Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Joris Minne: The Georgian House

Design of the times

Identity crisis: The Georgian House's exterior is at odds with its interior design

The building is lovely and the food is solid... but it’s a shame about The Georgian House’s decor

There is no truth in the adage that what you can’t see can’t harm you. A nice but opinionated friend says it every time he sees my shameful back garden but then I point out that CO2 emissions are invisible but harmful as are stress and cholesterol and that a year ago super bank Lehman Brothers still thought they were emperors of the universe up to 30 seconds before the Federal Reserve signed their death warrant by deciding not to bail them out. They didn’t see that one coming.

In fact, based on the law of averages, a more accurate adage would state that what you can see has less chance of harming you. You see a rabid dog and you run, your speedometer shows you you need to slow down, and you will know, just by looking at it, that diving off the top of Fair Head will probably kill you.

This principle is applicable to cafes and restaurants. You can sense discomfort seconds after entering a restaurant or cafe because the interior is not right.

If you go to the Portaferry Hotel you want to see chintz, fireplaces and antique knick-knacks in display cases, and that’s what you get.

Similarly, if it’s a low-cost but high quality cafe/restaurant like Belfast’s Rhubarb or Armagh’s Uluru the interior design should reflect clean simplicity, and they do. If it’s up-market then you expect the furnishings and interior to be more luxurious, more of a design triumph and altogether an enhancement of the more expensive experience.

Good design lasts long, too. Cayenne was done up years ago and it still looks fresh. And the Crown Bar in Belfast is exactly as it should be and has been for a hundred years.

Most restaurateurs get this, but others don’t. The Georgian House in Comber has a good chef and some of the dishes I’ve had here are excellent. But the place itself is an example of what happens when you don’t get a decent designer in.

From the outside, this graceful, sober, two-storey, double fronted house on the square in the heart of Comber looks beautiful. Equally welcoming is the elegant little entrance and hall, at the back of which is a delicate staircase whose banister curls upwards and around like a concert harp’s frame.

But if you go into the dining room on the right where seven of us had Sunday lunch recently, you are greeted by a horrible, dark modern bar in one corner covered in plates piled high with scones, an unlit fireplace (it was one of the those blustery wet days) and nondescript light wood tables and upholstered chairs that are as fitting or appropriate to a Georgian house as a three-piece suite in a submarine.

It’s a shame because this furniture isn’t cheap but it clashes so badly as to destroy the anticipated cosy, country-house mood. Friendly and competent servers, however, quickly step into action and their warmth is enough to create a welcoming glow where the room has none. As if to kick the mood to death, there are downmarket plastic laminated menus. An unobtrusive typed-up sheet of paper would have done the job far better.

See? If you don’t like the look of it, then chances are there’s something wrong. And in this case poor quality design is to blame for setting the confusing tone. Is it a cafe, is it a restaurant, a community canteen or what? But soon, the horrible little menus reveal a brief list of very appetising goodies and all seems to correct itself a bit.

Fresh mussels, pâté, chicken wings and soup listed among the starters show solid and welcome predictability while the mains are equally reassuring.

The mussels are top-class Dundrum beauties and come in a generous bowl of creamy bouillon with hefty tastes of all the right things including garlic, parsley and white wine. The pâté was excellent, smooth and light and accompanied by a tangy little chutney. The adviser’s chicken wings were enjoyably messy and spicy and the little strings of tender flesh among those tiny bones were packed with flavour.

A couple of the main courses were almost brilliant. The fish and chips were text-book. The fish, encased within the crispy batter, steamed to perfection, fall-away flakes and joined by a pot of mushy peas, was well matched by the huge chunky chips that despite their vast dimensions were feather-light and crispy as melba toast.

The sausages and gravy were outstanding (although the mustard mash was cold, dry and doughy). The beef wellington was not quite so successful. The short pastry was spot on as was the little inner blanket of pâté but the filet within was overdone. Beef wellington is just too b****y hard to get right whatever way you like it, rare or medium or well done, because you’ve got the pastry and pâté to worry about. The adviser could not see the point of the accompanying spicy sauce on the side. It was odd and in the wrong place and mustard or horseradish would have been better.

But two pork shanks turned out to be very different from each other. One was well done, a dark golden joint that looked a bit like a caser, one of those old-fashioned brown leather footballs that had deflated and then hardened. The brittle crackling case turned out to be moist and tender in the middle. The second one, however, darker and smaller, had spent far too long in the oven and was overcooked by half a mile. The flavours had all been beaten out of it and it was dry as kindling.

The revelation of the day, and this feature alone would have made the journey worth it, was the tobacco onions. These dusty, dry little shards of chopped onion where out of this world. If the Georgian House put these in packets as savoury snacks they would fly over the counter.

Disappointing desserts were downbeat because they were soft where they should have been flaky or crumbly (apple pie and banoffee) or just a bit sickly-sweet (pavlova). Good ice cream though.

The currently unlicensed Georgian House is new, it shows great promise and, already, one or two dishes are up there. The staff are excellent but I’d throw out those awful tables, burn the plastic menus and that scone bar (it works in Belfast’s Cafe Conor but not here) and get an interior designer in for a couple of hours. It can’t be that hard to turn a restaurant into a proper restaurant.

The Bill

Pate: £4.75

Mussels: £4.50

Chicken wings: £4.25

Pork shank: £8.95

Beef wellington: £13.95

Tobacco onions: £2.25

Chips: £2.25

Kids meal: £4.25

Desserts x 3: £12.75

Coffee X 3: £4.50

Wine corkage X 2: £4

Total: £66.40

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