Why Belfast Castle’s basement restaurant fails to live up to its majestic surroundings.
The grandeur, the splendour, the sheer audacity of Belfast Castle, the way it clings to the side of Cave Hill like a sandstone King Kong swinging from the side of the Empire State, the majestic views across Belfast harbour and the formal gardens all go to making the castle a popular if slightly scary place.
Scary and a bit romantic, the castle nonetheless manages to capture that sense of sober straight-lacedness that only northerners can produce.
Behind the exuberance of Belfast City Hall, Ulster Hall and many of the old banks’ headquarters there is a quiet elegance — a feeling that you have entered one of the greatest of all Victorian edifices and, for those who are mildly insecure, that you should be clutching an imaginary cap from your head in both hands and that you must not raise your voice above a respectful whisper.
These buildings were designed to give you confidence and to help create a stable, prosperous society. At the end of the 19th century these were among the most beautiful buildings in the empire.
While Belfast Castle was built as a home for the Donegalls, it is so grand that it happily performs as a civic venue — a place that offers its noble exclusivity to anyone who wants to book it.
Now owned by Belfast City Council, it is one of the city’s loveliest resources, where children can play in the adventure park, where business leaders can conduct conferences and where outdoors types can start the steep climb through the woods to the spectacular Arthur’s Fort high above.
To find a building as beautifully preserved — and open for business as a conference and events venue, wedding location and restaurant — you really need to look at churches and cathedrals (weekly Masses and services accommodating up to 1,000 delegates/communicants/congregation, births, deaths and marriages and are they not restaurants to feed your soul?).
The adviser and I held our wedding reception in Belfast Castle 14 years ago and naturally have very fond memories of it.
I have been back intermittently to attend meetings and more recently to have lunch in the Cellar Restaurant. There was always something a bit odd about climbing what seemed like half way up Cave Hill to get to the castle and then let your breath be taken away once again by the view no matter what time of the day it is, only to end up climbing down into the bowels of the building and into the basement to the restaurant.
It’s like getting into the Belfast Wheel’s VIP capsule with its privacy glass to watch the telly while you’re soaring above the rooftops of the city.
But the Cellar Restaurant is not a dank place. It looks more like the inside of an ancient farmhouse in which the curtains are permanently drawn. Bright nonetheless, the combination of big flag-stoned floors, the jumble of attractive antiques stacked up on either side of the entrance hall and the bar create a distinct Oirishness to the mood.
Yet the visitors who (the day I was there last week at any rate) are shuffling tourists of a certain age largely from north America seem to give the place a mood that I thought only existed in Fibber Magee’s, Belfast’s first themed Irish Bar. It’s a bit like going to Florence and ending up in a Pizzahut.
But it works and, let’s face it, Belfast Castle is as Ulster as you can get so they can get away with a bit of non-authentic. The Cellar Restaurant lies beyond the little bar and is an attractive place. White linen, framed landscapes on the walls and very cosy, it creates a moment of escapism at lunch time.
Mid-week lunch time in the Cellar is a busy bustle of suits and anoraks. The suits are on expenses and the anoraks are American. It’s not cheap and I thought a city-style £15 menu might be available. Instead, a straightforward three courses with one small glass of white wine and rubbish coffee came to £27 including appropriate tip.
This is steep and Belfast Castle needs to watch it doesn’t lose the essential word-of-mouth recommendations that seem to keep the place flying.
Service is good, rapid and unobtrusive with a lot of thundering about of hard heels on the wooden floor, but I couldn’t help notice a very small incident that shouldn’t happen in a tourist-geared destination.
A table of three American tourists had ordered their meal. A few minutes later the maitre d’ clipped over to them to say whatever they had ordered was off that day, prompting the Americans to express disappointment.
Perhaps another waiter would have shared in the disappointment and brightened things up by suggesting that the supreme of chicken was unbelievably good or whatever. But he stood there as if braced for a complaint. There was no warmth where warmth was needed.
Tourists need that contact with local people and more often than not their only contact with locals is through waiters and taxi drivers.
A starter of cream of courgette soup was far too salty. As it happens I enjoy heavily reduced and salty soups and sauces but the courgette flavours, delicate at the best of times, struggled to get through. A piece of white bread that came with it was, I felt, bordering on stale.
The battered haddock and chips that followed were far superior. The haddock was steamed inside its brittle, crispy beer batter and was perfect. Moist and flaky yet firm, the generous two pieces were served on a bed of ‘pea puree’.
Karol Falls has been in charge of food at the castle since the birth of mankind. While I hope he is taking the mick here rather than referring to them as mushy peas, he may have been overwhelmed by the splendour of the surroundings and now believes the castle too posh a place to serve up anything so common. In which case he should do something about the tartare sauce, which tasted like the stuff you get in a jar. The big chips, on the other hand, were excellent and the accompanying little glass of peppery sauvignon blanc gave it a decent send off.
The semifreddo was interesting in that it was impossible to identify its flavour. It was small and pretty, a thick puck of very deep frozen (rather than half cold as the name suggests) cream covered with a thin layer of chocolate flavouring. I couldn’t be sure that it was actually chocolate and was even less certain on the content within. It could have been sweet pumpkin or something a bit orange.
Haddock and chips £9.50
Glass wine £3.50