Joris Minne: Season's Restaurant
This huge new restaurant at The Mount is just the business for lunchtime dining.
It may not have escaped your notice that the biggest restaurant in the history of the human race has opened in a Croydon shopping centre.
The colossal Cosmo — a sort of 21st century temple to fast pan-Asian food including Indian, Malayasian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and Singaporean — sits 700 diners, lists 120 dishes on its menu and offers a choice of 50 desserts. You can pick and mix and, by my calculation, you should theoretically be able to come back to Cosmo every night for the rest of your life and enjoy a different combination of starters, mains and desserts each time.
Cosmo is a corporate chain of self-service restaurants with a presence in peculiarly selected cities and suburbs including Wolverhampton, Swindon and Coventry. I guess if it were to come to Northern Ireland it would be drawn to Sprucefield.
At the opposite end of the culinary spectrum, but still at the cutting edge of self-service catering, is Seasons restaurant in east Belfast. A more unprepossessing place you could not possibly find anywhere in Ireland, yet it’s always busy at lunchtime. That’s because it is a canteen for delegates visiting The Mount Conference Centre.
It may be self-service, but it’s not run of the mill. And it doesn’t seat 700 people. I went to Seasons alone following the adviser’s suggestion (she didn’t actually tell me to go on my own, it just so happened I was in the area and she suggested by text that I might like to go to The Mount). She’s been to Seasons a few times because of conferences and meetings. Each time she’s come home singing its praises.
So when I walked into the place after having spent a bit of time wandering up and down the Albertbridge Road looking for it, I was relieved to find a friendly face at the door and a restaurant packed with diners.
It’s a modern, airport lounge of a place — a restaurant whose decor could upset nobody: a neutral environment common all over towns and cities from Helsinki to Lisbon. It is therefore immediately familiar and puts you at ease, a restaurant that, despite its packed tables, makes room for the lonesome diner who just wants to enjoy lunch with a newspaper for company.
What really makes it tick is the staff. An attentive team, each member is on the lookout at all times, ensuring jugs are never empty of iced water, that plates are quickly cleared and coffees poured. And yet this is a cafeteria, when all is said.
But it’s a classy cafeteria. The choice of main courses at the bright counter covers all the bases — vegetarian, fish, meat — and they all seem to be high quality. There were dauphinoise potatoes, salmon quiche, vegetarian lasagne and roast stuffed pork loin. But we’ll come to that in a minute, because the starters on the menu are a different matter. These are brought to you. You can order your glass of wine and your starter as you might in any conventional restaurant.
Today’s soup, broccoli and bacon, turned out to be a wonderfully thick and savoury broth whose saltiness never blotted out the main flavours. Broccoli and bacon, with a hint of cheese in there, are a great match — a robust pick-me-up for any delegate who may be tiring of the speeches, course leaders and flip charts and who needs fortification for the afternoon.
As I enjoyed the soup I tried to see which organisations were in. In front of me was a smallish round table with six burly men. The table had been reserved for the British Safety Council. I waited for them to put on their high-visibility jackets, helmets and safety glasses before picking up the cutlery and was disappointed.
An organisation called Netskills had reserved three big tables and when their delegates eventually arrived, none of them looked remotely like fishermen.
Seasons is great for people-spotting, thanks to those little signs on each table. I’m still wondering what Beckinridge is. They had a couple of tables.
I went up to the counter and asked for the pork. The chef asked me how much I wanted. “Nobody’s having it today, would you like to finish it?” he offered. It would have been rude to refuse so I had half a stuffed roast and a plateful of dauphinoises. “There’s salads over at the other counter,” he advised. Coleslaw is your only man with this kind of food.
The next 30 minutes were heavenly. The pork was excellent, especially with the apple sauce. The potatoes were cooked through in a very good sauce with cheese gratin, although they needed a lot of salt.
Just the right amount of times was I asked if everything was ok and as soon as I had finished, coffee and dessert were offered. I went up to the dessert counter and the meringue, cake, pies and trifles all looked huge. A generous slice of raspberry and almond tart with a bit of custard added separately was irresistible, moist, dense, tangy and sweet. The biscuity crust was the sort you wished would never end.
There are few places in which you can conduct a business transaction discreetly and enjoy lunch simultaneously. Seasons is a definite candidate for the best business lunch in Belfast for the reason of quality and service, and also for the simple fact that they revolve around a strict timetable — getting those delegates back to their blue skies thinking for 2pm.Soup and crusty|bread £3.95
dauphinoises and coleslaw £8.95
Glass wine (25cl) £3.50