Restaurant review: The Observatory
Grand Central Hotel, Bedford Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9023 1066
Afternoon tea, once the formal torture you had to endure when visiting elderly aunts, nuns and distant cousins, has made a huge comeback in recent years.
There isn't a hotel in the country where you can't get afternoon tea. The meal fell out of favour years ago, principally because of altering lifestyles, busy family weekends and changes to our timetables. Because you used to have your lunch at lunchtime and your dinner at dinner time, this meant that afternoon tea fell neatly in the middle of the afternoon.
But now that people have lunch at 3pm (or at 10.30am, or later in the evening) and breakfast is enjoyed at any time of the night, fitting in an afternoon tea has been a challenge.
This is weird, because, if anything, afternoon tea and its essential components of tea, sandwiches, buns and tray bakes, is ideally suited to any time of the day, frankly. Coming home after a match, a wedding or a night on the town, what could be more attractive than an 'afternoon' tea?
Or waking up after the match, wedding or the night out, could there be anything more beguiling than a three-deck offering of sweet and savoury finger foods with a pot of tea? No, of course not. It is the world champion of comfort foods.
So, what the hotels have done is to resurrect the phenomenon, upgrade the experience by making it irresistible, serve it in their poshest room and on their best china and transform it from a once-affordable treat to a luxe experience.
There are some very good afternoon tea offers in Belfast now. Babel's Tipsy Tea is a hoot, principally because the 'tea' is actually a selection of gin cocktails served in a teapot (to take the bad look off you). There are sandwiches, doughnuts, cakes and sweet treats on the three-tiered tray and the lot comes in at £29.50.
The afternoon tea served in the Great Room in the Merchant Hotel is another triple-deck winner. For £39.50 at the weekend (it's a fiver less during the week), you get a shed-load of stuff, including a glass of Valdo Prosecco, five wee sandwiches, patisseries, scones and tea. I recommend you fork out £3.50 more and get the glass of Ruinart Brut champagne.
But the focus of this week's attention - and my thanks to those nice people at Hastings for reminding me that this week is Afternoon Tea Week - is the offering from the Observatory Cocktail Bar on the 23rd floor of the new Grand Central Hotel.
First of all, the Observatory is, quite literally, the hotel's glittering crown. Perched way up there, you have unrivalled views of Belfast.
Grand Central's executive chef Damian Tumilty says from up here the city doesn't look like itself anymore. I know what he means, but that's the old Belfast down there all right. It's just you've never seen it from 200ft up.
It's worth paying the £40 for afternoon tea here for the view alone. The 23rd floor is so high up we even watched weather fronts moving in from the south and into the sunlit uplands of the Cave Hill within minutes.
While the view is dizzying and breathtaking, the ample afternoon tea soon settles nerves. The first noticeable feature is the choice of teas. All from Thompson's, there are remarkably flavoursome blends, loose leaf teas and a variety of infusions. The single estate Assam is something to behold: complex, full of tannins, malt flavours and raspberry-like tanginess. It is your pukka cuppa.
The best-seller here is the Cloud Catcher, a fruit infusion with bitter cherries, coconut, cranberries and kiwi. It's not for everybody, being very perfumed and floral, but the name of it and the altitude at which we are enjoying this makes it irresistible.
Excellent scones, four good little sandwiches (the bread's from Irwin's), top-class smoked salmon (not too chilled) and possibly the best coffee eclair I've had outside France, stand out among a very strong field of classy bites. There are macaroons, which I cannot abide, no matter how passionately endorsed by pastry chefs and servers. They belong in big cardboard boxes as protection for electrical goods.
The extra tenner for a glass of Bollinger is worth the whack: in for a penny and so on. Because this is the high life. Don't think too much about the price. All afternoon teas are a luxury. But perhaps none is quite so luxe as this.
Afternoon Tea £40.00
Glass of Bollinger £10.00