Why the restaurant OX has critics and public hungry for more
Published 04/05/2013 | 04:20
It's currently the most talked about restaurant in Ireland, North or South.
And it has got the critics (myself included) salivating at its unique menu which includes Lough Neagh pollan and Bushmills jelly.
The arrival of OX on Belfast's Oxford Street provides a great case for the renaissance of the restaurant sector in Belfast.
Chef Stevie Toman, who trained with the famed Rene Redzepi from Noma Restaurant in Copenhagen, and manager Alain Kerloc'h admit people had warned them the site was no good, the food too advanced for Belfast, and they would be far better opening a bistro serving salt and chilli squid on the Lisburn Road.
Yet they have confounded the cynics by sticking to the plan and filling the 40-seater every lunch and dinner time since. Despite some criticism that OX's hype is greater than its substance, the fact is that it has had a huge impact.
This says a lot about the changing tastes of Belfast people. Most quality restaurants use local produce including beef, salmon, chicken and vegetables. OX uses fresh local produce which is less well-known and then prepares it in a way which provokes the kind of excitement generated by Paul Rankin when he first opened Roscoff in 1989.
Pollan, the herring-like fish from Lough Neagh, is relatively unknown and Stevie Toman serves it with white wine foam, almonds and barely recognisable artichokes. There are purple Comber carrots, milk curd with black radish and all sorts of food you'll never find in my fridge.
Yet Belfast has embraced this restaurant whole-heartedly. So why all the fuss?
For one thing, OX has struck a perfect balance of good food service and environment. The price is right, the angle of the chairs is spot on (they're recycled from a church so they're designed to keep you comfortable for a long time), and the servers are the essence of hospitality.
But there's more. The relationship between the restaurant and the Belfast diner is the secret and Toman and Kerloc'h have the key: flattery. The flattery is based on the OX challenge: 'We will cook and serve exciting stuff for you and we'll see whether or not you're up to it'.
And because it requires curiosity to enjoy something like pollan or milk curd or pied de mouton mushrooms or cured yolk, the diner's appetite for a challenge is satisfied, he/she has been well treated, it won't have cost too much. But best of all, OX will have flattered the diner.
What the critics say:
"OX is breathtaking in its ambition to redefine the Belfast bistro as a fine restaurant with no pretension... a place in which you can eat fabulous local produce transformed into world-class dishes and feel at ease."
Joris Minne, Belfast Telegraph
"Does it work? Oh boy, does it. I smile while chewing almost every bite because things taste of themselves so much that they feel like a discovery of something lost."
Catherine Cleary, Irish Times