Grosvenor Road and the Bobbin Cafe inside City Hall, will take over the cafeteria at Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh, a very welcome development (their sausage rolls are unparalleled).
The MAC in Belfast has also made changes to its catering operation taking the function in-house without recourse to outside operators. I write as a member of the trading company board of the MAC which decided on this strategy and which consequently brings me closer to the hospitality business than at any point in my career so far. It's a commercial decision based on the need to raise more revenues in the light of plummeting public funding for the arts.
You want art, music and drama? Drink and eat more at the MAC!
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Now in its second month, the MAC Cafe Bar has appointed chef Terry Quinn and manager Owen Ferguson. Breakfasts are on from 8.30am. If these are as good as the lunch I had there this week, then the value for money will be hard to beat.
An Ulster fry (sausage, bacon, egg, soda, potato farl, tomato and black pudding) is £7.50.
You might be in one of the most innovative and experimental arts centres in Ireland, but nobody messes with the Ulster fry's constitutional parts. Smoked salmon with toasted sour dough and scrambled egg (£6.50); pancake stacks, avocado toast (feta and mint included and you can add a poached egg) and breakfast bap are also here to keep the art lover's fervour alert and nourished.
The lunch menu is equally straightforward with soup, croque monsieur, seafood chowder, burgers and loads of vegetarian and gluten-free options.
Today, I've reinstated my Tuesday lunch with talented Sunday Life editor Martin Breen. He knows plenty about food but prefers to write about gun gangs, sex scandals and other mischief; we have a pleasant argument over whether food columns or drug dealer stories sell more papers. I win.
Today's specials list features three dishes. One is vegan and the other two are fish. Terry Quinn, it turns out, knows how to do fish.
The clear evidence of this is the pan roasted salmon with butter cauliflower, the lightest, fluffiest and moistest champ and unctuous butternut puree.
The whole combination is perfect. The salmon skin is as brittle as a good creme brulee, the pink meat beneath bright, glossy and absolutely flawless. I could have eaten this for the rest of the week.
The editor's seabass fillets are grilled, generous and plentiful, and accompanied by wilted greens, fresh and glistening butter sauce and a Thai-style fishcake which is deep and filling. Both of us are frankly enchanted.
The faff of sitting down, going through the menu and then going back up to the bar to order the food was worth it.
The vegan dish was a five-grain superfood salad with avocado, pink grapefruit, pomegranate and freekeh seeds.
Staff are cheerful and welcoming. Also, the dining room, once cursed by a hanging gale due to the poorly functioning double door, has now become a warm, draught-free and comfortable space. We top this with a shared homemade tiffin (Terry's tiffin!) which is by far enough for two.
The MAC restaurant is back; it now competes with its high-quality neighbours in St Anne's Square and there's something about enjoying a fry in the knowledge that you are surrounded by some of the most avant-garde arts in the land.
Specials x 2 £27.90
Bottle Chardonnay £17
Coffees x 2 £5