Joris Minne: Raffles
Temple of Taste
Instead of finding gourmet innovation, a Sunday visit to the acclaimed Raffles restaurant at the Templeton Hotel turned up plenty more traditional surprises
People say that dog owners end up looking like their pets. After years of mutual, faithful and unshakeable loyalty, the dog and owner share similar hair cuts and facial expressions, making them both faintly ridiculous, endearing and, according to their friends and neighbours, the spit of each other.
The same can be said of food and the people who eat it. I know older ladies with set perms who enjoy nothing more than a good pavlova or a towering slice of black forest gateau. There are one or two second-hand car dealers who are as fond of Brylcreem as they are of a nice bit of slippery salmon. And the gloomier sort of whispering country man from west of the Bann will more than likely be happy with a pot of tea and four slices of bread and butter with his boiled potatoes and lamb chop.
Over the years of eating in all sorts of restaurants I can conclude that diners are as varied as, say, motorists. Some people prefer a plain but dependable Toyota Yaris, while others go for something a bit more wicked and eye-catching
The smart restaurateur knows this and caters for his market. But one restaurant has shown limbo dance-like flexibility in its bid to broaden its clientele and provide the broadest possible palette of styles. The Templeton Hotel’s restaurant, Raffles, was a finalist in the recent Northern Ireland Hotels Federation restaurant of the year competition and was within a whisker of lifting the title.
In a tightly fought cook-off with three other top hotel restaurants, Raffles’ head chef Ivan O’Neill wowed the panel of judges (including me) with a dazzling menu of Ballydugan Estate pheasant breast with red cabbage puree, artichoke and raisins soaked in Bushmills Whiskey, Portavogie monkfish and lightly smoked hand-dived scallop with poached leeks, tomato concasse, scallion and tomato dressing followed by loin and liver of Finnebrogue venison with parsnip and potato rosti, curley kale, buttered root vegetables, and red wine and thyme braised shallots. The whole lot was finished off with Irish cheeses and an interesting ‘study of rhubarb’ (including rhubarb dust).
It was a fine piece of modern, innovative, and, judging by the venison dish we were presented with, very tasty cooking. The judges were impressed by the approach and fine judgement.
On a Sunday evening, the adviser and I took the children to the Templeton to get a bit more of this. But when we got there an entirely different experience was on the menu. Prawn cocktail, chicken Maryland, roast beef, gammon and pineapple, liver & bacon with onion gravy. What?! I spluttered. I love all that old stuff, but where’s the red cabbage puree or the concasse, the lightly smoked hand-dived scallop or the rhubarb study?
Ah, says the maitre d’, Stephen. See, during the week we get a very different diner, he explains. Some are travellers (The Templeton is five minutes from Aldergrove), many are business people and mostly, they are seasoned eaters who appreciate something a bit more modern. But on a Sunday, everyone here is local and wants a traditional Sunday dinner with choice of three potatoes.
The chicken Maryland, it seems, sells by the dozen. Same with prawn cocktails and the roasts are as popular as they were in pre-war Britain. The adviser and I sigh and persevere.
As a consolation, we find a couple of specials including a sea bass starter. The sea bass arrives crispy and perfectly moist. It is divine and a show-off in head chef Ivan O’Neill’s kitchen has just scored 100%, providing an insight into what they can really do in Raffles.
We go with the Sunday evening flow and fall into the gentle rhythm of dinner time in the country. And it just goes to show you how much satisfaction there is in the old-fashioned dishes.
The prawn cocktail is lush — the prawns are plump, juicy and plentiful, and full of flavour. I want the chicken Maryland but in the end can’t face it despite its sensational appearance at neighbouring tables. I go for roast lamb with mint sauce. A side order of buttery carrots with sesame seeds — large enough to do the rounds of the entire restaurant and still have leftovers — lands on the table and we do our best. This is heart-of-Ulster catering, the kind that fuels up ploughmen for long enough to turn over 200 acres, but I’ve spotted sherry trifle on the menu and I am determined to save a tiny space, enough for it and a cup of tea. The tea is memorable but the sherry trifle instantly forgettable.
The opulent, Bordeaux-coloured dining room with its gilt framed mirrors and regal little armchairs provides enough poshness and warmth (there’s a very nice gas-flamed fire, flickering away at one end of the room) to make the evening special. The servers know most in the room by name and there’s a light mood about it all.
If it’s quality old-fashioned grub you want, go on a Sunday. If you have a hunger for something more exciting, week days and Saturdays will provide an interesting alternative to the young buck restaurants in Belfast.
Three-courses x 2: £31.00
Kids’ menu: £5.00
Bottle Chablis: £24.95