Why the inclusion of this stylish Belfast eaterie in the Michelin Guide is thoroughly deserved.
Food guides are among the most disputed of all books. They are bought by people who want to know a little bit more about a restaurant they haven’t visited before. For many readers the food guide is so central to their lives they are willing to go out of their way just to try a restaurant on the basis of a guide’s recommendation. As a result, these guides have re-invented restaurants as destinations and are very influential.
But the controversy that surrounds these books originates in the fact that the listed restaurants’ food, a bit like art, can be loved by one and loathed by another. Therefore, the credibility and validity of these guides are permanently under fire.
Every January, a new Michelin Guide comes out. There’s one published for every country. The one on France is the biggest, which is no wonder as Michelin is as French a company as Dior, Citroen and Chateau Latour a Pomerol. (The guide’s origins can be traced back a hundred years to a clever Michelin marketing exercise designed to encourage motorists to explore the country’s towns and regions, hotels, restaurants and visitor attractions. By doing more miles, they’d have to buy more tyres.)
Revered globally as probably the closest thing to a culinary bible, the big red book’s annual launch is accompanied by a volley of denouncements from passionate foodies who are waged in a war to the death with the guide’s traditional values. For instance, a French anti-Michelin movement called ‘Le Fooding’ — the use of an anglicised word adds venom to the treachery — constantly undermines the Michelin guide. In a recent interview with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, the Le Fooding authors say it’s high time to bring down the “museum culture, the dictatorship of a fossilised gastronomy”.
This breath-taking attitude to food may baffle us here in Northern Ireland but frankly, we could do with a bit of the old-world stuff before we start knocking it! So when a local restaurant makes it into the Michelin Guide to Britain and Ireland, it’s a time for celebration rather than rebellion.
No27 Talbot Street, a restaurant reviewed in these pages 15 months ago, has made it into the 2010 Michelin Guide and fair play to them. Dinner there last weekend was a joy from the minute the adviser, John, Tabona and I walked in. There is a very downtown feel to No27 and the bar, staffed with busy, slick tenders, has that magic built-in ingredient that just makes it impossible not to have at least a drink there before heading to the table. Incidentally, while at the bar you might consider a bottle of Lucky, a Chinese beer – not for the lager itself but for the stunning take-home-and-keep bottle. (Avoid the kir royale, which is made with cava and charged at £6.75 a glass.)
Whereas the restaurant used to have a bright, noisy canteen feel to it, the acoustics have been hugely improved thanks to the gift of big suspended ceiling panels.
The Michelin mention is well deserved, if one meal is anything to go by. A starter of chicken livers with salad was a complete surprise. A fiery, explosive chopped Chinese cabbage salad with chilli, ginger and soy dressing provided a hot bed for the lightly sautéed pink livers. I salivate at the thought of chicken livers most of the time but always see them coming fried in garlic and parsley. The No27 take on chicken liver salad was a wonderful shock.
The chargrilled squid with pineapple and mango salsa and rocket salad was equally outstanding. John, a professional fish monger, said it was right on the mark — soft, full of flavour and plentiful. The fritto misto was possibly slightly overdone and the two women who ordered it didn’t like the pollock (the other chunks included salmon, prawn, seabass and scallop).
But this was only a questionable blip. What was to follow included one of the most memorable rib-eye steaks on record and a rump of lamb so delicate in flavour and tender of texture as to be almost dream-like. But first the steaks. An inch-thick chunk of Hereford beef with baby spinach and green peppercorn cream was char-grilled and so full of flavours — with hints of wood fires and dark nights on the western range — it was easily among the best two or three steaks this year. A recent exposure to Dexter beef made me wonder if anything could be as good. The Hereford meat at No27 is.
Equally astonishing was the accompanying baby spinach leaves providing that slight tangy, almost metallic leafiness to counterbalance the softness of the cream. And the chips were outstanding — possibly as good as Long’s.
The roast rump of lamb with its potato rosti, carrot purée, crushed peas and rosemary jus was a much less intense affair. As memorable as the gentle but deep lamb flavours were the peas infused with mint — a real delight.
A very masculine pork belly dish included scotch egg, black pudding mash, savoy cabbage, apple purée and Madeira cream. All of the components were quite brilliant but Tabona who ordered the dish wished for more cabbage — “It would balance it out better”. That notwithstanding, the black pudding mash was a reassuring, soothing pillow of comfort with all the subdued spiciness you expect of black pudding without any of the heavier texture. The scotch egg was shared among all of us and we admired the soft boiled yolk within, wondering how on earth this had been achieved.
If Michelin status (never mind Michelin Star status) means you have joined the ranks of ageing establishmentarianism, then let’s have more of it. No27’s appearance in the guide is one thing, the surprises and delights served up on the plate are another. Whatever. You should give it a shot.
Chicken liver salad £6.50
Fritto misto x 2 £17
Pork belly £16.95
Ribeye steak x 2 £45.90
Side orders x 3 £10.80
Red wine £24.25
Pint Guinness x 2 £7.50
Lucky x 3 £11.85
¼ Cava x 2 £16
Cassis x 2 £5.50