In recent weeks we looked at the rising tide of quality bistros now populating the streets of Belfast.
Gone are the days when you could pick one of three Michelin starred fine diners. Instead, the populace has made clear its preference for informality, fun and comfort when eating out, eschewing the pressed linen and polished crystal pomp of old.
Some restaurants such as Cayenne and Deane’s have succeeded in their transition from posh to fun-but-quality. Others, however, will be making no such journey. Old fashioned formality and posh ways have a place and one restaurant you can rely on for a bit of retro is The Mitre restaurant in the Culloden hotel on the outskirts of east Belfast.
An old-school and sumptuous suburban palace in the Scottish baronial style, The Culloden does a great welcome — hotel staff from reception to bar could not be more attentive and the warm embrace of the greeting feels genuine and repeats time after time in the lobby, in the restaurant, everywhere.
It’s that solid Ulster hospitality, full of sincerity and consideration. The Culloden is among the best we’ve got when it comes to hotels and accommodation. The Hastings Group have also been taking their food offer more seriously in recent years and Howard Hastings, the man in charge, has committed to a locally-sourced food policy across his hotel group.
I am having dinner with celebrity chef Paula McIntyre who teaches at Northern Regional College and broadcasts to the nation every Saturday morning on John Toal’s Radio Ulster show. Paula says she enjoys stepping into the Culloden because she loves seeing hospitality in action — the feeling of warmth and friendliness is, she says, like no other restaurant or hotel. She also knows some of the suppliers and is keen to see how this is working out.
The promise of local produce, much of it of international quality, fills us with anticipation. Hastings has been working with various suppliers and Howard himself has been increasingly vocal about the need to nurture and develop the links between food, cultural identity, the visitor experience and the tourism offer.
This is all admirable and to be encouraged but I can’t help think there’s a bit of naivete thrown into the mix because as soon as we open our menus the first thing both of us notice is a starter of asparagus prepared in a light batter. Paula raises an eyebrow and says this could so easily have been a baby leek instead of asparagus. The leeks are grown a couple of miles away and are a perfect winter veg. The asparagus is most likely from Peru.
We reach instead for the starter we know is local: scallops from Strangford Lough. Beautiful to look at the scallops are dominoed with locally made chorizo from Carnbrooke’s and a smoked paprika oil. Perfectly seared, they are golden and white, springy and juicy, the briny delicate flavours marrying well with the chewy, powerful sausage. The paprika oil provides depth. A foie gras parfait sings along very happily with another surprise, an apple and chilli jelly which is another great match.
The local suppliers also have their mark on the Aberdeen Angus fillet steak with braised ox cheek and it would be rude to go past it, especially as Howard is making such a big thing of it.
Paula’s on the Mourne lamb. She’s hypercritical at the best of times but this lamb has seduced her into smiling silence. The white bean puree accompanying the lamb makes for a classic French dish.
The steak fillet is also top quality, ordered rare but turning up closer to medium — one chef’s blue is another’s burnt offering. It’s very good, nonetheless, and the contrast with the braised ox cheek on top creates a wide range of flavours. The only fly in the ointment is the red wine sauce which is generously dumped all over the two meat chunks. It’s too thick and sweet and I scrape it off to try to enjoy the meat.
The dauphinoise and French beans on the other hand are spot on, the potatoes, creamy, salty and cheesy. Paula spies the turned mushroom artistically posed on the side of the dish and declares she hasn’t seen one of those in 20 years. Carefully sculpted into a cowling, a bit like the spinner you see on top of aluminium chimneys for central heating boiler exhausts, the button mushroom completes the dish.
The retro reference may be ironic or not. In any case, it’s a tribute to historic catering standards. And what better reflection of the Hastings Group could there be?
Seared scallops £10
Foie gras parfait £9
Triple cooked chips £4
Desserts x 2 £16
Glass pinot grigio £6.50
Glass cabernet sauvignon £7.50
Glass Gran Feudo £7.50
Diet Coke £2.90
The Culloden Estate and Spa, Bangor Road, Cultra BT18 0EX.
Tel: 028 9042 1066.