Menuwatch: the Seahorse, Belfast

03 April 2024 by

Damian Tumilty has the pick of the very best Irish produce to create a classic menu of dishes packed with flavour. Caroline Baldwin reports

It was growing up watching chef royalty on TV that first piqued Damian Tumilty's interest in cooking professionally. From watching Gordon Ramsay, Ready, Steady, Cook and being the only boy in his home economics class, fast-forward 30 years and he is now executive head chef at the Grand Central Hotel Belfast, one of the largest five-star hotels in the city.

Along the way he gained experience at one-Michelin-starred restaurants including Peacock Alley in Dublin and Oriel restaurant in Co Down, but six years ago he took the plunge to open the Grand Central, and, in turn, helped to "change the cliché around food in hotels".

Conway Farm asparagus
Conway Farm asparagus

"Northern Ireland hotels were never really renowned for their food," he says. Although he initially dismissed the role at the 300-bedroom hotel, part of the Hastings Group, a friend within the group encouraged him to take the job. He now looks after all food and beverage across the hotel, including the fine-dining Seahorse restaurant, the Grand Café bistro and the Observatory bar and lounge.

But it's the tasting menu that he launched last year at the Seahorse that really makes the hotel stand apart.

"First of all, provenance is massive," says Tumilty. "We're very food-driven as a hotel group, so when we started out, it was about seeing what local suppliers we could use. And [with a tasting menu] we know there's no wastage, so why not use the very best?"

Damian Tumilty
Damian Tumilty

Crispy smoked Irish chicken and a gougére of tomato and basil
Crispy smoked Irish chicken and a gougére of tomato and basil

The menu itself depicts a map of Northern Ireland, pinpointing the locations of many of his suppliers, including Bushmills Irish whiskey from Co Antrim, Broighter Gold rapeseed oil from Co Derry, Thornhill duck from Co Cavan and Waggle Dance honey from Co Armagh to name a few.

Tumilty works closely with his team – executive sous chef Tom Mulcahy and sous chefs Andrew McKeown and Ross McAllister – to create the dishes. "It always starts with me – I'll say I want a ravioli or venison, and they come up with ideas and then we write the menu together," he says. "It has to be a team effort. This way it's about them and they can get excited about it."

The eight-course tasting menu changes "a wee bit more than seasonally" (around every 8-12 weeks) and in March it was the last few days of the venison dish, which has been a hero of the winter menu. Tumilty first came across sika venison in January when his supplier, Baronscourt Estate in Co Tyrone, offered it instead of regular deer. "It's not too gamey and not too lean – I just though ‘we can't not use it'."

Moiled beef
Moiled beef

He cooks the loin sous vide at 45ºC for 10-12 minutes before grilling it on the plancha. Alongside, he serves boulangère potatoes with slow-cooked venison shoulder in a miniature cast-iron pan served at the table.

"We braise the shoulder overnight at 86ºC in a red wine jus until it's broken down. Then we layer really thinly sliced potatoes, caramalised onions, loads of great chicken and beef stock and loads of butter."

The dish is finished with a pear and celeriac purée and chargrilled hispi cabbage, which is brined in salt water and then braised in chicken stock, before individual leaves are grilled on the Japanese barbecue. A classic sauce grand veneur brings the dish together – "It's simple and seasonal. I wanted a clean dish, with not too much going on," he says.

Petits fours
Petits fours

While the venison is very rich, he finds balance by playing around with techniques such as pickling, and featuring fish on the menu. For the current fish course he makes a ballotine out of brined cod before chargrilling alongside Dublin Bay prawns brushed with a shellfish oil. Tempura samphire gives a "nice salty texture," balanced with acidity from a verjus sauce.

Another staple on the tasting menu is the Guinness wheaten bread served with a malt hazelnut butter, whipped butter with malt extract. "You can travel the world and eat the best sourdough, but Irish Guinness treacle bread is very typical," explains Tumilty, "It's rich with butter and smoky and has a sweet and sour flavour – people love it."

From the menu


  • Crab tart, red pepper piperade, pickled cucumber and XO sauce

  • Goat's cheese and Waggle Dance honey gougère

  • Buttermilk fried chicken, smoked tomato ketchup

  • Cod: roast cod, Dublin Bay prawns cooked over coal, tempura samphire, verjus sauce

  • Wild mushroom parfait: cured Baronscourt Estate wood pigeon, mushroom parfait, pickled shiitake mushrooms, smoked barley

  • Venison: Baronscourt Estate sika venison, boulangère potatoes, pear and celeriac purée, hispi cabbage, sauce grand veneur

  • Blood orange panna cotta: poached rhubarb, rhubarb sorbet

  • Amarena cherry parfait: almond, kirsch, oxalis

Tasting menu, £75

Grand Central Hotel Belfast, 9-15 Bedford Street, Belfast BT2 7FF

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