When we walked up those stairs on Friday evening to the Merchant Hotel, it never crossed our minds that we wouldn’t be coming back down them for almost six hours. Or that we be quite so blown away in the hours between.
We started our little tour with a cocktail at the Bar. As soon as you are seated in the gorgeous room, a £10 cocktail doesn’t seem quite such an expense. You can see why this place is winning international awards and recognition - it has to be a blog post in itself some day…
A couple of drinks dusted off, we relocated next door into The Great Room itself for dinner. The Merchant have done a great job in making the restaurant feel intimate inside the cavernous space. Hosted on a slightly raised platform, the dining room is divided by plush barriers that reduce the sight lines and direct your attention to the dome above.
Above: Amuse-bouche: Chicken liver and foie gras parfait
In the mood for something a bit special, we headed straight for the tasting menu which commenced (as these things should…) with a bitesize amuse; a finger of toast heaped with a wedge of chicken liver parfait. A petit plate of perfection. We will be attempting Executive Chef Tony’s recipe on Christmas Day…
Above: Poached salmon ballotine, beetroot puree, cucumber jelly, poppy seed vinaigrette (T’Air d’oc Sauvignon Blanc, Domaine de Gayda, France, 2009)
This dish was a showcase of the natural taste of untouched salmon. In contrast, the cucumber jelly flavour was intense, like a whole cucumber was packed into the little cube. The roe and dash of caviar atop the salmon afforded a little salty seasoning.
Above: Roast quail breast, black pudding puree, soda bread crisp, poached quail egg, carbonara sauce (Stoneleigh Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2009)
Onto heartier things, the roast quail was sat in an indulgent carbonara sauce. The egg was cooked with a precise touch - firm, then bursting golden yolk when cut open, adding to the richness.
Above: Caramelised Kilkeel scallops, sweetcorn puree, watercress, Alsace jus (Infinitus Gewurtztraminer, Castilla, Spain 2009)
This course took the biggest, fattest, most perfectly cooked scallop and - thank god - paired it with something other than cauliflower purée. The scallop, bacon and sweetcorn all came together to evoke a deconstructed seafood chowder.
Above: Champagne sorbet
Bridging the starters and mains came this little bite. Refreshing, lightly sweet and with a healthy hit of booze. The whole meal was well paced, these lulls giving a chance to take in the splendour of the room and catch up with the wine pairings.
Above: Herb buttered turbot, wild mushroom, truffle tortellini, artichoke puree, cep veloute (Saam Mountain Chenin Blanc, Paarl, South Africa 2010)
Those of you aren’t into swapping plates have a choice to make: fish or beef. A tough one, as together they would complete an ideal tasting. The fish dish celebrates earthy flavours; the turbot more than capable of standing up to the bursting flavours of the tortellini.
Above: Hereford beef fillet, smoked potato croquettes, wild mushroom, Jerusalum artichoke purée, Cafe de Paris jus (Domaine Gayda Grenache, Languedoc, France 2009)
The beef arrived a plump rare. The rich meat paired well with the mushrooms and sauce, although the minimal Jerusalem artichoke purée rather disappeared into the background.
The only slight misstep for us was the potato croquettes. It seems that once fried they lose the characteristics of whatever went in them and emerged a rather nondescript melange of breadcrumbs and oil. It’s a matter of preference, but we’d love to see something else up against that beef.
Above: Merchant Miniatures: baby toffee apple, walnut ice cream, nougatine parfait, swan shaped profiteroles, apple millefeuille, mint macaroon, chocolate fondant with white chocolate fudge centre, honeycomb garnish (Elysium Black Muscat, California 2008)
On to dessert, and we couldn’t resist the sharing the Merchant Miniatures; a stunningly beautiful plate of treats that give you a tour of the dessert menu.
Although a swan shaped profiterole is really very cute, if we had to pick a favourite it would be the nougatine parfait… but thanks to the miniature plate you can make your own mind up.
Above: The baby toffee apple is so dainty, it deserves it’s own portrait.
The wine throughout the meal was great, but when it came dessert, Elysium Black Muscat seemed rather a safe option that is so ubiquitous in Belfast. We felt a meal like this really deserved something a bit more special.
Above: Chef’s choice of local Irish cheese, apple and vanilla puree, candied walnuts, seasonal chutney (served with a glass of Port)
Cheese. That’s right, you thought it was all over but The Merchant will have none of that. This is about indulgence and luxury, they’re not letting you out until you have to prise yourself out of the seats.
