Belfast's Mourne Seafood Bar is simply one of the finest places to sit down to enjoy a meal of fresh fish. If you can get in, that is.
Humbly hidden in a backstreet off Royal Avenue is the Mourne Seafood Bar. From the outside it doesn't look like much, in fact the front of the restaurant is a fishmonger's, which is open during the day. But once you move through the shop, and the pungent smell of fresh fish, you enter a narrow restaurant that exudes minimalist class.
Draped in black and white, the walls are covered with local art that sets the scene with depictions of the world of the sea, all of which are available to purchase. Seating, while perhaps a little close at times, is adequate and there is space upstairs for parties of up to 40 people.
A cross-section of Belfast's society can be found in this restaurant, however the exclusivity of weekend evening dining always gives the place a refined feel. Unlike lunchtimes, which operates on a first come first serve basis, evenings cannot be as spontaneous and should be planned in advance.
Prime time eating hours on a Friday or Saturday will need to be booked between two and four weeks in advance, while less busy hours and days may be acquired at shorter notice. This exclusiveness helps to make your first visit to the Mourne Seafood Bar more memorable than your average night on the town.
Feeling like you?re on a special night out is helped by the attentive staff who are happy to answer questions. However, as the restaurant does get busy don't get flustered if the staff are not as immediate as in other eateries.
As the name suggests, this restaurant specialises in seafood, and the only real option for those who are not fond of fish is steak. With the promise of fresh and locally caught fish from Annalong and Kilkeel and shellfish from Ballyedmond in Carlingford Lough, patrons are treated to a classic menu and a daily special menu, that latter is dictated by the whims of fate and whatever fish happen to be landed that day.
The classic menu is a regular affair and mostly a conservative one. Along with the highest grade oysters and mussels are starters, such as seafood chowder, caesar salad, and smoked salmon that cost between ?3 and ?7, and main dishes, such as Mourne Seafood fish fingers and beer-battered fish with chips and mushy peas priced around ?8. While these classic dishes are familiar, the quality of the fish, which is always light and fluffy, makes these dishes worth a try even for those used to them.
For the more adventurous diners there are some special treats in the classic starters that should not be missed, namely the panfried crab claws in chilli butter and salt and chilli squid with napa slaw and chilli jam. The latter is an example of why this restaurant is a cut above the rest in terms of quality seafood. Squid can often be bland and chewy, with a rubbery texture, however this is not the case here, with the squid softly melting in your mouth and complemented to perfection by accompaniments, which add explosions of sweet and spicy flavours.
Daily specials continue the trend of exciting dishes, and are a little more expensive at ?6.95 to ?12.95. You can always be sure that the fish on the special menu is of the highest quality and the restaurant's specials change everyday.
With each variety of fish guaranteed to be sumptuous, whether it is refreshing hake, meaty monkfish or the fine seabream, it is left to the culinary embellishments to elaborate on the simple excellence of each dish. With combinations such as chorizo and cumin spiced lentils, and wild mushrooms, green beans, garlic potatoes and red wine jus, this restaurant manages to marry tastes from across the globe to fish from the oceans surrounding Ireland.
However, never do the exciting and full flavours of the accompaniments take precedence over the centrepiece of each dish - the fish. This is never more evident in the whole fish dishes, in which patrons are left to their own devices to remove the baked or grilled meat from the bones. Those practised in the art, or novices prepared to test their skills, will be rewarded with a basic yet brilliant tasting meal. Portions are surprisingly generous and as soon as you have finished your meal you'll be planning your next trip to the restaurant.
To truly enjoy fish you should have a glass of white wine. The wine list not disappoint, with a bottle to suit everyone's budget. Ranging from ?10 to ?45, the wealth of choice can be confusing. However, with some fine Italian and Spanish whites available for around ?15 you do not have to be a wine connoisseur to find an affordable yet tasty tipple.
The Last Word
You'll be hard pressed to find fresher fish in Belfast, and even harder pressed to find fish cooked so well. The Mourne Seafood Bar is a necessity for anyone who likes seafood.