Restaurant review: The Members' Dining Room at Stormont
Stormont Parliament Buildings, Belfast. Tel: 028 9052 1041
What's going on at Stormont? The visitor car park is full, there's a buzz about the place and the security measures are still in force. The Executive might be absent but you'd never know it if you tried to get a table for lunch in the Members' Dining Room, which is now open to the public.
Not so long ago I was prevented from reviewing any of the restaurants in Parliament Buildings. The fear was that I might poke fun at the subsidised meals being enjoyed by the so-called fat cat MLAs at our expense. As if. I know too many of them personally to recognise that they are not fat cats, that they are committed to public service and that they work tirelessly on behalf of their constituents. Few of us could do the job they do.
The politics of food is a phenomenon aside: most economic strife boils down to food production as well as territory and commodity controls.
But another side of food politics is the central role it plays in so many situations.
Take the Rambouillet talks in the Nineties when French, British and US leaders negotiated a peace deal between the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians.
Every night the group would meet over dinner after interminable disputes during the day. For one American the fourth night proved a fancy dinner too far and he asked loudly of the French diplomat beside him what possible good these dinners might do. The diplomat replied quietly to say that it was much harder to give orders to air-bomb somebody's village after asking the leader in question to pass the salt and pepper.
I always thought of Stormont's canteen and the much posher Members' Dining Room as the real place of negotiation.
Now that Stormont no longer hosts an Executive, the great unwashed are being allowed in to taste some of the culinary grandeur for themselves.
Arriving at Stormont is in itself a drama. The stern splendour of the white Parliament building looms over you as you drive past it to the visitors' car park.
It leaves you in no doubt that you're within close range of what passed until last January in Northern Ireland for ultimate power.
The walk from the car park to the building itself involves an airport-style security search followed by a stop at the reception desk past the famous revolving doors.
From there you step through the echoing, high-ceilinged lobby, up the stairs and round to the front of the building where the Members' Dining Room is housed, directly above the front doors. You can't get more central than that.
Three of us arrived at the appointed time for lunch, didn't like the look of the allocated table - too close to the door - and were graciously re-seated at a better one.
The formality of the service matches the rigid elegance of the oak-panelled room. There is a distinct sense that we have been permitted access, allowed onto hallowed ground, and should consider ourselves very lucky to be here. And due to the awe and mildly intimidating grandeur of it all, we accept our great fortune and behave with good manners.
Orders are taken, wine is requested. Starters arrive first and eventually the wine makes an appearance. Better late than never. That's because it has to come from the bar, the maitre d' explains without apology.
Starters of prawn cocktail are standard and the wheaten bread is fine. Toasted focaccia comes with an array of onion marmalade, oil and another dip of aioli. Another retro classic of watermelon and prosciutto is slightly too warm. The steamed hake with pak choi, miso broth and chilli and ginger is cooked too long and the broth which has decent flavour if a bit overpowered by the ginger, fails to moisten it.
The pak choi is gloriously crunchy and perfect, however. Chicken and cheese croquettes with Caesar salad is innovative and the vegetable frittata is more light Spanish omelette than fried veg.
Service is impeccable, friendly and experienced.
And if you want to travel back in time to an era of elegant formality surrounded by political intrigue, history and power, this is the place to come.
3-course lunch x 3.........................£53.25
Sides x 3...........................................£4.65
Bottle Chenin Blanc..................... £19.65