Restaurant review: The Academy on York Street in Belfast
Ulster University, York Street, Belfast. Tel 028 9536 7332
If the Northern Ireland restaurant sector had an end-of-term school report, it would read: 'Good, but could do better.' We're good, but we're not great, according to online, news and general media reviews.
Top marks go to the food producers, large and small, who churn out quality dairy products, meats, vegetables and seafoods and win armfuls of UK Great Taste awards every year. But a question mark hangs over our restaurant skills.
While the sector received a shot in the arm following the award of Michelin stars to two worthy winners, Ox and Eipic in Belfast, and most of us agree that the top 20 restaurants in the north are as good as anything you'll find anywhere else, there are still flaws and weaknesses in service and creativity, which indicates a yawning chasm between our offer and that of cities like Dublin and London.
It's worth aiming high like that, rather than comparing ourselves to the likes of Manchester, or Glasgow, because we need more ambition.
One source of ambition and a place where the pursuit of excellence in the culinary sector begins is Ulster University. In the heart of the UU Belfast campus on York Street is the training restaurant, The Academy.
Here, young students start their long climb up the ladder, learning how to cook, serve and manage. It's a great place to enjoy lunch and dinner and the good news is it's open to the public.
Last week, The Academy hosted a wine dinner, five courses with matching whites and reds for £45 to mark the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink.
It may have looked like a cheap night out, but as soon as the canapes came around in the pre-dinner reception, we quickly realised the intention was to impress, entertain and flatter. And to generate return business.
I would have loved to tell you about wobbly silver service, rattling cutlery and youthful sweaty nerves, but instead we were faced with a steady hand and some elegance.
In the kitchen was youthful prodigy and chef Matt Logan, who looks like he might not be old enough to order a pint in a bar. The front of house team looked even younger.
The Academy dining room has a natural, hushed calm. All those acres of white linen and crystal glasses mean the acoustics allow you to shout your face off and not be heard at the next table. Not that our table would have caused any disturbance, you understand. This was remarkable considering the volumes of wine offered to us.
My co-pilot on this mission was from Kent, a man who has spent years abroad either building, or living, in five-star operations. For him, quality is a matter of success or failure, of life or death for a business.
He was immediately impressed. The smiling confidence, the genuine sense of hospitality, the polish and the concentration were clearly evident in the student servers we spoke to. They brought with the wine, food, water and whatever else, knowledge of their subject, just the right amount of chat and a sense of occasion.
They were from Newry, Enniskillen, Coleraine and other parts.
I was never so proud! They were like my own children doing their turn in front of the visitor.
A first course of McCartney's corned beef came with beetroot, wild garlic and Broighter Gold rapeseed oil from Limavady. The corned beef has become legendary among meat-lovers and this matched its reputation.
Roast monkfish was perfect and generous, firm, moist and not overcooked. The roast lamb rump, pink, tender and deep in flavour, came with salsify and confit potatoes. It could have been destroyed by a Madeira jus, which is invariably too sweet, but this one turned out to be well balanced and welcome.
The standout dish - and I hope chef Logan won't mind - was a starkly simple sorbet of lovage. The leafy herb plant much loved in central Europe, has a weirdly citrus-like, aromatic quality, which when transformed into a sorbet like this is as exciting as it is refreshing.
The wines were better than decent. The rounded white from the Jurancon in France and a stout little German pinot noir from Villa Wolf were the stars of the list.
Take a look at The Academy next time you're considering lunch in the city centre, especially if it's for business. The place is quiet, but not stuffy; private, but not exclusive and it's bright.
The biggest reason for going there is the people who will be serving you. They want to be there and they'll be glad to see you.
Five-course wine dinner (x2) £90.00