Restaurant review: The Muddler's Club in Belfast
1 Warehouse Lane. Belfast. Tel: 028 9031 3199
The Muddlers Club is about to mark its second birthday. In the 24 months since it opened it has impressed a long list of fusspots and difficult diners to become so beloved and respected it is now considered by many as a sort of OX alternative.
For some it has in fact become OX 2.0 only with chips. But on closer analysis that's unfair to both chefs Gareth McCaughey in Muddlers and Stevie Toman in OX. There is a link, of course. They both worked together in OX before Gareth went off to plough his own furrow. There is an attention to detail which is shared by both, a sense that excellence is key and, if I'm not mistaken, a mildly menacing but unspoken threat that neither organisation will tolerate failure. They're both that good.
Yet Muddlers' appeal over OX is its barely perceptibly more informal touch (the chips) and the less frequent use of flower petals, foams and lardo. Not everyone agrees with me. OX occupies a unique position as a restaurant which also serves meat. Vegetables and plants are the number one consideration and Stevie's mentor-in-chief, Parisian triple star chef Alain Passard, has instilled in him a devotion to greens.
Gareth respects this and also treats his veg with huge respect. There are beautiful bubble-wrap-like leaves of cavolo nero (black cabbage), pulses and heritage tomatoes but they play a close second fiddle to the loins of lamb, filets of turbot and beef, duck breasts and sweet breads. And of course, there are those chips. Triple cooked, big fat jobs with fluffy interiors and golden brittle on the outside.
Two years on, has Muddlers settled into itself and become comfortable? Well, yes but only from the punter's perspective. There's no sign of complacency from the kitchen, nor is there anything but devoted and charming attention from the front of house staff. It is as close to the ideal restaurant experience as anyone could hope for. At lunchtime, it, like OX, is affordable and yet very special. Churchill talked about the ideal dining companion being a good maitre d'. He'd have been very happy here.
The consistency of Muddlers has been bulletproof and apart from the short chairs and high tables issue at the beginning (which made all of us feel like we were nine again), something which has since been happily resolved, the restaurant is more impressive than ever before.
A recent visit with a posh PR woman from London left me in no doubt that it is places like Muddlers which give Belfast its now international reputation as a foody destination. Matthew Fort may have repeated his line that Belfast is 10 years behind the curve once too often. Because according to this PR, Tom Parker Bowles of the Mail on Sunday, a number of top Dublin critics and many more from further afield, Muddlers stands shoulder to shoulder with the best one-star restaurants around. It's surely only a matter of time now.
An early dinner was needed as the PR woman had an evening flight to catch and this is worth noting: you can have your dinner in Muddlers from as early as 5.30pm. It wasn't quiet either. I had been worried the place would be empty and dead but other diners were in for an early dinner too before gigs or whatever else is on at the moment.
Front of house staff - tipped off that a quick getaway was needed - were on the ball from the start. At no point, however, did they make it feel rushed. Starters of crab, pea, tomato and pasta bisque and seared beef with egg and dill were flawless, packed with flavours and generous. Some chefs achieve impossible heights of flavour intensity and how to squeeze the kind of power from seared beef is a tribute to the kitchen and the raw materials.
Spiced lamb with romesco is a risky joy, the romesco sauce usually being paired with fish. Here, it takes you on a trip to the eastern Mediterranean and into hot and dusty climes, the lamb blackened but juicy and tender.
Turbot with Iberico ham, olive and courgette is another trip south and equally sensational.
Sometimes I wish I could find a fault just so that I don't sound so sycophantic. But I can't. Even the chips are bloody perfect. So there. Take it from me. The Muddlers Club is unmissable.
Crab and pea £10.00
Seared beef £9.00