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A bullish few days on Wall Street as OX tickles taste buds in Manhattan

By Joris Minne

Published 29/09/2016

OX chef Stevie Toman (third from left) with Sean Muldoon, Jack McGarry and Jillian Vose of New York's Dead Rabbit
OX chef Stevie Toman (third from left) with Sean Muldoon, Jack McGarry and Jillian Vose of New York's Dead Rabbit

Relations between Ireland and the US have always been particularly strong, largely thanks to the hundreds of thousands of extended family members straddling both sides of the Atlantic. But the emphasis has always been on Dublin and New York. In a bold and imaginative initiative undertaken by three young Belfast men, this may be about to change.

In case there was any doubt over the link between Belfast and New York, two institutions, one in each city, took on a task to build closer ties between them.

The Dead Rabbit, just around the corner from Wall Street, winner of the 2015 Best Bar in the World award, and OX, one of Belfast's two current Michelin-star holders, combined forces for two nights this week entertaining the beau monde of New York at $200-a-seat.

The event was hosted in the historic Pier A Harbor House, on the edge of Battery Park facing Ellis Island and New Jersey. For OX chef Stevie Toman and Dead Rabbit owners Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry (all three grew up in the same street in west Belfast), the pressure was intense. The US food media is a very mature and unforgiving sector and there was a risk: they believed it could go horribly wrong. It didn't.

Toman cooked five courses including Arctic char, hay-baked celeriac roasted just like a joint of meat and served with trompettes, the famous squid spaghetti dish with ink, now reckoned to be the best dish you'll ever find in Belfast, and Chateaubriand accompanied by potatoes, which were smoked by hops from the Yardsman brewery in Dargan.

Surely this was making life very difficult for Jillian, Dead Rabbit's chief of cocktails? Complex flavours and textures are bad enough for a sommelier to choose a matching wine.

The Looking Glass cocktail, which accompanied the char, was made using sesame-infused Powers whiskey, cinnamon, pale cream sherry, banana and maple.

The match was not instantly obvious but after a while, strange things happened. The fish started to play tricks with the taste buds and the cocktail itself appeared to change, becoming sweeter, tones rising and falling as we approached the end of the starter.

Effectively, this started our entry into a parallel universe, a fourth dimension, a place where Toman's creations, familiar to those of us who have eaten in OX, became something else when paired to the cocktails. All the cocktails were very well considered and brilliantly executed but not all of them necessarily worked. The secret, we discovered at the table, was to sip the cocktail in each round as you might an aperitif before dinner and keep half of it for the end of the dish.

That way, the whole experience allowed space for drink and dish to stand out for themselves rather than clash. Some, like the pairing of the beef with a Pocket Watch, were sensational. The Pocket Watch consisted of Rittenhouse rye and Arbol-infused Bourbon and was a nod towards the classic Manhattan, which Americans love to have with steak.

Another highlight was the Spell Spoke accompanying the caramelised apple, treacle and fig leaf ice cream. Fig leaves from a 200-year-old tree in Ballywalter fascinated Toman and he turned these into an ice cream, which was both savoury and smoky.

I watched hardened writers and broadcasters, including Nils Bernstein, go from cynical to sceptical and finally to utterly charmed. For the few from Belfast, we couldn't help think we had just witnessed something very historic.

The current surge of interest in Irish food and drink, prompted in no small way by Tourism NI's Year of Food and Drink, is evident everywhere - even at 36,000 feet in Aer Lingus business class.

Heston Blumenthal famously tackled the question: why does food taste different at high altitudes? He was eventually able to create a formula that answered this, but so complex was the reply, that I can give you a dumbed-down, user-friendly analysis instead.

First of all, always go for the salads, as tomatoes, lettuce and other garden veg do not suffer in any way from this taste transformation phenomenon. A Toons Bridge mozzarella salad with tomato and pesto proved the point. Lush, fat red tomatoes survived the challenge but the mozzarella did not. The flavour of the cheese was good but the texture suffered slightly through dehydration.

Other foods immune to the pressurised cabin include smoked salmon served pan fried with spaghetti and sun-dried tomatoes. All three components survived unscathed.

Food that never fails to reach the heights

The current surge of interest in Irish food and drink, prompted in no small way by Tourism NI’s Year of Food and Drink, is evident everywhere - even at 36,000 feet in Aer Lingus business class.

Heston Blumenthal famously tackled the question: why does food taste different at high altitudes? He was eventually able to create a formula that  answered this, but so complex was the reply, that I can give you a dumbed-down, user-friendly analysis instead.

First of all, always go for the salads, as tomatoes, lettuce and other garden veg do not suffer in any way from this taste transformation phenomenon. A Toons Bridge mozzarella salad with tomato and pesto proved the point. Lush, fat red tomatoes survived the challenge but the mozzarella did not. The flavour of the cheese was good but the texture suffered slightly through dehydration.

Other foods immune to the pressurised cabin include smoked salmon served pan fried with spaghetti and sun-dried tomatoes. All three components survived unscathed.

Joris travelled to New York from Dublin courtesy of Aer Lingus

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