In 1989 Paul and Jeannie Rankin opened the doors to their first Belfast restaurant, Roscoff.
It marked a new dawn for a citizenry that had been battered by the Troubles but whose appetite for fun, entertainment, glitz and glamour had never diminished.
Our love of food and a good night’s craic had until then been corralled into a handful of Indian and Chinese restaurants, one or two Italians and a pair of French bistros.
The bright Rankins arrived after years of international travel, during which they had worked on yachts and top restaurants learning about Asian, Californian and European food. Suddenly, Belfast had something that would have fitted well into any world capital — a restaurant with informal class, bright lights and savvy, friendly servers. Once the Rankins had reviewed the nouvelle cuisine portions and adjusted to the Belfast desire for a bit of volume, the place was flying.
In the week 24 years later when the restaurant, now called Cayenne, closed its doors for the last time, the victim of a shift of the centre of gravity to the old heart of the city, another small revolution had started down at Belfast’s river front.
OX Belfast, the new restaurant on Oxford Street, is as impactful as Roscoff was then. The brainchild of Alain Kerloc’h, the most polished and unassuming restaurant manager in the city, and his friend Stephen Toman, former head chef at James Street South, OX is breathtaking in its ambition to redefine the Belfast bistro as a fine restaurant with no pretension. Alain says OX should be a place in which you can eat fabulous local produce transformed into world-class dishes and feel at ease. The simple but well designed interior is comfortable and welcoming. The post-industrial theme handled by a Frenchman means it’s less harsh and more classical than the current trend for canteens and knackered furniture.
You won’t find any salt and chilli squid starters, nor is there anything from a deep fat fryer (apart from the chips, which are the best this side of Brussels). What you will find, however, is local Fermanagh chicken, pollan fished earlier that day from Lough Neagh (pollan is unique in the world, a kind of freshwater herring) and Antrim beef with marrow and truffle. At lunchtime you can eat three courses for £16. A starter of poached haddock with watercress, egg yolk and onion galette is £3, a steak of Glenarm salmon with gem and mustard seed beurre blanc is a tenner and you can complete the moment with a polenta cake or white chocolate parfait for another £3. I can just see the legions of barristers, clerks and solicitors getting in early to nab one of the 45 seats.
Early reactions have been very positive, with talk of James Street South-style cooking. After years of being the engine of James Street South’s reputation, it’s no wonder Stephen Toman is applying the same high standards demanded by ex-boss Niall McKenna.
The adviser and I had dinner only days after the opening. We were joined by coincidence by three friends who had also turned up, so we shared a table. We were all ready to make allowances for any teething problems,
juddery service, uncertain, shaky first steps. But it was flawless. Not only did everything work, it felt as if the place had been operating for years. The calm, friendly confidence, subdued and deferring, created certainty and anticipation. A menu of six starters and six mains would not normally prompt indecision, but each one sounded desirable.
A milk curd, black radish, baked onion galette and verbena starter was beautiful to look at. Little slices of perfectly steamed Comber potatoes mingled with the crispy onion biscuity galette and the cool, soft and tangy milk curd introduced an Irish flavour that marks our rich dairy heritage like nothing else I’ve ever tasted.
The fillets of pollan, almond, Jerusalem artichoke, clam and white wine reduction were plentiful and also new and exciting. Pollan is so fine a white fish, it could easily be overwhelmed by any accompaniment. This was balanced and well judged.
The adviser was told her John Dory would not come with the razor clam although the ham hock, mustard seed and seaweed beurre blanc would be left intact. Instead, the server apologised, there would be a scallop. “An upgrade!” declared one of the friends.
The John Dory was as impressive as everything else.
The menu is tight but there’s nothing there you wouldn’t want. Salt baked beetroot, Lough Neagh eel, oyster and squid ink, Portavogie scallop, wild garlic, haddock and cured yolk, grilled mackerel, Bayonne ham, spring leek and chervil root, all among the starters give you an idea of the gear change this bistro has made.
Starters at dinner time range from £4 to £9. Mains from £15.50 to £19.50. For the quality of the dishes and the beautifully judged atmosphere, this is extraordinary value.
Among the deserts is a chocolate cake with praline and candied pecans. It’s heavenly and unlike any cake you’ll see elsewhere, served in a brittle, transparent, edible glass.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that there are at least 24 more years of OX.
Milk curd and onion galette £6.95
Seared foie gras £9
John Dory £18
Chocolate cake £6
Bushmills jelly £6
Bottle Primitivo red wine £25