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Restuarant review: Belfast Merchant Hotel's The Great Room

Merchant Hotel, Waring Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9023 4888

By Joris Minne

Published 03/09/2016

You can never have too many cherubs, lyres or gold leaf when you’re building a palace. The former Ulster Bank HQ became Belfast’s best hotel ten years ago
You can never have too many cherubs, lyres or gold leaf when you’re building a palace. The former Ulster Bank HQ became Belfast’s best hotel ten years ago
You can never have too many cherubs, lyres or gold leaf when you’re building a palace. The former Ulster Bank HQ became Belfast’s best hotel ten years ago

The Merchant Hotel is a monument to the commercial realisation of the Good Friday Agreement peace dividend.

 Ten years old, the hotel occupies the former palatial head quarters of the Ulster Bank in Waring Street. Back then, the long awaited post-Troubles peace dividend had yet to materialise but other economic factors, namely the property boom, were making Belfast more prosperous. In fact, Belfast was re-emerging as a bit of a powerhouse and the Merchant's £400-plus a night room rate and the arrival of celebrity guests (Meryl Streep stayed over a couple of nights to help raise funds for the MAC) made it irresistible, if also inaccessible, to many of us.

The hotel's exuberance of style and architecture, straight from the early Victorian period and Belfast's industrial heyday, a time when the city would have been talked about in the same admiring tones as we talk now of Dubai, San Francisco and Shanghai, has been further enhanced by the addition of lyre-playing cherubs and various symbols of hedonism to add some fun to the décor. You can never have enough gold embossed plasterwork, chandeliers or impossibly high ceilings held up by giant marble pillars when you're creating a palace.

And taking prime position in this explosion of visual luxury is the restaurant. Known as the Great Room, the restaurant sits beneath this jaw dropping pomp and splendour in what must have been the former main lobby area of the bank. The advisor remembers walking through the imposing space, her heels echoing along the marble floor to the tellers at the back.

I am an admiring fan of owners Bill and Petra Wolsey. Their marketing genius combined with an innate sense for what is on trend in the drinks business makes their bars and restaurants successful. But I never liked the Great Room. Even when it opened the design of the dining room clashed with the Victoriana in a way that made it visually discomfiting. It was weirdly post Edwardian, a kind of vision of plush Savoy opulence seen through the pages of a dated old magazine in a dentist's waiting room. But the food was good and the service flawless. It was a special occasion kind of place and prices were not prohibitive. It reintroduced the concept of eating in hotels just at a time when hotel restaurants were being punished for being generally rotten.

Ten years is a long time as a restaurant and now the plush velvet upholstered furniture is worn and shiny dark patches mark the areas of human contact. But the food is still good and the service as slick.

A visit last week revealed just how good the Great Room is with a display of culinary fireworks that covered all the bases. A summer garden soup with buttered lettuce and peas was surprisingly not like a gazpacho. Summer in Ulster is not what it is in Andalucia and our seasonal soup clearly accounted for this. It was an excellent, thick yet light pea-based potage in which the lettuce, wilted in the soup's heat, provided the last of those summer greens flavours. It was a knockout. The advisor's dressed white Kilkeel crab came with tomato and toasted sourdough melba and she compared it very favourably to Niall McKenna's.

Turbot for her main came with a shellfish ravioli which was just slightly on the chewy side but otherwise packed with ocean flavours and textures, the shining white block of turbot, flaking under the fork and providing mouthfuls of sweet, briny tastes.

The Iberico pork fillet appeared as pre-cut, fork-sized cubes and triangles matching similarly portioned artichoke and smoked paprika fondants. This was a little Basque festival invoking all those smells and tastes of the region. A lemon tart and some cheeses finished the night off happily.

The Great Room should work well for the expense account lunches, particularly as the privacy of each table is assured thanks to the generous space between them. But it's time for a refurb if the next 10 years are to see a good kick start.

After all, the restaurant is competing with some of the best in Ireland within a few hundred yards.

And because it's the best hotel in Northern Ireland, there is some expectation that it has a restaurant to match.

The bill

Soup ................................................ £6.50

Crab ............................................... £10.25

Turbot ........................................... £22.50

Pork ............................................... £22.50

Carrots ............................................ £4.50

Cauliflower .................................... £4.50

Bottle Grappin ............................. £42.50

River Rock x 2 ................................ £9.90

Lemon tart ..................................... £8.50

Cheese .......................................... £10.50

Glass Moscatel .............................. £3.95

Glass Barsac ................................... £5.95

Total ............................................ £152.05

Belfast Telegraph

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