Saturday evenings are all about the tasting menu at Muddlers. Make that tasting with matching wines. It’s both local and international: eel from Lough Neagh up the road; wine from Syria across the world. All eight exquisite courses are beautifully choreographed by the waiting staff. An open kitchen along one wall and a bar along another adds to the conviviality. The interior is as industrial as the approach to the restaurant and suitably dark: Chef Gareth McCaughey named his restaurant after a secret society that met on this site two centuries ago. The architects were Oscar + Oscar who designed another of Belfast’s Michelin star holders, Ox. It’s more than a meal, it’s an event: The Muddlers Club doesn’t do things by two quarters (halves).
We’re talking lunch and dinner in the same restaurant but not on the same day. Four flights; two meals. Throw in a couple of winter storms and it’s all about dedication to the cause. Ox is one of three restaurants in Northern Ireland’s capital to be sprinkled with Michelin stardust. Just in case you didn’t get the memo, a mini Michelin man patrols the drinks trolley beside the entrance door.
There are lots of Michelin signifiers: a generous staff to customer ratio; industrious napkin folding; coloured and crackled textured plates; heavy cutlery; amuse gueules intervals; sweet versus savoury surprises; and foam. And course after course of course of edible art. The menu is honest and concise. It knows what it’s doing and what it’s using to do what it’s doing. Lunch highlights include lightly toasted soda bread (the recycled crispy brown paper making another appearance), cheese dill cappuccino with purple beetroot and passionfruit sorbet with salt caramel. Sommelier recommended accompanying wines range from lemonish Japanese Grace to full bodied French Viognier.
The interior is as now as the menu. Both Ox and its neighbour, the bar Ox Cave, have a stripped back industrial aesthetic. There’s a strong sense of materiality from the exposed pipes and brick walls to the tiles (gunpowder grey in Ox; duck egg blue in Ox Cave) and timber floors. Art is reserved for the customers’ fashion plates. It’s a no nonsense approach that suits Belfast. The interiors are by Oscar and Oscar. Established in 2011 by Martin Barrett and Orla Maguire, Oscar and Oscar is an interior design and architecture studio based in Belfast. “We’re very proud of Ox and Ox Cave,” says Orla. “We have been lucky to work with some extremely talented clients.”
Martin explains, “Ox dining room is designed to be a relatively mute backdrop to the cooking of co-owner and Chef Stephen Toman. That being the case, it needed to be as characterful and complementary as the crockery that would contain the food itself. The character contains a palette of materials, warm and rich and confident in its simplicity. The space itself strikes a confident note by making both the kitchen and the city view the centre of attention. The dining room, as the space between these resonating notes, holds this tension and blends it in a delicate and respectful balance.”
“Ox Cave provides the space for Ox to let its hair down,” notes Orla, “and is an informal setting for wines carefully selected by co-owner Alain Kerloc’h to be enjoyed without self consciousness and pretence. Ox Cave can be enjoyed either after dinner or as an evening out in its own right. It is the more extrovert of the pair of spaces yet is both warm and totally unpretentious. Ox Cave is Belfast’s nod to the Parisian ‘zinc bar’.” Orla finishes, “Deep rooted in our values is the belief that good design can make us all a little happier.” We’re more than a little happy to lunch and dine at Ox with postprandial sipping in Ox Cave.