The meal complete, we retired to the Champagne Lounge for a glass of bubbly. Yes, that’s the kind of thing you do at The Merchant. The staff will make you feel like this is the sort of thing you should be doing. It is all just so effortless, you could get used to this…
The Champagne Lounge is a refit of the old members bar. The quiet, chic ambiance offers a retreat from lively atmosphere of the Bar. The lounge also offers glasses of champagne and a cocktail list, so its seems you won’t be limited to the bottles of champagne on offer.
Above: Petit fours: honeycomb, cream fudge… amongst others!
Tea was then served with an impressive set of petit fours - even more impressive was that we managed to dust them all off.
Above: Peppermint tea served with petit fours
Once or twice in these pages we’ve mentioned ‘the old Deanes’ - the old upstairs restaurant that earnt Michael Deane a Michelin star and set a benchmark for Belfast that we haven’t been able to recapture since. Until tonight.
Take away the trappings of The Merchant - the first class service, the world class bar, the joy of a glass of champagne in the new Champagne Bar. Even without these, the tasting menu we enjoyed was one of the finest meals we’ve experienced in Belfast.
Head Chef John Paul Leake has years of experience in Michelin starred kitchens, and with the talent and enthusiasm he exudes in his cooking (paired with the tools The Merchant has equipped him with) it seems more than likely he will be working in Michelin starred kitchen again, sooner or later.
At £60 for food and a further £20 for wines, trust us, this is a bargain price to be treated like royalty.
Would we go back? If we had the time (and the cash and spare liver) we’d be in The Bar every other night. And we’d be checking out the Tasting Menu at least every time it changes. This was the best meal we’ve had in Belfast for years.
Although we can’t vouch for the quality of anything other than the tasting… there are also some promising sounding set menus that come in around the £30 mark. So even if we don’t quite manage to splash out on the tasting every time, I expect we’ll be checking out these and the rest of The Merchant’s charms on a regular basis!
We finally made it. After two unsuccessful attempts to walk in off the street, we finally did the right thing and made a reservation at Shu. Shocking tactic, I know.
Celebrating the fact we had made it further than the hallway, we started by treating ourselves to a couple of cocktails - one in particular deserves a mention, the fabulous ‘Black Jack’. Opal Nera (black sambuca to you and me) with cola and lemon juice and you have successfully created the adult equivalent of that childhood sweet - the Black Jack.
Above: Crispy duck confit, truffle puree
We started with a nice piece of duck, but found it rather lacking when it came to accompaniments. While the website version mentions carrot and orange purée, the version served was lumbered with a dash of gravy and a puree so mild it was immediately overpowered by the full flavoured duck. An adequate, rather than an auspicious start.
Above: Foie gras parfait, spiced pear and raisin chutney, toasted walnut and raisin bread
This was followed by a textbook parfait, beautifully paired with walnut and raisin bread - the only critiscism being that there wasn’t enough of bread; although a quick request to the staff meant another piping hot slice arrived in minutes.
Above: Crispy pork belly, cauliflower purée, potato gratin, cider raisins
Having eaten our way through hundreds of plates of the pork belly/cauliflower combo, we weren’t overly excited at the prospect of trying another - it would have been our loss however, as this proved to be the best main of the evening. A tender roll of pork served with a delicious Dauphinoise and plump cider soaked raisins that were a novel and delicious way to incorporate apple flavours onto the plate.
Above: Roast pigeon, Lapsang Souchong, celeriac purée, girolles
The pigeon dish is mainly memorable for how tender, gamey and almost sweet the meat was - and as with all the plates, the presentation was beautiful.
Above: Sea bass, beetroot and horseradish purée, crushed potatoes, Romanesco, Madeira
When the sea bass arrived, it was like the plate was mocking us… three vegetables that utterly failed to grow in our garden this year were radishes, beetroot and romanesco broccoli. And pumpkins and beans and tomatoes and chillies… But anyhoo, a nice dish showcasing the best of in-season produce.
Above: Amedei chocolate panna cotta, raspberry
Aside from there being nothing particularly panna cotta-ish about what is essentially a chocolate pot - this was a flawless execution of a staple dish. Creamy and sweet chocolate, balanced by the sharp raspberries on top, this will disappoint no-one. Unless they were looking for a panna cotta.
