Belfast's most elegant new restaurant has managed to restore a sense of occasion to dining out, but without any stuffiness
Some years ago Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys was interviewed following the success of West End Girls. The former Smash Hits journalist was asked what it was like to be a pop star. He said he felt that the Pet Shop Boys were not proper pop stars; they were only like pop stars.
Saphyre, the new Belfast restaurant, shares a bit of this uncertainty, some start-up reluctance to fully believe in itself.Yet, judging by one visit, it's the real McCoy all right. The swish dining room at the back of designer Kris Turnbull's studio of interior design housed in the converted Presbyterian church on the Lisburn Road is staffed by experienced pros including Sam Vince at front of house and Patrick Rowan in the kitchen. They've got "Cocktail Dave" Johnson at the bar and patissier Manto Mansour for the cakes and buns.
Just when Belfast was making a name for itself as the home of funky and informal bistros and brasseries with their anything-goes environments, along comes Saphyre oozing elegance, 1950s formality and a touch of strict classicism. The dining room is part Faberge egg and part Fifth Avenue apartment as might have been occupied by Jackie Onassis. You must dress properly for Saphyre or else feel awkward (even though Sam Vince would never dream of making you feel uncomfortable; believe me, you'll achieve that deep discomfort yourself if you haven't made a bit of an effort).
The menu is also posh but brief and there's nothing here you wouldn't want. Among the starters are an Ulster Fry, scallop ceviche, carpaccio of Finnebrogue venison, cured sea trout with pickled quail egg, cucumber and celeriac crisps, glazed pork belly with smoked apple puree, mead pickled onions and tonka bean aioli.
Of course, the Ulster Fry isn't actually your nine-piece. There is a slow poached hen egg, potato bread espuma, crispy bacon, cured sea trout and black pudding. But these appear as miniature reincarnations of themselves. The slices of black pudding are no bigger than a penny coin. Apart from the hen's egg, everything else is from a toy tea set. But the gorgeous visual composition belies a little dish with decent flavours.
The Tyndale goat kid filet accompanied by a miso glazed roll of braised kid shoulder is also good. Light, lamb-like flavours, the kid is remarkably tender and served pink. The slow-cooked shoulder has plenty of wintery warmth and salty, gravy tones. Between courses we are entertained with mouth cleansing bite-sized morsels, kicking things off with a duck parfait in a tiny cone of brittle, peppered, crispy wafer with a small but potent streak of sweet mulled wine jam on top.
The adviser's sea trout is a generous, pink steak of finely-grained firm moistness and the accompanying pickled quail egg and cucumber complete a classic northern European dish. A filet of beef joins forces with a roll of croquette of marrow and oxtail. The filet looks deflated somehow, puck-like, yet the firm texture and flavours are outstanding, she says.
Between each dish arrive other amuse-bouches including a little slice of venison carpaccio or a scallop. These treats heighten the sense of occasion to the evening.
The mood in the room is remarkably relaxed and the diners are a mix of old hands who clearly know which hand your fork goes in and a younger more excited crowd just about managing to keep the noise down. Unlike the oppressive silence of a hotel on Sunday afternoon, it's comfortably hushed in Saphyre. People are enjoying themselves; couples, larger groups, all glad to be here.
Desserts and cheeses are heavenly. A palet d'or was crispy underneath with a rich, dark cushion of soft chocolate on top, pimped up with a little gold leaf. The roast almond ice cream still lingers like a fond memory.
The menu is from an age of Michelin formality when the chef cooked for his reputation's sake first, for the camera second and for the diner's pleasure third. Not everyone will be impressed by the classic compositions and high precision cooking of Patrick Rowan or the reintroduction of an elegant dining room.
But Kris Turnbull deserves every plaudit for bringing back quiet opulence and gold-plated grandeur and comfort at a time when everyone else is just at the evolutionary point of taking their boots off at the door but still drinking at the table from bottles. Belfast needs Saphyre; whether it's the real posh item or a good pretender, it doesn't matter, it's a reminder of the pleasures to be had where there's a bit of grace and formality.
And when you do go, wear what you like, you'll get in no problem, but you'll wish you'd put your shirt on the right way round.
Ulster fry £10
Sea trout £12
Pork belly £11
Beef filet £27
Palet d'or £8.50
Badoit water x 2 £7
Cosmoplitans x 2 £14
Vodka & tonic £6.70