Joris Minne: Horatio Todd's
Horatio Todd’s satisfies Northern Ireland’s current appetite for all things nostalgic with its quality, great value food served in funky retro surroundings
Marketing people might be the devil’s spawn, but there is no doubt as to their influence on our environment. Look at how Americanised we (and especially our children) have become. It started with Coca Cola, developed a nice head of steam with blue jeans, rock ’n’ roll and McDonald’s and has reached its zenith in expensive doublebarrelled leisure wear brand Abercrombie & Fitch.
I remember my uncle saying the same thing 40 years ago, exasperated by, but resigned to, American cultural imperialism. But it was different then because anything American was new and glamorous. What we didn’t have then was nostalgia. Now nostalgia is everywhere. But it’s an odd form of nostalgia because it’s mostly based around stuff you don’t remember ever having experienced personally. It’s nostalgia for something your memory has cobbled together from a million movie images and adverts absorbed over the years. The marketeers have become so skilled in understanding our desires they now know better than we do ourselves what it is we like.
And what most of us like is olde Americana. It doesn’t have to be real either — newly created olde Ameri-cana is just fine. Go into a Hollister shop and you’ll know what I mean — lots of pretend heritage with dark wood panelling and a bit of Beverley Hills potted palms for that early California vibe.
We also like the old American established industrial feel of Super Dry clothes, a company that is barely 10 years old and started out as a market stall in England. Quirkily, Super Dry takes the trip a step further by claiming its origins were in a Tokyo garage influenced by American fifties culture.
Everyone’s at it. Ralph Lauren, Jack Wills and Crabtree & Evelyn have perfected this step-back-in-time thing for some years now. And now it’s happening in the restaurant sector. Well, it has been for ages, but not always to great effect. Remember Garfunkel’s?
Thanks to the blossoming in recent years of restaurateurs and hoteliers with marketing know-how and an inclination for nostalgia, we have seen a mushrooming of new old places. Horatio Todd’s in Newtownards Road is the latest. Barely open seven months, the look and feel is distinctly old America.
Grand old leather Queen Annestyle leather sofas stretch out like aherd of frozen small black cows around a bare-brick, split level, L shaped barn of a place. Here and there are gilt framed mirrors and black framed photographs. Warm, chocolate-coloured wooden panels split the room up into intimate corners and beautiful big lampshades hang from the ceiling to cast a gentle lightcreating a mood that is both Gary Cooper macho and Doris Day feminine at the same time.
It replaces the lamented Rouge Cafe that struggled here for a couple of years and which was post-modern and edgy. East Belfast prefers old America just like everybody else.
But sniffy as I might be about this, the truth is it’s a great spot. The service is intelligent and instinctive, pleasant and genuinely quality conscious. The extensive lunch time menu is as tempting as the wine list is affordable. As long as you stay away from the Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle Champagne at £120, you’ll be hard pushed to pay more than £20 for a decent Petit Chablis (£19.95).
There is everything here for the time-poor office worker (the service is exceptionally fast if you want it to be) as well as for the more leisurely ladies who lunch. I saw people having business meetings too — I don’t recommend it as a discreet business lunch venue because I heard every word being discussed in three or four conversations.
The express lunch menu has 21 dishes, soups and sandwiches and there are a couple of specials on top. Gazpacho, chowder, pasta, burgers, Thai curries and fishcakes are among the repertoire making it pretty much universally acceptable. The prices are all below £8.50, apart from the locally sourced rib-eye at £13.95, and I had two courses and a drink for less than £13. This makes it not just affordable but, with regards to the quality of my lunch, exceptionally good value.
Soup of the day was an excellent lentil soup that had all the muscle and strength of Pop-Eye’s tin of spinach. Thick, creamy, salty and deep in that musty lentil flavour, it came with two generous slices of fresh wheaten bread and plenty of butter. A meal in itself, it was delivered within three minutes, so, technically, I could have been back at work within ten.
The chicken and scallion pie that followed was equally entertaining and heart-warming. Even in August these two wintry dishes were not out of place thanks to their flavours. A bowl packed with chunks of good chicken,lots of tang from the scallions and soothing cream sauce was covered with a little hat of flaky pastry. Technically not a pie then, but rather a handy version of one, the dish was nonetheless enjoyable and, because of its composition, quicker to the table.
There is much to recommend Horatio Todd’s, which is why it can be so difficult to get a table there at the weekends. Book early to avoid disappointment, as my marketing colleagues might say. You’ll be amused by the olde-timey look but glad that there’s nothing old-fashioned about the food or the service.