It’s location is discreet and it has a low media profile, but Tedford’s Restaurant serves up some classic culinary delights.
It’s when you don’t expect anything that the unexpected things happen. Sounds ludicrous, I know, but it’s true. For instance, if you go downstairs to watch the telly in your front room on a Tuesday night after a hard day’s work, the last thing you’d expect is a Kia Rio to come crashing through the front wall of your house and stop inches away from your tea and biscuits on the arm of the sofa. Yet this is precisely what happened to Carly McPhillips in Rugby in February this year. She was shaken but otherwise unhurt, as was the driver.
Going to Tedford’s restaurant in Belfast’s Oxford Street is no less a surprising eyebrow-raiser. While many quality restaurants have a presence in the media, a profile, high visibility, Tedford’s lurks in the background like a shy cousin tucked away in an odd fold in the road near the river. The road has been built high outside, which means there is no view of the Lagan unless you go upstairs. There are two floors above the ground but tonight we are with the happy crowd on the ground floor.
The dull brown, narrow room has little to offer in terms of visual stimulation or comfort. There are framed Gustav Klimt prints everywhere but even the gold leaf effect in these only adds to the tedium on view. Fortunately, this didn’t matter, as the mood in the place was buzzy and happy thanks to loads of out-of-town conference delegates who had dandered over from nearby hotels for their dinner.
The four of us were given the worst table in the place, opposite the door. I should have said something at the time — but when I looked around I could see that there were no alternatives, so maybe there would have been no point.
It’s a posh place with proper, black-clad servers who are well briefed on the menu’s contents and show clear ability at dealing with international customers. I’ve seen floor staff in restaurants in France treat foreign customers with a range of approaches including everything from bare-faced disdain to shoulder-shrugging indifference. This would be unimaginable in a place like Tedford’s, I thought, watching the staff deal elegantly with faltering English.
The food matches the old-fashioned feel of the restaurant, but this is meant in a good way because what was served to us was exquisitely classical and unashamedly conventional. So much so, in fact, that none of us could recall eating this kind of food anywhere else in recent years.
While the mussels in Thai red curry sound vaguely radical, they were as comforting as any quality mouclade, an old French dish of lightly steamed mussels in a curry-tinged creamy sauce. In fact, they were much better, as the generally available French restaurant mouclade tends to be of such varied quality and size; Tedford’s Thai version easily puts these in the corner.
A foie gras parfait with toasted brioche was straight down the line and flawless with surprising depth on the one hand and the delicacy of a baby’s breath on the other. The brioche was a lovely foil to the smooth pâté, with coarse crispiness and salty, buttery aftertaste.
The most memorable part of the evening was delivered a little later than expected — the conference delegates had grown in number and slowed things down for the rest of us. But when the wild turbot eventually arrived, it hid its magic with a modest enough presence. A decent-sized fillet of the fish sat on a round bed of roughly mashed champ accompanied by some langoustines and scallops. Keeping it all moist and appetising was a creamy Mornay-like sauce. All seemed pleasant enough until the first mouthful.
This was the equivalent of having David Bowie and a full band pop up right beside you and perform Young Americans after years of listening to it on ever-improving but still only ok sound systems. It was breath-takingly good in every respect. The fish was supremely well cooked, the potatoes beneath were crushed and creamy yet not lumpy, and that sauce was flawless, packed with light fishy flavours and vegetable stock and cream. Completely and thoroughly unexpectedly joyful.
We ate slowly to make it last, all sharing the same thing except for the adviser, whose curried monkfish seemed to be having a similar impact.
By this stage, the conference delegates had swamped the valiant Tedford’s staff. After an indecent wait for the main course, for which all was forgiven given the quality of the meal, we were told to take our time, there was no rush, sure, maybe have a wee rest? It was a good attempt but anyone could read between the lines. But we didn’t mind.
The desserts came in the end and the crème brûlée with strawberry sorbet and shortbread showed no sign of kitchen stress. Anyone who can come up with quality when under pressure should be applauded — I know, I know, it’s their job and all, but still, you’ve got to acknowledge that it can’t be easy no matter how professional you are, to stick to quality. “A client only remembers what you gave him, not when he got it,” says stressed out, deadline-busting ad executive Richard E Grant in How to Get Ahead in Advertising.
Tedford’s is surprising. But it has its flaws. When we asked for the bill, a server, not the one we had had throughout the evening, brought over the card machine and asked if we would be adding the gratuity to the bill or leaving it in cash. Not subtle and poorly judged, this lack of basic social skills has the potential to stop return custom dead in its tracks, even if everything was great. We left cash, got into the taxi and bemoaned that slightly acidic taste that was ruining an otherwise pretty much excellent dinner.
Foie gras x 2 £21
Mussels x 2 £13
Wild Turbot x 3 £66
Sancerre x 2 £64
Almond tart £6
Crème brûlée £6.50
Glass wine £4.25
Champagne x 2 £14
Kir Royale £7.50
Sparkling water £3.95
Stella Artois £3.10