Is it me or has the north run out of bad restaurants? For the last number of outings I have been blessed and cursed with a straight run of good eating experiences.
Blessed, that is, because it makes the lunch or dinner enjoyable, but cursed because it’s starting to look like I’m losing my touch and bad reviews make such great reading.
The latest report is from Posh Central itself, the Great Room in the Merchant Hotel, a place so awarded and well-got that I should have known it would be flawless. Well, almost.
The Great Room in that vast Victorian temple of opulence, all gilded cornices and intricate decoration, gives you the sense of occasion the moment you arrive. Climbing up the grand steps to the revolving doors beyond the portal brings you straight into the comfortable lounge platform — a few stairs beyond and you climb up onto the restaurant floor, a plateau divided into plush velvet booths and banquettes and separate round tables at the back. It’s fabulously ostentatious and for the first timers, not a little intimidating. But the friendly floor staff move quickly to reassure the nervous and the timid that everything’s going to be alright.
If you had turned right after coming through the revolving doors you would have gone straight into one of Belfast’s most comfortable bars. Here you will find the world’s best cocktails ... seriously. For less than a tenner you can taste award-winning cocktails that have knocked even the likes of the famous Negresco Hotel in Nice into a cocked hat.
If you have the time and you’re trying to impress anyone including a girlfriend, boyfriend, investor or creditor, take them to the Merchant Bar, let them order whatever they want (it won’t kill you) and watch as they hang on to your every word.
So is this world class standard transferred to the restaurant and its food and service? Well yes and again, the value for money is hard to beat, particularly if you study the form, watch out for offers and aim for set menus at lunchtime. Tonight, however, we are five and we are stuck with a three-course menu priced at £39.50. My eyes water a bit but I concede it’s Mother’s Day and there you go — take it or leave it. I avoid restaurants at Valentine’s, Christmas and other dates because the restaurants view them as one of the few gold seams in the calendar. To say they get the arm in would be wrong — it’s just market forces. But normally, Sunday dinner in the Great Room is £27.50.
The menu is simple, but compelling — there are scallops, duck terrine, chicken liver parfait, goat’s cheese tart and other reassuringly straightforward starters. Among the mains, the ribeye rubs shoulders with salmon, pork fillet, cod and other staples.
It may not be exciting but when these dishes appear, there is a distinct air about them, their composition, the plates they come in, everything looks expensive but recognisable. It’s like the Fulton’s of food. The advisor says the scallops are spot-on, coming as they do with a little meaty jus to deepen the saltiness. The terrine is dark and rough with plenty of fresh duck flavours. At room temperature, its flavours are singing at full tilt. The piccalilli it comes with provides the clear, sparkly high notes.
A pork fillet comes sliced lengthways on a bed of risotto. This is tremendously good.
The pork is cooked beyond pink just as they do in the Basque country with the famous cochon de Bareges and it’s moist, juicy and mouth-wateringly rich in taste.
With such fine food it was good to see that old Irish catering habits die hard, because along came the selection of vegetables and the platter of boiled potatoes. It was almost like a just-in-case insurance for diners who might have been thinking about saying something about the pork being undercooked or there not being enough of something. Because no one can argue with a platter of spuds covered in melted butter. No matter what you’re having.
Cheese was introduced by a very knowledgeable server. This is territory I feel very safe in and I challenged him a bit. He knew his stuff. There was Crozier blue, St Killian’s, smoked Gubbeen and cheddar as well as some French reblochon and another blue. It’s a shame they were straight out of the fridge but the arrival of a choice of two dessert wines — have both, he said, I can’t decide which one to recommend (a Sauternes and a Spanish moscatel) — showed kindness and willingness.
The Great Room is a must. Belfast should treat it like a prize attraction, as significant as the Ulster Museum.
It serves good food, the people who work there are marvellous at the hospitality and, anyway, where else would you go if there was no Merchant?
Three-course set menu x 4 £158
Reduced child’s menu £26.50
Half bottle Chablis £19.50
Bottle Rioja £25.50
Coke x 4 £9.80
Glass Sauternes £6.50
Service charge £24.58
The Merchant Hotel, 16 Skipper Street, Belfast BT1 2DZ.
Tel: 028 9023 4888