Joris Minne: Fitzwilliam Hotel
If bland food and eye-watering prices are your thing, look no further than the posh Fitzwilliam Hotel in the heart of Belfast
Life’s too short to dwell on disappointments. When things go wrong you do your best to move on quickly into a sunnier place and get happy again. For the adviser and me, that sunnier place is most restaurants. Burger bars, pizzerias, bistros, curry houses, Chineses, fancy restaurants — we love them and we rely on them not just for the food but for our mental health.
So when you go out for a meal, the last thing you want to confront is disappointment. You turn up at the restaurant, you’re guided to your table, the menu is presented, drinks orders are taken, there’s a bit of excitement and jolly confusion about what you’re going to have — fish or meat, starter or dessert or, what the hell, we’ll have all three. The server arrives with the drinks and you order the food (and the second cheapest bottle of wine) and you’re off.
In the Fitzwilliam Hotel last week, the menu by Kevin Thornton, a name that resonates with quality, announced great things. But £173 later I left feeling disappointed and short-changed. And a bit angry.
The dining room is a gorgeous, hushed, wood-panelled chapel of low-lit, moody, modern cool, and sure enough, the new spring menu is packed with promise.
Once your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, it reads like a wish list of all my favourite things. There are scallops with glazed pig’s cheek, smoked salmon from Ewing’s with dill crème fraiche, capers, salmon mousse and soused cucumber, watercress veloute with fine herb sour cream served with a choice of soft poached hen’s egg or crispy frog’s leg, slow-cooked breast of quail, pastille of its own leg fricassee of wild mushroom and artichoke with a game jus and much, much more. And that’s just some of the starters.
While we wait, a selection of homemade breads served with tapenade and basil oil (£4.00 — or £1 per slice) is delivered with some flourish by the server. (His flourishes will be a mainstay of the evening.) The disappointment begins. The bread is a selection of different-coloured but otherwise similar-tasting slices, which are just a bit stale. The tapenade and basil dips are in minute thimbles, barely a teaspoonful of each. Which is a shame because they are full of flavour and would have provided more welcome moisture for the rubbery-crusted bread.
The smoked salmon is good but no sign of the soused cucumber. The adviser expected the Nordic kind of sousing, strips of cucumber marinated in sweet vinegar and very good with the soft, fleshy smoked fish. But it’s absent from an otherwise decent starter.
Two plump, seared scallops are separated by a big mound of slow-cooked pig’s cheek. The little touches of carrot puree and red wine sauce are not lost amidst these powerful though delicately textured mouthfuls. Things are looking up again and the Fouassier Sancerre is top class, well chilled and a fine accompaniment. It is also providing a spectacular little side show and its presence will be very welcome because the dishes of rabbit and veal which are to follow plunge us back into sullen silence.
The artistically presented ballotine of rabbit served with cannelloni of braised leg with tarragon and mustard, buttered carrots and a little pot of chasseur sauce is bland. The adviser and I are big fans of rabbit because of the light gaminess and distinctiveness of texture and taste. Yet I detect nothing of this in the ballotine, which should be dense with earthy rabbitiness.
The same goes for the veal. A perfect composition that includes five pink, tiny, baby’s tongue-sized slices of loin of rose veal tucked in one corner of the square plate, heading up a parade that marches diagonally to the other corner of intriguing osso bucco faggot, two crispy sweetbreads, some buttered Swiss chard and a few curls of gnocchi.
These are all on my list of top foods. Yet I can’t taste them. The faggot has some flavour, which is mildly tangy and its texture is interesting, a bit like the Cuban ‘vieja ropa’, slow-cooked meat roughly bundled into a ball. But there is no depth to the veal loin whatsoever, the sweetbreads have none of the breathy, mouth-filling aftertaste and even the chard, usually a welcome, crunchy and green break from the heavier meats and sauces with a bit of iron tanginess, is lifeless. The Madeira café au lait sauce is a nice colour but I have to reach for the menu to remind myself what it is meant to taste of. The gnocchi was hardened, chewy and horrible.
I feel a bit angry because the diner’s caught here: the food isn’t bad so you can’t really complain, and you’ve agreed to buy it at the price shown in the menu. But at £28 for a veal dish, it needs to be spectacular and memorable. It was neither.
Penne pasta (kid’s) £4.50
Hot chocolate x 2 £7
Sparkling water x 2 £10.60
Sub Total £157.10