Restaurant review: The Mitre Restaurant
Culloden Hotel, Bangor Road. Holywood. Tel: 028 9042 1066
Over the last 10 years, my aversion to hotel restaurants has been made clear a number of times. But people have been asking from where this repulsion stems. I can only explain this as the result of a childhood spent fearing the Sunday family outing.
Back in the Sixties, going to a hotel on a Sunday for your lunch was considered by some to be the height of fancy lifestyles.
In Armagh, we had a choice of the Drumsill or Charlemont hotels, or a run across the border into Monaghan to the Four Seasons. Occasionally, my dad would go big and haul us off to the Ballymascanlon, Co Louth.
These and all other hotels shared a common theme. Leaving the Charlemont aside (for it has since blossomed into a very family-friendly, city centre operation with decent food and a great bar), they were terrifying.
You entered the hotel through an invariably grand and intimidating entrance and instinctively adopted the peasant stance - wringing of hands, wiping your feet for a whole minute, then genuflecting because it felt like going into a church.
Hotel staff were like security people, all stern whispers and arched eyebrows.
The more you acted like you shouldn't be there, the more they convinced you that you were right. Once inside the restaurant, there was a confessional-like hush and you quickly sat down to avoid the stares from those who knew their restaurant liturgy.
This was 50 years ago. Now, if I try to explain this scenario to my children, they look at me as if I've lost my marbles.
Nowadays, everyone is a customer, a consumer to be feted and charmed and to seduce into repeat visits.
The Culloden Hotel was never like any of those I mentioned. In fact, my father-in-law worked as an architect alongside Henry Lynch Robinson back in the 1960s, converting the old bishop's palace into the fabulously plush hotel we all now know and love.
The style and substance of the place has bloomed ever since. The hotel restaurant, the Mitre, is a long-time favourite of Northern Ireland national treasure and culinary professional Paula McIntyre.
It is not trying to compete with the fashionably shagged-out look of the downtown bistros and brasseries, with their distressed timber, second-hand furniture and tattooed servers; rather, the Mitre concentrates on comfort, the crispness of the linen, the intensely polished glare of the crystal and the very big book containing its wine list.
To have Sunday lunch here is to enjoy that which my parents thought they were buying 50 years ago: service, a glimpse of the glamour of proper high-class hotels, regiments of cutlery lined up on both sides of your setting and very fancy food.
It's all there at the Mitre and it's a step back in time to a memory most of us only heard about. The Sancerre is chilled and arrives in a bottle dripping visibly with condensation: in this weather, it's as reassuring as the last gourd of water handed to a parched Richard Attenborough during his desert campaign against Rommel in the Sea of Sand.
Manager and maitre d' Richard Taylor is a one of those rare, professional men, moving from table to table quietly and unobtrusively, yet with genuine concern and care, expressing that level of hospitality the north is so good at.
When Mr Taylor asks you, "Is everything okay?", you know he actually means it and will correct the situation if the answer is no.
The food is colourful, some of it is beautifully composed, all of it fresh, well-cooked and conventional in a very good way.
There are dishes of roast duck breast, crab salad, pork belly and a top-class vegetarian option of red onion and goats cheese tarte tatin served with a garden salad.
I couldn't find fault with any of it.
The pork belly was possibly the best I've had all year, beautifully moist, the muscle and fat balanced and delicate.
The only slight flaw in the whole meal was a burnt orange jus which accompanied the duck: a mouth-contorting, eye-watering sweetness which rendered it inedible.
An exceptional chocolate ganache, perfect panna cotta and good selection of cheeses finished the meeting happily.
If ever you need a moment of zen-like peace in a formal surrounding, the silence punctured only by the heavenly twangs of an Irish harper - then the Mitre - despite, or possibly because of its religious and church links, is the place for you.
Sunday lunch x 3.........................£112.50
Glass prosecco x 2..............................£20
Still water x 2.......................................£8