Level Seven, Belfast
Where to go for the office Christmas dinner is always a problem. If the firm is providing the party, fair enough, but many workers have to pay their own way, and so cost is a factor. Whilst the managing director may well enjoy a sumptuous banquet at the local 5 star hotel on a regular basis, some of those less well paid staff may baulk at paying so much. Then there's the issue of ambiance—many hotels will be able to provide the requisite turkey dinner on a mass catering scale, and a cheesy disco afterwards, but that 'one size fits all' approach can feel sterile and unimaginative. Here's an idea: try your local catering college. The food will be cooked by budding chefs under expert supervision, it's probably dead cheap, and the place will be slightly more intimate than a hotel ballroom. Well, maybe. Perhaps.
Belfast Metropolitan College now incorporates what was formerly the catering college, and it has a restaurant on campus, on the seventh floor of the college building, which itself is handily located near the city centre. The restaurant is imaginatively titled 'Level Seven', and the view from it is very pleasant, looking across the rooftops of the down-town office blocks and shopping malls, and over to the ships at Belfast Lough and the iconic yellow cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, and the brooding hills of Black Mountain.
The festive menu on offer was not extensive: starters were celery soup, smoked chicken salad, or melon and raspberries with a Cointreau sabayon. This last one intrigued me, and I tried to kid myself that it was the healthy option. The sabayon was light and fluffy, and had been blow-torched so that it had a slight crust. It was draped over some melon slices, garnished with some zingy raspberries, and slipped down very easily indeed. For the main course I went for the traditional turkey and ham, as did most of my colleagues, but others opted for the rump steak, or the cod with parsley crust on a pea risotto. Two thick slices of turkey breast along with one of ham and some not terribly exciting stuffing were robed in a delicious red wine and thyme jus. This was accompanied by a little individual plate of fairly predictable mixed veg, and some of the finest roast potatoes I have ever eaten, golden and crisp on the outside, hot and fluffy inside. Oooh, can I have some more please? There was a wider selection amongst the puddings, including chocolate and orange trifle, profiteroles, and my choice, a lemon posset served with gingerbread. This was like very posh lemon curd, and the gingerbread decorated in Christmassy shapes was perfect for dunking into it. The meal ended with tea, coffee, and selection of mince pies and petits fours.
A glass of mulled wine was provided as we arrived, which was very welcome after braving the sub-zero temperatures outside. There was a fairly average wine list, but at £8.95 for a bottle of Australian Chardonnay, it was certainly much better value than most pubs. The meal itself was £15, which for four courses was excellent value. 8/10
The view is marvellous, which is probably just as well, as the décor inside is a bit tame and old-fashioned. Wooden tables and chairs upholstered in a tartan fabric provide room for about 40 covers, and so even when it's full it doesn't feel too crowded. There is a single coat rack which isn't really adequate given than Northern Ireland's weather is usually wet or cold or a combination of both, which means that EVERYBODY will have at least a coat and probably an umbrella too. The toilets have an institutional feel to them, although a vase of flowers shows an attempt to make them more pleasant. Crackers were provided, containing the obligatory paper hat, novelty plastic paperclip, and terrible joke. 'What's brown and creeps around the kitchen at Christmas-time? Mince-spies.' 3/10
The service is carried out by the students themselves, as it's part of their training to come face to face with the punters, and as such it was amateurish if well-meaning. Senior staff are on hand to remind their charges what to do next. They did well at getting the right dish in front of the right person—there was no yelling of 'who ordered the steak?' as they served, but it could have been a touch faster. They obviously hadn't got to the Surly Waiter lessons just yet, as all the fresh-faced youths were pleasant and helpful. 6/10
As an idea, it's brilliant. The customer gets to eat a really good meal for a bargain price, and feel that they are assisting with the education of the youth of today, so they leave the restaurant feeling full and smug. Level Seven is open all year round, but not every day. They currently do lunches on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and evening meals only on a Thursday. Check with your local catering college whether they do something similar. 6/10Scale: 10 – Oxbridge, 9/8 – Redbrick, 7/6 – Swiss finishing school, 5/4 – Kelsey Grammar, 3/2 – St Trinians, 1 – Grange Hill
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