Eating Out: Support your local Jean-Christophe Novelli restaurant – you deserve it
Novelli at City Quays
AC Marriott Hotel Belfast
90 Donegall Quay
028 9531 3191
LOOK around Belfast and you can see newly opened or still-under-construction hotels multiplying at a rapid rate. While the peace process may be struggling to deliver a functioning government, it has succeeded in making this a safe and attractive city for tourists from around the globe.
It’s not often I get a chance to just stop, take a breath and enjoy my hometown and all it has become. I hadn’t visited the new AC City Quays Marriott Hotel since it opened its doors so no better excuse to check it out for some food and relaxation on a welcome night off.
I was going to be a tourist in my own city and it was to be a fun, food-and-wine-filled experience. The hotel is the first with an outside area along the Lagan, but I doubt it will be the last.
While it is beautifully finished inside, the area surrounding it is still industrial and very much a work in progress. I can only imagine in five or 10 years' time a cluster of new hotels and restaurants, maybe even some houseboats along the river that launched a thousand ships.
I booked in to my room about teatime; it was on the seventh floor with a river view that perfectly combines new and old Belfast, the Titanic visitors centre, nestled among the cranes and container ships in the working industrial port.
We’d dinner booked for 8pm but were keen to have a drink and a nosey around beforehand. The restaurant is a Novelli – and by that, I mean a Jean-Christophe Novelli, the French celebrity chef who is hotter than a bird's eye chili.
My mate had dined here a few weeks previously and the man himself was there; oozing French charm, he came to her table to sprinkle his charisma like fairy dust.
On this occasion there was no such personal attention, but I was here to drool at delicious food and not French chefs.
There’s a great little Prix Fixe menu available during the day mid-week, two courses for £18 with the famous Novelli French onion soup or a spinach gnocchi to start, a Pichana steak or monkfish curry among the options for mains and, if dessert is your jam, then how does a tarte tatin with bourbon ice cream sound?
We went for a selection of dishes from the main a la carte, a scallop seared to perfection, a goat’s cheese with beetroot jelly. The butter of Co Down's Abernethy family features heavily, with beautiful salty seaweed butter, a lamb rump, pink and blushing.
A duck breast – and I have an issue with badly cooked duck: if the skin hasn’t been rendered until it’s crisp, the breast rare, well then you’d be as well chucking it in the Lagan – was cooked to perfection, served with creamy dauphinoise potato, some chard and asparagus.
I have to say at this stage we were a little merry and enjoying the night-time city vista from our perfectly appointed table. The wine menu is well thought out and with a Spanish Talavera at just £18 right up to a £55 Grand Crue Sicilian chardonnay, there’s something for all budgets.
We had a chocolate fondant for dessert, which oozed chocolate when it made contact with the spoon, sharp, fresh raspberries to cut through the sweetness. If I were to return I think the passion fruit brulée with sable biscuit would get a look in.
The menu changes seasonally and despite the distinctly Mediterranean influence almost all the produce is sourced locally, though the award-winning artisan Coolattin cheddar comes all the way from WIcklow.
The chef will also put together a tasting menu if you ask nicely and there are occasional menus for special group events.
The hotel and restaurant are a complete asset to the city but without passing footfall will live or die on their reputation and word of mouth. The majority of the guests were tourists, mainly American or English, but the food is better than just a hotel restaurant; it aims for more, it delivers more.
Breakfast with the autumn sun bouncing off the Lagan and streaming through the large windows was an absolute delight and again with lots of locally sourced produce on offer.
A staycation can be a wonderful thing, and in a market full of choice the hotel must be hoping that the Novelli restaurant gives them a point of difference from the competition.
The owners have invested heavily in the city but they will rely on a bit of local support, and as welcome as American tourists are, do we not deserve nice things as well?
Son Excellence Sauvignon Blanc £24
Goat’s cheese £7
Lamb rump £16
Chocolate fondant £6