Joris' restaurant review: We take a bite out of OX Cave
OX Cave. 1 Oxford Street, Belfast, BT1 3LA. Tel: 028 9031 4121
It's been two years since OX took Belfast by storm. Stevie Toman, former head chef at James Street South, and Alain Kerloc'h, previously Michael Deane's general manager, took a lease on Regan's Tiles shop, brought in funky restaurant designers Oscar & Oscar and installed a kitchen. This kitchen would deliver some of the most unusual and occasionally contentious dishes the city had seen since Paul and Jeannie Rankin opened Roscoff in 1989.
Not since the nouvelle cuisine of the Eighties was shown la porte by a deeply sceptical Belfast audience (we like excellent food and we like lots of it and the Rankins quickly and successfully adjusted) had any restaurant dared present two nasturtium leaves and a gram or two of Gillette-thin venison on a stoneware plate. Also, OX was adamant: there would be no chips. This would surely make it Belfast's only restaurant without a deep fat fryer.
But OX wasn't doing nouvelle cuisine. This was something else. It was food that made us think about what we were eating, where it came from and how something as modest as a baked onion, a piece of brill, or a floret of broccoli could possibly generate such sensational flavours.
OX hasn't looked back in two years. It has built a loyal fan-base, many of whom only go at lunch time to make the most of the modest prices (three courses for £18).
And it has procreated. OX recently annexed a vacant shop space next door and converted it into a little part of the Marais district which will forever be Paris.
Called Ox Cave (the French for cellar), the new space opens in the afternoons to supply fine wines and liquors as well as a variety of cheeses and other bite-size morsels to those who enjoy nothing more than doing what everyone does in Paris: sit at pretty little rickety tables on sturdy wooden chairs sipping cheeky chilled whites and velvety reds while flicking through the pages of Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir.
OX Cave is a proper wine bar with servers in long black aprons who know what they're talking about. It's also a place of learning. For those of you who, like me, know next to nothing about wine, a few glasses in here will soon have you up to GCSE standard in oenology. And, yes, a number of regulars have already attained A-Level status.
Alain Kerloc'h had hired Peter McKenna, whom some will remember from Cayenne before he disappeared for a while to Australia. Peter is back and his knowledge of wine even deeper and broader than before.
A few minutes with him each day as you find out about the provenance of the wine at your lips provides learning and insight. Now spending more time in OX, he is being succeeded in the Cave by the equally talented Mike Bennett.
The Cave is brilliant and popular, because it's high-quality, but not highly priced (they even do a shot of house Calvados for £3.50).
Unusually, the Cave sources artisanal wines made from forgotten grapes. Thanks to a space-age device known as the Coravin, they are able to sell rare wines by the glass.
The two most popular are a Vouvray demi-sec, made from Chenin Blanc in the Loire, and Dominio de Tares of Baltos, a red made from Mencia grapes.
Also, those cheeses are something else. Not since Robbie Millar's humming cheese trolley in Shanks - it looked like a small farmer's trailer carrying two bales of hay - have we seen cheeses of this calibre.
Sourced from all over Ireland and France, there's everything you could hope for in terms of soft, creamy, hard, old, strong, crumbling and smelly cheeses made from goat's, ewe's, or cow's milk.
Alain Kerloc'h's top half-dozen include a two-year-old vintage Comte from the Jura, a Plaisir au Chablis, Corleggy, Young Buck, Munster with cumin seed, Kearny Blue and Sainte Maure.
Peter and his staff are as well versed in these as they are in the wines so you won't go wrong.
Wine and cheese are like Kim and Kanye. They can't go wrong. But when the pairing is taken to this level you'll find you are knocking on heaven's door.
Glass Gruner Veltliner £6.50
Glass Pouilly Fuisse £8.50
Aged Comte, truffle honey £6.50
Sourdough bread & butter £2.50
Choc fondue for two £10.00