Any first-time visitor, to Belfast, could be forgiven for assuming The Merchant Hotel has stood, undaunted in all its Italianate splendour, as an ever-present icon through good times and bad; something akin to London’s Savoy, Claridge’s or The Ritz. In some respects, that’s true, insofar as the building actually pre-dates all those illustrious establishments.
However, its latest incarnation – as a hotel – didn’t materialise until 2006, being substantially extended and refurbished as late as 2010. Until then, it had been the headquarters of the Ulster Bank; but its 19th century heritage was faithfully retained, in all its glory (and maybe better than it was originally, in my opinion!)
The Great Room Restaurant, home to Ireland's largest crystal chandelier designed by Marcus Notley, only serves to reinforce the glamour; and optimises the popular perception of fine dining. I have eaten here many times for breakfast, lunch and dinner and absolutely adore the grandeur of it, the theatre of the food and the romance of the little velvet booths and banquettes.
But for now, let’s talk about taste…
The Great Room menus are built on the finest seasonal ingredients available, combined with fresh and innovative interpretations of classic dishes. The service is traditional, quite formal and respectful for newbies, as you’d expect and in-keeping with the ambiance. Slightly more familiar, but never intrusive for regulars. In short, if you’re looking for an evening of formality, with excellently presented food served in Victorian splendour – I don’t know how else to phrase it – The Merchant’s Great Room is the place to go. You get pretty much exactly as you’d expect.
What may come as a surprise is that it manages to remain good value for money, considering all the above. OK, there are no Michelin stars to boast about, but the food is excellent; and at £60 per head, for a six-course tasting menu, with wine (£45 without), strikes me as very reasonable. The nine-course offering, at £95 with wine or £70 without, is similarly reasonable, given the elegant setting.
If you’d prefer a lunchtime visit – when a two-course set menu is more than enough, given that time and appetite are typically limited – it’s difficult not to be impressed by the £21.50 price tag, especially with the quality on offer.
Deserts are a particular delight, prepared to order and beautifully presented. There is much chocolate. This is a good thing! (Personal favourite is the pouring chocolate melting pudding. Divinity on a plate).
It would be remiss of me not to mention that we’re in the middle of September, which means – as far as the Merchant Hotel is concerned – halfway through the Festival of Prosecco, which has returned for its third edition this September. There are various events and special Prosecco promotions, from luxury tasting flights, and masterclass events, to unique Prosecco cocktails.
The hotel has also introduced a number of special ‘Prosecco by the glass’ offerings, which will be available in The Great Room Restaurant and The Cocktail Bar, throughout September. If you’d like to upgrade your sparkle, the hotel often hosts Champagne and Wine dinners too – get on the mailing list for special occasions and offers, they provide great fun and networking opportunities, as well as delicious food and wine of course.
I have never eaten out for Christmas, but I imagine if we were to, then The Merchant Great Dining Room is where I’d like to be. Or indeed in the intimate private dining room with family and friends. A drink after in the cocktail bar by the fire would be ideal for a cold Christmassy night. I imagine the bartenders in here could tell a tale or two about folk, if they weren’t so excellently trained in the art of discretion – as well as all things drink.