It would be easy, after nearly 30 years in Paris, to apply Parisian standards to the menus in Belfast’s cafés, bistros and brasseries, and scoff – and not in a good way. They’re just not doing it properly, you see. Serve good coffee then spike it with banana syrup? Thai green curry with chips? Cajun wraps and garlic potatoes everywhere else? I could, tutting like the starchiest of the growing breed of food “experts”, lament the impending, inevitable obliteration of palates reared on the plainest of produce – beef, lamb, root veg, pasteurised dairy – by their apparent desire for shockingly “inauthentic” food which assails and anaesthetises tastebuds in a deluge of heat, salt and fat.
And yet… is it so terrible that even the more sophisticated Belfast plates are still large, mostly Italian, French or US “style” and come with sides so reassuringly root veggie? That two of the hottest openings, Coppi and La Pirata, are simply play-it-safe copies (again with bigger portions) of Russell Norman’s wildly successful London restaurants Polpo and Spuntino, when they are giving the Belfast public what they want and do 250 covers a night at weekends? Can you blame even the most adventurous chef in 2013 for not playing at Creative Cook-off with his fixed costs and customers’ appetites, after such a brutal winter and when all most of them want is to feel full and happy and be out of the house?
But this is my country, whereas, (modestly) like Gertrude Stein, Paris is (merely) my hometown, and I’m not here to award it food points as if it’s in some national Come Dine With Me final. Belfast is no beauty but, after years apart, we are eyeing each other curiously, like old flames, and I, for one, still care.
It can’t be denied that the weekend food and drink scene is hot in Belfast. It’s just not hot in the same way
And it can’t be denied that the weekend food and drink scene is hot in Belfast. It’s just not hot in the same way as that in more intellectual (and proportionately less lively) Paris, or in food hipster afflicted London, where a central market with decent ingredients – like St George’s in Belfast, which offers every street food you could imagine, this time “Belfast style” (the Titanic sponge cake “goes down well”, and the falafel are renamed “Belfalafel”) and free live music – would probably be branded a “festival” and charge 15 quid just to let you in the door to Instagram the rare breed T-bone steaks.
In this climate and context, it’s not only new opening Ox’s singular cuisine but also the timing of its arrival, which, I think, makes it so significant. Ox copies no-one and, with three courses at lunch for around £16, and evening tasting menus – one of these is “vegetable” – at £45 and £40 (£70 and £60 with wine pairings) it can deliver to everyone. It is influenced by world restaurant trends (the owners, manager Alain Kerloc’h and chef Stevie Toman, trained at Alain Passard in Paris, and Mauro Colagreco at Mirazur in Menton) but doesn’t ape them, instead championing Northern Irish ingredients in a modern and accessible style,
With wooden tables, no tablecloths, and a long, cushioned bench along its main wall, the industrial feel is more soft warehouse than gritty machine room. It embraces Ilse Crawfordish blue-green more than the jarring, angular “Brooklyn” look so prevalent in Paris and London. It’s a great, high room, with an equally great view over Belfast’s pretty (well, I like it) Queen’s Bridge and the Thanksgiving Statue, affectionately nicknamed “Nuala with a Hula” or “The Thing with a Ring” by art-loving locals.
That night, the craic and the lighting were way too good for me to over-analyse the food. When I finally started paying attention, I was a wee bit surprised at the meat/veg proportions and volumes. Given the Passard connection, I thought the vegetables might have a bigger billing. But having seen the state of play elsewhere, I guess Ox’s approach is already a big departure from the competition. The plating and prepping might have been a little more gastro, but as the prices are definitely not, it’s still early days, and we were not eating from the tasting menu, perhaps that is unfair.
What I took away from this indelible first time, however, was the emergence of a new modern Irishness – a feeling that our best produce is in world-class, capable, caring hands. There is little of the current botanical overdose of foraged herbs or flower power, nor the foams or Pacojet purées so popular in Parisian gastro bistrots. At Ox, you get to chew! The baked onion galette with my starter stayed pleasingly sticky after the black radish, verbena and silky milk curd had faded from the mouthful. The little clams with the pollan fillet and tiny toasted almonds felt as supple as (I imagine) a Ballymena prop forward’s bicep, and the juices as delicate and perfectly seasoned as a rose-tinted memory of broth from my grandmother’s Irish stew. The puddings were quirky and accomplished, especially considering the pastry chef, Ciara, is only 20 years old, although her lovely Bushmills jelly with an apple sorbet heart could lose its lavender cream (or at least present it separately from the main act).
As I write this, looking at the menu on my desk, in France, and now the ice has been broken again between Belfast and me, I am longing to go back to Ox way more than my favourite Parisian bistrot. And isn’t this the only criterion that really matters when you are reviewing? The going back or not? Next time, I want the beetroot, Lough Neagh eel, oyster and squid ink, the foie gras, confit potato, brioche and bresaola, the Skeaghanore duck with glazed turnip, chard, salsify and verjus, the pied de mouton, pappardelle, confit shallot, egg and Comté. And the time after that, I’ll satisfy my Passard-goes-to-Ireland desire – and try the vegetable tasting menu where fish and meat only show up in garnishes like chicken skin and scallop caramel. And that is not only “now” for brave restaurants, it’s also the future.
Ox, 1 Oxford Street, Belfast, BT1
028 9031 4121; oxbelfast.com