Gareth McCaughey has left his fine-dining past behind to open this proudly patriotic Belfast bistro, says Andy Lynes
Chef Gareth McCaughey is unequivocal about his vision for the Muddlers Club, his industrial-chic, 52-seat bistro that opened on Halloween night 2015 in Belfast's fashionable Cathedral Quarter.
"There's an undertone of keeping things in Northern Ireland, about Northern Ireland and for Northern Ireland," says McCaughey, who named the restaurant after the nickname of the Society of United Irishmen. They helped organise the Irish rebellion of 1798 and used to meet in Peggy Barclay's Inn on the street where the restaurant now stands.
Irish ingredients are used throughout the Muddlers Club's one-page menus, which offer three choices of starter, main and dessert at lunch and five choices at dinner, plus a selection of four side dishes, including hand-cut chips (£4) and garden vegetables (£4).
Breast of duck from Skeaghanore in County Cork is roasted and served with turnip apple purée, wild garlic and rainbow chard (£19). "I've tried loads of ducks and that's the best I've found. I've been using it since the restaurant opened. It's a grain-fed bird and the flavours are just completely different, it's got a really unique taste," says McCaughey.
Locally grown white broccoli is cooked on the open kitchen's double chargrill ("it gives a smoky barbecue flavour and we use it whenever we can") and served with sea trout that's smoked in the restaurant, as well as trout roe, almonds, a Caesar dressing and borage leaves (£8). "It's a very nice, clean dish that's simply presented. It's just about getting stuck in there and enjoying what's on the plate. That's what the restaurant is all about."
McCaughey's background is in fine-dining and includes long stints at the Michelin-starred Ox and the critically acclaimed James Street South, both in Belfast. He also spent five years in London as a pastry chef at Gary Rhodes' the People Palace at the Royal Festival Hall and Zander, part of the Bank restaurant at what was then the Crowne Plaza St James - but he's taken a different tack for his own restaurant.
"We don't do a tasting menu; I didn't want to go down that road at all. Its all about affordable dining here. Á la carte is harder work, but we just look at our bookings and if we have 35 booked for lunch we make sure we have enough for the 40 to 50 covers that could possibly come in and the same for dinner. It's harder work, but it guarantees freshness and quality," says McCaughey.
The lunch menu is changed every two weeks and the dinner menu changes seasonally. "We're constantly moving stuff about and changing it. If someone rings up with a really nice product, its easy to go into the office and change the menu - it's just a sheet of paper."
One dish that McCaughey says customers keep coming back for is the ricotta ravioli (£7). "We make our own pasta, sometimes twice a day. We mix the ricotta with lemon and lime juice, some seasoning and Parmesan and it's served with beurre noisette made with parsley and white balsamic, hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds and crispy kale. It just flies out the door."
A highlight of a recent lunch for journalists, held as part of the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink, was a charred rump of lamb starter (£9). "We rub it with some five spice to give depth of flavour, then we char it on the grill to get that smoky thing going on. We make a spiced ketchup with onions, garlic, lots of tomatoes and smoked chilli butter and cook it out for a really long time. It's finished with chopped heirloom tomatoes, an Irish mozzarella from County Cork and parsley and garlic gremolata to lift it all up," says McCaughey.
In the relatively short time that it's been open, Muddlers Club has picked up a clutch of awards, including Best Restaurant in Antrim and Best Newcomer at the Irish Restaurant awards, and rave reviews in the Irish press ("[it] deserves all the accolades being heaped on it", said The Irish News). So does that mean we'll see more Muddlers Clubs?
"No way - I couldn't think of anything worse," says McCaughey. "This is something different for the city and it's unique. We have 16 staff here, it's tightly knit and everyone works well together. But if you start spreading those key people out, you are watering down what you've created. I just want a restaurant full of happy customers. And if anyone wants to reward me for that, then that's up to them."
Skeaghanore duck breast, apple, piccolo parsnip and mustard
From the menu
- Scallops, Jerusalem artichoke and speck £9
- Heirloom tomato, ricotta, pea and pumpkin seeds £5
- Salt-aged ribeye, bone marrow gratin, girolles and smoked chilli butter £24
- Turbot, purple potato, girolles and Iberico £20
- Chocolate, caramel and espresso £8
- Baked rice, plum and lavender ice-cream £7
The Muddlers Club
1 Warehouse Lane, Belfast BT1 2DX
Pear, coffee and meringue
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