Above: Lemon Tart, crème fraîche
A gloriously sour, baked lemon tart, again there is very little to say. The only thing that prevents this from claiming the accolade ‘perfect’ was the slightly unpleasant papery skin that formed on top where the tart had received the most heat.
Would we go back? If Shu can consistently deliver results like this, it has earned a place on our list of go to spots. These are not wildly dramatic plates, but rather classic flavour combinations delivered with technique and style.
An a la carte meal for one with a glass of wine and a cocktail came in at around £50 including tip. Pre-theatre style offerings on a pared down menu are available at £30, or £55 for two including a bottle of wine.
Note: Since this review went up, we’ve learnt that the chef/owner Joery was away during our visit - so take the below with a pinch of salt.
A bit of menu surfing left us with one conclusion - we had to go to Bangor and try out The Boat House. Having languished for a long time on our ‘must do’ list, the promise of their tasting menu pushed them into the ‘must do now’ list - we were completely sold.
Driving down to the Boat House, you don’t need to worry about parking - the restaurant is affectionally known as ‘the one in the car park’. The building itself is beautiful though - the kitchen housed upstairs, the staff usher you down ‘below decks’ to the charming little dining room below.
Before we get into the food itself, we have to talk about the menu.
With a simple ‘set menu’, a la carte, a 6 course tasting menu and 5 course ‘surprise tasting’ listed, there is a lot of choice. And it all reads very well - so well that we were confident enough to go for the ‘surprise tasting’ to see what the chefs would come up with when given free rein to impress.
The waitress asked if we had any allergies - “Not at all, tell the chef to go crazy!” we replied, looking forward to see what they would rustle up. At this point she should have told us that we might have got the wrong end of the stick. But nothing was said.
Well… “SURPRISE!” The chefs must have thought long and hard about what they could deliver, because out trotted the exact dishes on the a la carte menu. The only difference being was we got a couple of mains, a couple of starters and no choice. Not even anything from the defined tasting menu.
We also observed a ‘Surprise Halloween Tasting Menu’ at a neighbouring table- oh, I wonder what ghoulish treats these guys will come up with? Oh. Right. As we watched the plates arrive, we discovered they were also receiving dishes from the a la carte menu. Such imagination.
A sorry state of affairs when a skilled chef thinks surprise tasting = a la carte x 2.
Above: Irish goats cheese fritter, smoked beetroot, beetroot & goats cheese meringue, beetroot & apple jelly, caramelized hazelnut, poppy seeds, hazelnut dressing
Of course at this point we didn’t know how dreary the surprises would be, so expectations were high.
First out of the kitchen came the bread - it was a close run thing though, as our warm bread arrived a minute ahead of the starters. Not a good thing when you are serving warm brioche.
Along with the pleasant brioche, came a bread roll, butter, fruity olive oil, spiced cream cheese and tapenade. It took us a while to pin point the strange flavour in the green olive tapenade. “Curry!” he exclaimed. He was right as we got it confirmed later when it reared its ugly head again in a later dish.
The first course was a promising start though - this variation on a goats cheese and beetroot salad gave all the classic flavours, along with a twist of innovation. The smoked beetroot added another dimension to the familiar flavours, while the crunch of the meringue added texture and interest.
Above: Thai carrot soup with caramelized sesame seeds
The second course was a beautiful Thai soup. No complaints about the flavour and the addition of chewy, crunch caramelised was heavenly.
Above: Sea bass a la Barigoule, ‘braised onion, carrot and artichoke’, pommes Berny, green pea & basil gel, crispy fried basil
First the good news. A lovely piece of fish, elevated to perfection by the green pea and basil puree. If the kitchen could turn this level of technique to the rest of the meal, I would understand why they have so many plaudits.
Now the bad news. These particular pommes Berny are possibly the worst preparations of potatoes we have ever experienced. Quite how a chef could make these, try these and go on to serve them, I don’t know.
The exterior had the flavour and texture of stale pastry, the interior mash had me reminiscing about school dinners. It is rare that we’ve been served something so inedible.
Above: Oven roasted Fermanagh free range chicken supreme, green olive Dauphinoise, green olive gel, tarragon jus, cauliflower & creme fraiche coulis
The arrival of the chicken course confirmed our worst fears - not only was the ‘surprise menu’ simply a selection of mains, they were the choices we would have been least likely to pick. If they say ‘surprise’ and we say ‘go crazy’ - do not serve chicken supreme and potatoes.
