Why lunch is more like a school dinner than haute cuisine at the ever-so-grand Slieve Donard Hotel
Years ago a visit to the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle was like being briefly held prisoner in Colditz. Both establishments were similar despite their geographical and topographical differences in that they shared extraordinarily beautiful locations and grand but austere exterior designs. They were also alike in that some of the staff would have been qualified to work in either.
As a young tourism official I stayed there and remember being struck by the greeting. As soon as I walked in it felt like I had stepped back into the cold war and had been arrested by heavily armed east German border guards for attempting to enter the country with a suitcase full of Levi's, Rolling Stones records and 40,000 Marlboros.
Of course, it's not like that any more. Colditz is a wonderful tourist destination with multi-lingual guides and interpreters who will take you on an extensive tour of the old gaol. The former workhouse, mental health institution and latterly prisoner-of-war camp has been transformed into a commercial success.
The Slieve Donard Hotel has also changed. It is a better hotel than it used to be and the soviet-like camp-guards who used to keep the place operational have, by and large, been replaced by staff who are charming, friendly and welcoming. I say largely because there are still remnants of the old ways. I was given stern instructions down the phone when booking the table for 2pm that under no circumstance must I even consider being a minute late as the kitchen staff did not tolerate lateness. I asked if this was because they stopped serving at two and was told, affirmative. Even for a carvery? Yes.
While massive reforms have swept through the former eastern bloc nations, bringing with them the highest democratic principles and a few McDonald's restaurants, some things closer to home have remained firmly and stubbornly in the bleak mid-Sixties.
Take the carvery lunch in the Slieve Donard Hotel on a Sunday. In an instant those memories of the gulags, Solzhenitsyn and hard labour come flooding back. For those of you reading this on t'internet, you will now remember one of the reasons why you left Northern Ireland all those years ago: hotel dinners on Sundays.
The only things worse than some hotel dinners are some school dinners. But no matter how bad they are, none of them is served anywhere that comes close to matching the glittering opulence of the dining room in the Slieve Donard Hotel.
The breath-taking interior is enhanced by a 20ft-high ceiling, chandeliers, crimson striped velvet upholstered chairs and white cotton table cloths. The big bay windows look out past a few bedraggled smokers to the lawn and beyond to the gun-metal grey Irish Sea.
Of the namesake mountain there is no sign today because of relentless drizzle. It's all designed to take your mind off the food, to distract the diner and to provide some sense of poshness. It's Lord Snooty's cartoon dining room in the Beano. Never mind the food, look at the place!
The interior bling comes alive with the rapid and random movement of servers, but you need to be clever and identify the right people if you are to get what you want.
Some are bar staff (you'll need these to order drink) while the others are there simply to pour cold tap water into your glass from huge tin jugs. The cold water is a good thing because you don't have to ask for it but the dark echoes of school as the jugs make that peculiar hollow alloy noise as they rub against the glass are never far away.
Explanations by the servers are quickly forthcoming: it's a carvery, there is soup, there are starters in the centre table and, along one wall, there is the carvery itself. There is also a cheese board and a choice of desserts. The truth is it's all-you-can-eat heaven, or at least it would be if the food were any good.
The starters, including the vegetable soup, are an early warning system to alert you to the blandness that lies ahead. Little slices of smoked duck, smoked chicken, smoked salmon and smoked trout are interspersed with potato salad, green lettuce, coleslaw, chicken liver pâté and various other self-service morsels all vying for attention and you return to your table with a little of everything only to discover that the trout is too oily and slippery, the salmon is so-so and the rest is lacking any identity at all. The best of this bad bunch was the curried egg, which was firey. Everything else tasted so bland I thought my tongue was numb.
The carvery was no better, although the choice was marvellous with beef, pork, turkey, lamb, vegetable lasagne and little salmon pieces with prawns.
And generous and delightful as the chefs and servers were — I asked for the end cut of the roast lamb and was offered two of them — the actual food was a victory of appetising style over content.
In fact, everything looked like it does in the magazine photographs where food dishes are styled and composed to one millimetre tolerances, but none of it was any good. At best it tasted of nothing. At worst, the carrot and parsnip mash tasted of something. It tasted the same way natural gas smells.
The cabbage might have been ok had it been served with a bit of butter and the Yorkshire pudding was like softened polystyrene. The champ wasn't bad but the roasties were more like rubber bouncies. Overheard talking among themselves, the children said the pepper sauce and brown wet stuff were hard to tell apart and were like primary school gravy.
There was an array of cheesecakes and when asked by the adviser which flavours they were, the server supervising these was unable to determine. There was a pink one and two or three pale ones. After a few minutes of gentle interrogation, the adviser realised she was getting nowhere and switched on the after-burners. Aware of the sudden danger he was in, the server hazarded, “lemon, because it's white. Or passion fruit”. It turned out to be Bailey's.
There were trifles and chocolate tart, banoffee, rhubarb and ginger crumble and slices of bakewell. The bakewell was quite good with a coffee.
In fact, we had a whale of a time because the room was full, the atmosphere distinctly agricultural and full of small children, which meant any attempt at formality was futile. You can only pour wine with one hand behind your back for so long before an airborne spoonful of champ puts you in your place.
Nonetheless, when faced with a £125 bill for three adults (one who ate like a bird) and a child, thoughts of escape became urgent. This wasn't the tab, this was bail. We saw plenty of diners arriving long after 2pm so I guess they were inmates. We, meanwhile, paid up, grabbed the children and our few belongings and made a dash for freedom.
3 Carvery lunches (adults) £90
Children's lunch £15
2 Cokes £4.60
Glass white wine £7.50
Glass red wine £8.50