Restaurant review: The Seahorse Bar and Restaurant
Grand Central Hotel, Bedford Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9023 1066
You know you're in good hands when Damian Tumilty is in the kitchen. And he's been in a good few kitchens in recent years. He has left indelible marks of quality in each one, lasting long after he has moved on.
From the original Café Vaudeville, where the drink and music were the priorities, Tumilty never lost sight of his role as a chef and whereas he could have got away with chicken goujons and chips for the party crowd who were there for the drink and the dancing, he remained committed to his art and put dishes out including braised beef cheek, short rib, sea trout and all sorts of beautifully cooked, high quality Irish dishes.
I learned to go early in the evening where a number of us had spotted his talent and realised we could enjoy a top-class dinner before 9pm when the salsa dance classes and disco erupted like a Californian earthquake lasting until the wee hours.
He then went on a tour of duty seeing action in Shu and French Village before landing one of the biggest jobs in the city, executive chef at the Grand Central Hotel.
This is a major undertaking: responsible for two restaurants and every scrap of food ordered on room service, he's the type of chef who watches every mouthful and whose attention to detail is forensic.
The Grand Café on the new hotel's ground floor opens early in the morning, serving breakfast, brunches, lunches and dinner every day.
Reviewed here (Belfast Telegraph, January 19 2019), the Grand Café is a delight where everything works well. Manager Ruairi McGrane is made in the same mould as Damian Tumilty which means that even if it's meant to be a modest brasserie, it's an excellent modest brasserie.
By Belfast standards it's one of the top three where the simple menu is well executed, the dining room gently humming and bustling along, comfortable and warm and where you feel you're at the heart of things in the city.
Go up one flight and you will find the Seahorse bar and restaurant. There was a fair bit of griping and moaning about the price of drink in the Grand Central Hotel, but as soon as you walk into the bar you realise it's a cut above.
It has a first-class lounge hush; the high ceilings and ambient lighting creating a sense of occasion, the staff friendly and quick on their feet.
The restaurant has the same atmosphere, a touch of Manhattan in the Fifties with just enough formality to make you sit upright and hold your cutlery in the right hands. The menu is a good match for the retro room. Here you will find a rack of lamb, roast chicken supreme, smoked salmon, pork terrine, roast monkfish and scallops. Nothing here to frighten the over-55s but on closer inspection, the magic is soon revealed.
The terrine is chunky, moist and just invisibly gelatinous as you'd want it. But there are treasures within including a piece of black pudding here and a generous chunk of foie gras there, adding excitement to the flavours and textures.
The accompanying port and bacon jam and toast melba sourdough are welcome company rather than cosmetic annoyance.
Among the starters are crab sliders. This is as close as you're going to get to the joys of lobster rolls in Belfast. At a fiver for two, don't miss them.
The rack of lamb is probably the highest quality ingredient I've ever seen. I ask for it medium to well done as chefs tend to prefer lamb pink and rare. The meat is tender, deeply and delicately savoury and distinctly Mourne. It's hard to put a finger on it, but Mourne lamb has a lighter, fresher taste and texture than others. The herb encrusted fat has been rendered and is crisp and salty with very deep flavour. I could eat that fat all day.
Staff are youthful and enthusiastic, chatty and engaging, many of them fresh faced and recently qualified.
The formality of the room and the old-fashioned charms of the menu are well balanced by their vigour and keenness to please. Tumilty is already receiving accolades and recently secured an AA Rosette to hang on the wall. I liked it very much.
Rack of lamb £32
Bottle Malbec £35