How I was very pleasantly surprised by my lunchtime experience at this friendly hotel.
The most boring soap opera ever to hit our TV screens was the dreadful Crossroads. The everyday 1970s tale of life in a two-star hotel somewhere in the English Midlands managed to rock everyone to sleep despite the high content of illicit love affairs, petty crime and inter-staff tension. The old staples of romance, jealousy, money and revenge peppered with occasional episodes of arson usually do the trick in terms of capturing audience attention. But not when it’s Crossroads.
A fully explicit version of Crossroads featuring the Prime Minister riding a bicycle in the buff, the Queen singing a karaoke version of the German national anthem and the Pope smoking a joint would still have failed to attract any viewers because, well, because it was Crossroads — interminable, boring, uninspiring, bland and profoundly unattractive. And what a dirge that signature tune was.
You could make the mistake, as I have done lots of times, of walking into a hotel and getting the idea that the whole place — the decor, the staff, the piped music — was created in homage to the TV series. First impressions would be “is this some kind of very deeply ironic joke, some sort of post-modernist leg-pulling or, even worse, the results of a revisit by a conceptual trend spotter who is reinterpreting the social values of seventies sadness, formica and plastic pot plants in the hope of creating a sellable mood?”
Each time I’ve thought this, I’ve been brought down to earth with a bump by a kindly front-of-house person enquiring if they could help. Such is the Corr’s Corner Hotel on the road to Larne in north Belfast. If ever there were a bushel deep under which hid a light, here it is. The awful looking faux stone work, the motel single-storey design and the bleak landscaping all add up to a dire-looking building, isolated and exposed (on the corner of a crosroads, as it happens).
Yet the car park is full on this Thursday lunchtime and it takes some time to find a space. A dash through the sleet and snow to the front doors softens your expectations – now, all you want is somewhere warm and dry. The reception area within is calm and a man asks if he can help. Within 30 seconds he has found a table for two in the packed restaurant. And at this point you just know that all the pretentious criticism and sneaky mockery of edge-of-town design and people with enamelled Food and Beverage Manager badges is just that – pretentious, sneaky and snobby. When you see 130 people having lunch, servers silently and gracefully balancing and delivering trays of pints and plates piled high with food, you know there are more ways to analyse a dining experience than your own way.
Drinks were ordered and delivered fast but not breathlessly and lunch was on its way soon after. Because one thing Corr’s Corner knows above everything else, is that it relies on business people and their conferences for their turnover, and you’ve only got so much time in the conference schedule for your lunch. Which means that people like you and me can pop in, have a decent bite to eat and be out again all within 24 minutes, as was the case.
The outlook might tell you that the food you’re about to receive is prepared and served to you with the same love and dedication that a supermarket forecourt supplies you with your tankful of diesel. But that would be wrong. Because the lunch I was given was more than just fuel. It was lovingly made, well presented and altogether excellent. Described as Lamb ‘Chup’, what was actually served up was a subtle stew of gently roasted lamb filet with a quality tomato and red pepper sauce served with cauliflower cheese, stick carrots and new potatoes. To add to the lamb we were offered a mint sauce that was possibly the best I’ve had — dry, with the consistency of well-drained steamed spinach and yet pungent and salty at the same time.
There was a lot of it too. Unlike those hotel meals in which volume overwhelms the senses in a bid to win you over where the quality couldn’t, here was a meal that was at once generous in portion but didn’t seem mountainous. Keeping the potatoes in a separate little bowl helped. I remember meeting Italians in Belfast who complained confidentially that they just couldn’t take the amounts of food placed in front of them in this country. It depressed them, the thought of having to eat all of it. Not that it was bad or anything, it was just that the meal had gone from something to which they looked forward to an insurmountable challenge.
Unmoved by any Mediterranean sensitivities, I ordered the apple crumble with custard for afters. Again the volume was super generous. This time, though, I felt some time-saving cleverness had been used — perhaps the stuff had been pre-bought somewhere for it lacked that country ruggedness that was so evident earlier. It was an individual pie more than a crumble — although it was very good, drowning in the sea of thick, cool and vanilla-infused custard.
Corr’s Corner will win no prizes for its contributions to the culinary galaxy but it should be acknowledged as a hotel whose restaurant understands value for money, what is expected of it and how it can best deliver. I’ve been a couple of times since last month for various business reasons and each time it has proven to be a happy experience.
Stick with the dish of the day, order yourself a nice big pint of chilled lager and let the servers do their thing. The sheer innocence and integrity of it will wear down your weary cynicism and perhaps even charm you.
Lamb ‘Chup’ x 2 £19.90
Apple pie £4.50
Coffee x 2 £3.50