Belfast Telegraph

Restaurant review: Grand Café in Belfast

Grand Central Hotel, Bedford Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9023 1066

The delightful Grand Cafe in the city centre
The delightful Grand Cafe in the city centre
Joris Minne

By Joris Minne

What makes a good café? Coffee, definitely; tray bakes, check; servers with aprons, check; comfortable chairs and no draughts by the window, absolute, red-line must-haves. Oh, and early opening for those of us stumbling in to work at stupid o'clock in medical need of flat whites and teas.

The multiples pay attention to these features so you can be certain that all five components will be in place. But frankly, it's the independents who get these plus the mood just right. Usually.

Take the Grand Café (which opens at 6am!) in the Grand Central Hotel. Brightly lit, high-ceilings, spacious and comfortable, the Grand seems to run all day long from breakfast to dinner without a pause for breath. Prominently placed on the ground floor with direct views to the shoppers and traffic out on Bedford Street, the warmth and comfort are enhanced by your sharp sense that those outside looking in wish they could swap places.

Above the door of Mussenden Temple on the north coast is a plaque which says something to the effect of: "How warm and cosy am I sitting here watching the ships tossed at sea."

The same applies here. Except that instead of smug quotes from the Earl Bishop Harvey, you can read modern lines of poetry from Paul Muldoon etched on the windows and pillars by the main entrance and which are more calming and settling.

But what of the offer itself? I have come this day for lunch with an old pal. It's that funny time of the day which is neither late morning nor early lunch and people are still in for teas and coffees. They're a flexible and hospitable bunch here, led today by the charming and gently assertive manager, Ruairi McGrane. You will find you don't have to be here for a two-course meal when you'd rather just have a cup of Punjana and a fifteen.

My friend, Joan, and I are here for lunch, however, and menus are quickly brought. The contents soon demonstrate the range of dishes typical of a quality café which doubles up as a restaurant. This may seem like a trite thing to say but it is important when considering a larger group in which not everyone may want to go past the soup and wheaten bread stage and where some may want steaks while others just a January cup of green tea.

There are sandwiches, salads and snacks including meaty sausage roll or vegan sausage roll, antipasto featuring local cured meats, Ballylisk cheese, tapenade and sourdough, red pepper and tomato hummus, Korean style chicken wings and many more. Among the sandwiches are fishfingers served with tartar and French fries and available after 10pm. The Grand Café (GC) sandwich is of grilled sourdough with crushed avocado, poached egg and hot sauce. You get the picture.

But we are grubbers and no light-bite will pass our lips. We are hungry and here to eat. We will not be modern: we will have starters and mains including chowder and a picanha steak and maybe even a dessert. In the meantime, a carafe of Alvarinho will keep us from eating our fingernails.

Very soon, the rhythm of a good lunch is tick-tocking along nicely. Chowder is packed with salmon, smoked haddock, and cod; there are some potatoes and scallions in the creaminess and the homemade Guinness and treacle wheaten crumbles like dark chocolate cake. It's all fabulous, rich, warming and life affirming. So much that the thought of a main is now daunting. But no fear, the picanha steak is a protein bomb, all lean and tasty. The accompanying fries and bearnaise are too appetising to ignore and are merrily devoured, any thoughts of a full stomach quickly dispelled. Joan's seabass is pearly and gleaming and full of light, briney flavours.

Ruairi and the rest of them are delightful and at hand without being overwhelming. He says he likes the grunginess of the place. Both Joan and I are puzzled by this description. For us, it has just enough formality to bring nervous elderly maiden aunts with the rest of the family in Sunday best. It's so Hastings.

Ruairi explains that this is how Howard Hastings views the Grand Café. In mild disbelief, we both smile. It's definitely retro, it's certainly a place Sir Dr William Hastings would have approved of, but grungy? Don't be soft. It's an elegant place with old fashioned, high-ceilinged charm, comfort, service and good, affordable food and drink. We loved it.

The bill

Sausage roll..........................................£3

Chowder................................................£7

Picanha steak.....................................£14

Seabass............................................... £14

Carafe Alvarinho............................... £16

Total....................................................£54

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