Anyone who hits 40 and is in relatively good shape deserves a pat on the back. It’s at this age that standards slip.
Unless carefully monitored, a man’s beer belly can become a permanent fixture, the stretch of time between haircuts can lengthen and taking pride in one’s appearance drops down a few grades on the list of priorities (overtaken by taxi duties for the children, pocket money extortion and the general expenses of living in this country, resulting in exhaustion, poverty and invisibility).
So as the Europa Hotel in Belfast celebrates its 40th birthday this year, the plaudits should be loud, the fireworks bright and noisy and the tributes from near and far. For here is living proof that there’s no such thing as too many face lifts. A great symbol of the country’s tenacity and stamina, the Europa was always a glamorous outpost whether surrounded by a sea of grey Landrovers, security barriers, army patrols and occasional bombs in the 70s and 80s or now when it rubs shoulders with cool newcomers like the Fitzwilliam, the Malmaison and the Hilton.
No matter how many times it suffered from direct or indirect bomb attacks (back in the Nineties I asked a friend who was a Sinn Fein press officer how many times the Europa had been bombed — he said: How the f*** would we know?), the Europa or the Forum as it was briefly branded, was a very grown-up kind of place where there was drink, food and those Penthouse Poppit girls.
The Penthouse Poppits are viewed retrospectivey as a very Belfast interpretation of club dancers, a kind of Carry On Bunny Girls, but photos of the time prove they were every bit as central to the old school of hospitality and as polished as any London or New York equivalent. While the bar provided sanctuary for those of us around in the Seventies — you had really arrived if you were able to run the twin gauntlet of tight security and then the dress code police and get in — the hotel’s food never made the earth move.
And to prove that history is bunkum, the same hotel is marking its 40th with a Seventies menu in the ground-floor Causerie Restaurant. Believe me, it was never this good. Today’s retro menu is a wonderful evocation of something that never happened. The prawn cocktail or egg mayonnaise starters, the gammon and pineapple and coq au vin main courses and the desserts which we will come to are a bit like the motor manufacturer re-interpretations of the Mini, the Volkswagen Beetle and the Fiat 500. They are all far, far better than the originals in terms of design, reliability and efficiency.
I had lunch in the Europa with general manager James McGinn, an irrepressible optimist and a canny business man. McGinn knows the food sector very well and takes a professional view of the restaurant as a market. But in the same way as chefs generally are not wine buffs most hotel managers do not place food at the top of their list of priorities.
Yet what is on offer at the Causerie is more than a whimsical bit of gimmickry. It’s very good indeed. If the consistency remains the same as the day I had lunch then you’re in for a treat.
As the glass of Mateus Rosé chills, the prawn cocktail arrives in a wine glass lined with lettuce leaves. There is wheaten bread on the side and it looks as familiar as the one enjoyed a hundred times in Armagh at the height of my naff teenage years. Only this time, the prawns are lush big juicy curls of pinky white meat smothered in a Marie-Rose sauce which Blumenthal would approve. The wheaten is crumbly and fresh and tastes of the land which further heightens the prawns’ ocean flavours.
The main course is another little triumph. The coq au vin I suspect is not made with cockerel at all but not to worry. The deep flavours and light texture of the wine sauce have not been destroyed by gluteny additives or thickening agents — there’s only so much cornflower even the Seventies could manage. The chicken pieces are plentiful and tender, not overcooked or tired.
But it’s the bed of mash potatoes which makes its presence felt the most. Creamy,
light, buttery and bordering on mortal sin status, this is a mash to set the standards. The reason why this menu has succeeded (you can choose contemporary dishes from the standard menu) is because of the comfort it offers. The degree of comfort depends largely on how your own experience of the Seventies panned out. My decade wasn’t bad at all, a bit topsy turvy, stop-start and eventually saw me working on building sites in West Germany when I was 19, so the only real stability in life came at dinner time if I happened to be at home. And dinner time meant this kind of food.
The most exciting part of the dinner when you were a teenager was the dessert. Black Forest gateau, meringue, Victoria sponges had their fans but the crown emperor of sweets was the sherry trifle. A wobbling big arse of a thing usually presented in a crystal bowl so you could see the layers of custard and jelly and soaked angel fingers within and topped with a three-inch thick layer of whipped cream over which you would see a variety of sprinkly things (my favourite was the crumbs of milk chocolate from crushed Flake bars). The Europa’s version is served individually and is formidable. It is big and blousy like a smiling large-breasted matriarch.
A trip down memory lane is good for the soul. This particular trip will be good for you too.
Seventies menu for 2 people (incl 2 glasses of Mateus Rosé) £40
Glass mineral water x3 £4.80
Europa Hotel, Great Victoria Street,
Belfast BT2 7AP
Tel: 028 9027 1066