Once over the disappointment of such an unimaginative dish, the chicken and cauliflower was pretty good.
Worse however was the green olive Dauphinoise - yes, it was the return of the green olive tapenade, complete with curry flavouring smeared between the sliced of potato. This is the point where we asked the waiter to confirm the presence of curry. He concurred. I’ve googled for curry tapenade and I can only see it mentioned as a joke in the 2010 A-team film. Let’s keep it in a fictional film. OK?
Above: Cold tonka bean flavoured rice pudding, grilled fig, honey & fig syrup, dry caramel
Having already resigned the savoury courses to the realms of dining out hell, we welcomed the arrival of our dessert. Surprise! It’s the rice pudding from the set menu! Why, Boat House, you are spoiling us!
We love a good rice pudding, so all was not lost… until we took our first bite. Crunch. Chew. Cue picking of teeth. We considered that maybe preparing a rice pudding with barely cooked rice was a daring way of adding texture to this dish. We rejected this notion and left it uneaten.
The dry caramel also added nothing to dish - with a texture somewhere in between clay and chewing gum, the flavour offered little more than a slight sweetness.
But hey, those figs were good!
Above: Chocolate pave ‘Pierre Wijnants’, Advocaat, Italian coffee sphere, milk gel, toasted peanuts
The staff at the Boat House deserve credit for excellent service though - and noting our barely touched desserts, offered us a chance to choose a substitute. Cue the chocolate pave - a final chance to impress…
But alas it was not to be. While a world better than the rice pudding (it was edible), the pave itself had a strange gelatinous texture.
The coffee sphere again hinted at the technical skills that exist in the kitchen - but again fell down when it came to the most important question - does it taste good? The answer here is no - a powerful punch of coffee that was hard to integrate with the context of the rest of the dish as it overpowered anything in its sight. Ugh.
The Advocaat blobs were lovely though - and a wonderful way to pay homage to the Dutch heritage of the owners.
So with the arrival of the bill and a couple of mints we were done. We left disappointed, the only ‘surprise’ of our menu being how poor the meal was overall.
To end on a plus - the wine list was excellent, with particular kudos to an interesting dessert wine list. No ubiquitous Elysium black muscat or Essencia orange muscat in sight. We also enjoyed a dutch ‘small batch gin’ - a really fruity gin. Unfortunately we were trying not drink much (well, one of us was driving…) so we didn’t get to try much of it.
Would we go back? It surprises me to say it, but no. Nothing served today - not even the fish - is worth enduring the rest of the menu. Head across the road to the Salty Dog instead.
Winter is coming.
For the next few months it’s going to be rain, wind, maybe some snow/slush and definitely many hours trawling the shops for those elusive perfect Christmas presents. For us that means one thing - comfort food.
Step forward Mourne Seafood, who have staged their new venture Home as a brief three month popup - obviously hoping to capture some of the deluge of traffic that will be wandering endlessly between Victoria Square and Royal Avenue and who need all the comforts of a home cooked meal to steel themselves for their shopping duties.
The menu reads as purposely straight forward - there is little that is unfamiliar, but much that you know and love. So on a suitably chilly Saturday afternoon we met a bunch of friends, pulled up our uniquely refurbished stools and tucked into a feast of familiar flavours…
We started with the “old school” pea and ham soup, a natural antidote to a cold day - no refinement, just a simple bowl of roughly textured pea soup with a generous scattering of ham. I can’t imagine anyone not being satisfied by the ‘small’ portion we had, but your mileage may vary!
Maybe salads don’t scream ‘comfort food’, but both the ones we tried we comfortably the best dishes of the day. The duck salad, in particular, was so rich that the word ‘salad’ was probably offended to be associated with it.
The classic combo of goat’s cheese and beetroot was also perfectly executed; the crispy fried goats cheese, candied walnuts and caramelised shallots (I think!) again made this into something for a winter’s day.
Our first main was far less successful. The Dexter oxtail cottage pie sounded like it would perfectly capture the ethos of a restaurant called Home, but the reality delivered less you might prepare in your own house.
