Eating out: Scaling Ben Madigan's culinary delights 2p at a time
Ben Madigans Bar and Kitchen
169-175 Cavehill Road
028 9692 2009
IT is rare for a one star review to actually lure me into an eatery – more usually a warning to never cross its threshold.
But I've been determined to get to Ben Madigan's ever since it became a social media sensation this summer.
The bar on Cavehill Road opened not long before lockdown at one of Belfast's more inauspicious sites.
It replaced a hostelry so, er... 'unassuming' that more than one longtime resident of the area was stunned to learn it was actually still a functioning bar after witnessing the wholly unexpected sight of a punter emerging blinking into the sunshine with a pint in their hand.
During the refurbishment pram-pushers and dog-walkers en route to the nearby Waterworks park took lengthy detours and cars slowed down in the hopes of hitting a red light at the nearby junction to watch in amazement as a chic bar rose from the rubble.
The new owners are not shy about their ambition, confidently introducing the establishment as 'Your New Local'.
In keeping with that aspiration, the décor could be straight out of a later episode of 'Interior Design Masters', from remaining contestants with both the talent and flair to hit the brief of 'traditional pub' with a modern twist.
Staff are welcoming and efficient and show us to comfortable seats at a table for four by a blocked up fireplace.
There are a number of large televisions showing the Ireland rugby match, but the volume is off in favour of pleasing background 'tuuunes' and a deft manoeuvre by yours truly positions them out of sight of the sports reporter, thus securing his attention for the duration of the meal.
It is early in the Saturday lunch sitting and the menu is both varied and competitively priced.
Of course there is no pleasing some people.
In June a customer posted a furious one-star review after staff refused to give her a second round of free hot water and sugar for her to put in another of the teabags she had brought from home.
She warned other potential diners it was "disgraceful that they would begrudge me a 2p teabag".
Unsurprisingly more readers agreed with the owner, who listed in response the "cost to my business for everything you were consuming while at Ben Madigan's - heating/aircon, lighting, the staff that served you, the electricity to heat the water, the water itself, the dishwasher used to wash the cup and saucer, the sugar, our rent, the cost to clean the building - I could go on and on..."
It really is a shame that she didn't sample the menu, even if only for the intense yet smooth coffee.
My advice to anyone else is to bring your appetite.
The starters were by no means oversized and a fine introduction to the chef's skills.
Boneless chicken bites fried in buttermilk coating and tossed in tangy barbecue sauce, and thin strips of tender squid with a muted salt-chilli crust and piquant 'slaw accompaniment, could both have been stodgy from a different kitchen.
The children's shared cheesy garlic bread was the kind we used to order eagerly before it became a synonym for 'pizza'.
The three fillets of golden battered fish and mountain of crisp, fried chicken with piles of chips that were presented as child's portions gave a sense of the generous main courses in store.
My spiced salmon came on a tall ratatouille plinth, spiked with smoky, salty chorizo and framed by roasted garlic new potatoes positioned like little chilli-topped turrets.
The frustrated rugby fan was soothed by a melting slow-braised beef cheek, beautifully complemented by a creamy Parmesan mash, the velvety combination punctuated by the punch of the pepper sauce and bite of the glossy tenderstem broccoli and carrots.
Only for Irish News readers would we have scaled the dessert menu, but we do not reproach you.
The spiced pear and apple crumble had just the right amount of crunchy topping. My only regret was that there had been a run on bourbon ice-cream, so I had to 'make do' with fresh cream. I am reliably informed that the white chocolate cheesecake was "delicious".
It was worth every last 2p.
Kids' garlic bread £2.50
Chicken bites £5.95
Salt and chilli squid £6.95
Kids' fish goujons £5.95
Kids' fried chicken £5.95
Spiced salmon £15.95
Beef cheek £14.95
White chocolate cheesecake £5.95
Spiced crumble £5.95
Kids' ice cream £2
Drinks (including coffee) £15.10