Eating Out: Cooking touched by the divine - Gnostic, Corporation Square, Belfast
Gnostic Bar & Kitchen,
13 Corporation Square,
028 9592 8950
THERE is something special about the buzz of a busy bar. And after Covid wiped out that buzz for so many months over the past couple of years, it's something that was easy to take for granted.
But there's also something about a bar that's far from busy, with maybe a couple of other patrons at the opposite end of the room, or even just a staff member or two, as you get to enjoy the place all to yourself.
No worries about being served, no questions about getting a seat. Just a spot in the corner with no need to be anywhere but here for a while.
Here is Gnostic, formerly Muldoon's bar, on the edge of Sailortown, on the edge of Belfast city centre.
While an hour or two earlier, with lunch in full swing, the place was heaving, you're not going to find any bar with many customers at this time on a Tuesday, and even fewer that fancy themselves in the gastropub genre. We're deep in the crease between the latest lunch and earliest dinner but, as Gnostic serves its small plates all day from morning brunch through to suppertime, we get the full range of what's on offer.
Another advantage of being the only paying customers for a while is that the next table in the sleek bar, with the requisite exposed brick and filament lightbulbs, can be pressganged into service for the overflow of plates. Honestly, it was achievement to avoid needing a third pulled up.
That's because the menu put together by chef Emma Monro is a relentless parade of 'I'll have that', 'that looks nice', 'yes, please', and less definable oohs and aahs.
We end up with four of the plates, that range from £7.50 to £12, and a couple of sides, which are much better than supporting acts.
It's a serious spread, spread over two tables – not big tables, but still – and every one shows off Monro's clearly serious skills.
It's a grey, early spring day in Belfast, so the smoky earthiness that's everywhere feels necessary.
A deeply sweet tangle of lamb tagine comes under a crown of almonds that crunch against the soft meat and saffron cous cous, with blobs of lemon gel adding zippy balance.
Crumbles of feta and sour-edged sumac dressing do the same for a roasted aubergine and lentil salad, with the vegetable carrying a hellishly dark char and seductively silky innards.
The textures on the fillet of hake follow a similar pattern to the tagine, with crackling skin giving way to pearly white flesh, then a deep tomato stew studded with chorizo and nduja.
A chicken breast comes on the bone and covered in more Mediterranean influence – a rubble of hazelnut dukkah – while there's an Asian nod with a honey soy glaze that clings to the bird and lengths of broccolini. I've never understood the notion that chicken is boring. Good chicken, well prepared, stands with anything. This is excellent chicken, brilliantly prepared.
There's more dukkah on the pillowy flatbread, only slightly smaller than an actual pillow, with a comfort blanket of smoked hummus in between.
Chickpeas appear in another of the bowls somewhere in front of us, in the form of panisse fries, the oblong snacks beloved in Marseille that crunch then melt and may honestly be a plate too far, but don't tell anyone I said that.
Not so far that desserts – a rhubarb and custard Eton mess and a hazelnut praline tart – are out of the question. The mess is exactly what it sounds like, with the sour rhubarb making a case for permanent strawberry exclusion.
The tart is sweet and crisp, with a bright pear sorbet and a blackcurrant puree that brings some of the pattern with it off the plate. Missing any of it just wasn't an option.
The same goes for Gnostic.
Lamb tagine £12
Chicken supreme £9
Aubergine salad £9.50
Panisse fries £4
Hummus flatbread £6
Eton Mess £7
Praline tart £7
Gnostic vice cocktail £8.50
Diet Coke £2.30
Americano x2 £4.60