The oxtail was surprisingly chewy with some of the fat not rendered down, to the point where it was hard to believe it was oxtail at all… If so, a slower braise and more seasoning is urgently needed. The huge bowl was also rather a struggle for anyone to finish, and the bland flavour gave little incentive to do so.
The wild mushroom crusted pork was a different story altogether and was a great example of simple food, cooked well. The meat had the perfect hint of pink and a smothering of mushrooms that immediately evoked autumn. The chips were also good - perfect once dunked in the pepper sauce.
The Home/comfort/familiarity theme couldn’t be more obvious than in the dessert menu which covers all the expected bases: crumble, sticky toffee, panna cotta and chocolate.
Unfortunately the implementations needed a little attention - the crumble tasting more like ‘cinnammon crumble’ than anything to do with apples, and the panna cotta more jelly-like than you might expect (although accompanied by a glorious ANZAC biscuit that should be sold by the box load).
The sticky toffee was a textbook job though - don’t leave without adding this to your meal.
The space itself deserves a nod; reFound have done a wonderful job kitting it out with character and a few oddities - all of which is for sale, leading to the inevitable ‘who has the most expensive chair’ competition. We won by virtue of sitting on a bench - get in!
Would we go back? Home is located so close to Victoria Square, this is the perfect place to grab some comfort food while enduring the inevitable Christmas shopping - not everything is a winner, but there is more than enough to keep us coming back for more.
Around £20 for three courses, BYO booze. Closed Monday 24th October.
Have a look at Manuel’s take on the place with a far better looking cottage pie, and FoodBelfast has a great piece on the whole setup. reFound’s site is well worth a look too - some very tempting stuff on there…
A recent at post about Manresa over at A Life Worth Eating has finally prompted me to dig into the backlog of honeymoon photos and find one of the headline meals of our trip - a 10+ course tasting menu at this two Michelin starred temple of modern Californian cuisine, located in a low rise shopping mall in gloriously suburban Los Gatos (about one hour drive from the centre of San Francisco).
Black olive madeleines and roasted bell pepper pâtes de fruits
Garden beignets, crispy kale, vinegar powder
As this was (wow) almost six months ago, this is pretty much going to fall into the ‘food porn’ category rather than review - and ultimately that is because we found this meal somewhat forgettable. Yes, it was technically flawless, beautifully presented and conceptually interesting… but this ‘review’ is testimony to how memorable the actual dishes were.
That isn’t to say it was bad - and many people rave about it - but six months later I couldn’t actually describe a single dish. For food at this level (and price) that is quite unusual. In fact there are only two things that stay in mind - neither are to do with the food and both are on the negative side.
Above: Abalone jelly
Firstly, the service. We really aren’t ones for the stuffy variety, but here we experienced service so sterile that it was as if we were in the quarantine ward of a military hospital in the 31st century, being tended to by a stream of non-interactive automatons that changed with every course. Maybe some people enjoy that kind of thing, but its not for us.
Above: Into the vegetable garden
Now don’t think we have a general problem with single diners - thanks to work, we both end up eating alone at least once a week in Dublin and quite enjoy it - but please, if you are dining solo, bring a book, a newspaper, an ipod, a laptop; something so that the couple on the table next to you don’t feel like they have a silent intruder just sat at their table listening in, staring into space… And wait staff, do your best to keep couples and single diners apart - seriously, it removes the awkward for everyone!
Above: Steelhead trout, sweet onion and marrow broth with chervil
So, next petty gripe - during the meal we notice our ‘third wheel’ tucking into a wonderful plate of Waygu beef. With ‘Waygu’ listed in our menu we were looking forward to this one… but it never appeared. We asked the waitress who delivered our pre-dessert if we were missing a course - she seemed surprised and found another waiter, who informed us that our (now departed) neighbour had been ‘a chef’ and had some ‘special plates’.
Now the menu being an indication of seasonal ingredients is not a problem, delivering a few off menu courses to a chum is hardly unforgivable - but when you watch someone eating ingredients on your menu in a restaurant with a single menu, it, well, jars a little.
I did warn you that one was going to be petty, right?
Would we go back? Realistically - no. The food, while technically flawless and conceptually interesting, was ultimately forgettable (as this bare bones ‘review’ testifies) and the sterile service and atmosphere gave a rather anonymous feeling to the meal. If we were lucky enough to get back to the Bay area any time soon, we’d be looking to San Francisco proper for our fine dining.