A downtown dining venue with lots of panache!
This month Louise Murphy speaks to John Robinson, one of the business Directors and Shaun Hanna, Head Chef from Canteen at the Mac, as the venue approaches its first anniversary, to hear their highlights and challenges of the past year.
HR: Tell us a little bit about what you offer here?
Shaun: “We have a food offering here right throughout the day, from breakfast through to our pre-theatre evening menu. Due to the demographic of customers it’s very relaxed. We have people in for business meetings, kids for workshops, students from the university next door – so it’s quite a wide range. Our target market is quite wide, it varies quite a bit.”
John: “We change the menu every three months. We would sometimes describe our food as a ‘quirky twist on modern cuisine’. We use all local suppliers, our fish all comes from Ardglass, our butchers are in Lisburn and their cattle is all based in the South East Down area, potatoes are from Hillsborough, Fivemiletown cheeses – we’re very, very conscious of providing locally sourced food.
Shaun: “We use a lot of fish on our menu, in particular seafood chowder, mackerel. I like to use lesser used fish like Pollock and gurnard. I would use a lot of modern techniques in my cooking, so for example I would use water baths quite a bit and cook meat at low temperatures for longer periods. Some of the meats on the menu have been cooked for over 20 – 30 hours.
John: “It also lets us source and utilise cheaper cuts of meat, which are in actual fact probably tastier cuts anyway and provide better value for the customer.
HR: Canteen at the Mac is becoming very well known for its dining events. Is this an area you are keen to continue to develop?
John: “We did a very successful Guigal dinner in October 2012 during Belfast Restaurant Week and we had 50 people dining in the Sunken Gallery in amongst the art. It was a six course menu matched with wines and we had a wine expert from Guigal who came over, compliments of United Wine Merchants, Brett Crittenden. It was received really, really well and very popular. We could have sold out twice. We intend to do a lot more of this type of event in the future and build up that reputation for good food and wine.
“Another big part of our business is the function and events side of things. The Mac can hold in-house conferences, private dining events – anything up to 250 people so it’s something we do on a very regular basis.”
HR: What challenges have you faced over the past year?
John: “A challenge for us is that people come to The Mac and don’t know what we offer as a separate food entity. People come here initially and see us, first and foremost as a café, they are pleasantly surprised then when they realise we have a full all-day menu and we also have a full pre-theatre evening menu were Shaun produces an even higher level of food for theatre goers.
“It’s down to us to get across to people that we are here and that we are a real dining venue in Belfast.”
HR: What are the most important lessons you’ve learnt since opening?
Shaun: “I think one of our strengths is that we adapt ourselves to what’s on in The Mac. You have to tailor your staffing levels and your food offering to meet this. We’re approaching the end of our first year now and we’ve learnt that we have to adapt.”
John: “The audiences coming to the shows can be quite different. There are some very serious, theatre type shows which would appeal to a more serious clientele who tend to be more into their two-three course meals before the show. Whereas if it’s a comedy night – burgers or tapas might work better.
“The good thing about it is there is something here for everyone. The menu is styled in that way so that there’s something here for the casual diner, a more formal diner, kids, basically anyone who is in the building.
“I think now we know what to expect over the next four seasons/twelve months we can rewind on what we’ve done and Shaun is always coming up with new ideas for menus. Every season brings something different so it’ll just be more of the same, hopefully even slightly better!
HR: If you had to pick one highlight since opening, what would it be?
John: “A highlight from the past year would definitely have to be our food and wine night. It really gave us a chance to show off what the venue could do, what Shaun could do in terms of the menu and it was really, really well received.”