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

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - FOOD -

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

Joris Minne

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