Life

Eating Out: I stand corrected – Jean-Christophe Novelli is clearly a chef who knows his onions

Jean-Christophe Novelli cooks the onions in his French onion soup for 13 minutes and who am I to argue?
Seamus Maloney

Novelli at City Quays

AC Marriott Hotel

Donegal Quay

Belfast

BT1 3FE

028 9531 3191

novellirestaurants.co.uk/belfast

YOU don’t need me to tell you the internet is full of bare-faced lies. Whether they’re trying to sway an election or part you from your money or, you know, just for a laugh, there are falsehoods flying around everywhere online.

Some of them aren’t insidious or dangerous, but they’re lies none the less. One that long pre-dates the world wide web has always bugged me. And, yes, I’ve clearly got too much time on my hands.

Time to scroll through websites – and thumb through recipe books – confirms what I’ve always suspected. There’s a whole lot of fibbing going on when it comes to French onion soup.

It’s on my mind because Novelli at City Quays, in the AC Marriott Hotel on the waterfront in Belfast, goes big on its French onion soup. The eponymous Jean-Christophe Novelli puts his stamp on it on the menu – “my own rustic French onion soup” it says. Then the soup itself chimes in: “I’m worth the wait.” Right.

Anyone who’s tried to make the soup themselves will know that waiting is big part of it, specifically until the onions are caramelised just as much as you need them to be. But everywhere you look, the 90 minutes to two hours I’ve never failed to need are nowhere to be found. Twenty minutes, half an hour, 40 minutes, whatever. They all come up woefully short to my own experience.

When Novelli at City Quays opened, the publicity blitz had the recipe for JC’s signature potage front and centre. And how long does he cook his onions? Thirteen minutes. This does not bode well. Wrong.

The onions in this soup are perfectly sweet in a deep, beefy broth a lot of time has clearly been taken over. A perfect antidote to the rain whipping at the windows. The twist is that it’s all under a pastry lid, the golden dome ending up shattered and bobbing around the liquid, soaking up the goodness.

Not all twists are necessary, of course, but the soup delivers what you want and expect, as everything at Novelli does.

The hotel dining room is bright and airy – and if it wasn’t lashing outside those tables along the water would be very tempting.

Even at the busiest time, there would be plenty of the necessary distance to feel safe and comfortable. A few hours after our late lunch it becomes clear that restaurants will have to close again. As things stand, they will reopen next week. Or they may not.

If they do, and you want some comfort against the November chill and feel a bit refined while you’re getting it, Novelli’s steers a steady path in your direction. As the soup suggests, we’re in the land of safe, secure, French bistro classics – unimpeachable when done right, and Novelli’s does them right.

A slab of ribeye from meat magician Peter Hannan needs only to be not completely messed up to come out the beefiest, closest to flawless, steak you can imagine, with thick, craggy-edged chips.

The meat and potatoes across the table are just as good – a crisp outside, collapsible inside swirl of glazed pork belly, with a ham croquette that could fall under exactly the same description.

Its chips were pomme allumettes, aka matchstick potatoes, aka what you might get with your Royale with Cheese in Paris. This is a compliment. McDonald’s fries done well, wherever you are, are to be greedily welcomed.

Nuggets of crunchy fried gnocchi come with cool goat’s cheese in a salad, while dessert reaches back into the bag of classics and pulls out a wedge of smooth, rich chocolate pave with bursts of raspberry and next-level honeycomb, and a single round of tarte tatin, all soft apple and warm caramel. An autumn hug if ever there was one.

And who doesn’t need one of those right now?

THE BILL

Gnocchi £6.75

10oz ribeye £28

Chocolate pave £6.75

Three-course set menu £25

Pomme allumettes £3.50

Americano £3.10

Calypso Coffee £5.95

Service charge £7.91

Total £86.96

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