Cancel any reservations you may have about hotel food
Superstar chef Jean Christophe Novelli has certainly made a splash with his riverfront restaurant.. if only they could give the tables the odd wipe
NOVELLI AT CITY QUAYS AC Marriott Donegall Quay Belfast Tel: 028 9531 3191
Restaurants in hotels are not what they used to be. Until recently, you could rely on being served a variety of dressed-up effluent and animal fodder in some of them. Inedible food, draughty dining rooms and gaoler-standard service still blight a few of these places, but they are becoming a rarity.
Back in my youth, the principle upon which many hotels operated was intimidation. From the moment you and your scrubbed and polished family in Sunday best crossed the carpeted threshold, you knew the deal: you were lucky to be allowed in; they had a licence to fleece you; and who were you to think you might complain about the fly floating in the abandoned half-glass of Fanta on the restaurant’s windowsill?
Those days are largely behind us. I can’t remember the last time I ate in such a place (I can, actually, but it’s not there anymore, thank heavens).
Now, we’ve got very fancy-pants restaurants in the Park Avenue Hotel (Marco Pierre White), in Bullitt (Taylor & Clay and Babel) and the Titanic and the Culloden Hotels.
The restaurant in Ballycastle’s Marine Hotel has quickly grown a great reputation since the arrival of chef Pol Shields, and the Bishopsgate in Londonderry is much talked about.
Of course, the mould-breaker was Enniskillen’s Lough Erne Resort, where Noel McMeel’s unbelievably good Catalina restaurant keeps winning awards.
So, what of the gleaming new AC Marriott Hotel and its groundfloor Novelli restaurant in Belfast’s quays, close to where the Seacat used to dock?
The gleaming new building is bright and modern, and the restaurant boasts one of the most attractive dining rooms in the city, with views across the Lagan.
Chef Jim Mulholland has been hand-picked by French celebrity chef Jean Christophe Novelli, whose name is over the door.
He has entrusted his first restaurant on the island of Ireland to chef Mulholland and, in fairness, the local man makes more than a fair hash of producing those Novelli classics. His version of Novelli’s legendary apple tarte tatin wins my award for dessert of 2018. But the journey to reach the fabulous Bramley confection is not without its hurdles.
Front of house management is good, full of freshly ingrained welcome. It is a bit clunky, however. A spillage at the outset is absent-mindedly mopped up and leaves behind a trail of bits and pieces and smears across the table.
The older I get, the more irritated I become at this kind of thing.
We spend the next hour-and-a-half going through three courses, four, if you count the cold cuts and spilled olives. At no point between the courses is the table given a wipe.
Between the detritus left from the olives, which were sprinkled with parmesan, and the inevitable crumbs and other collateral from just eating, the dirt builds up. It’s bare veneer, so all that’s required is a damp cloth once in a while to keep it clean.
The cooking is generally very good, but occasionally spoiled by daft oversights. A generous starter of scallops, which comes with a delicious bouillon, peas, parsley root and samphire, is well-judged but let down by grit. And it’s not just a couple of escaped grains of sand — there’s enough grit to cover your driveway.
Everything that follows, however, is very good. The Tamworth pork terrine is actually an excellent and rustic pate de campagne, the likes of which you have to go to France to find.
Roast chicken with the ‘Novelli rub’ (ooh er, missus) is exemplary. Crispy skin, tender, moist meat and the rich flavour of countless childhood Sunday afternoons at the kitchen table make it a joyful and nostalgic experience.
The adviser’s ribeye from Hannan’s is outstanding, as is the accompanying bearnaise, which is light and fresh and perfectly balanced.
The teenager’s vegetarian chick pea curry is also a triumph of flavour, balance and wholesomeness. It is exceptionally good, invigorating, and you can almost feel your health improving after three mouthfuls.
The signature tarte tatin (allow 15 minutes despite the thing being called the Novelli Minute Baked Tarte Tatin) with bourbon ice-cream is a seriously memorable dessert.
Everything about it is right: the apples are Bramleys, firm and plentiful; the crust is flaky; and the whole thing is glistening in delicious clove-scented, caramelised sugar. The textures and flavours are utterly addictive.
If they could get into the habit of giving tables an occasional quick clean and wash out those scallops a bit more thoroughly, Novelli’s stands every chance of competing with Belfast’s high-quality restaurants.
MODERN ELEGANCE: Novelli at City Quays’ attractive dining room