A Peculiar Tea, 44 University Road, Belfast. www.a-peculiar-tea.com
Kicking off the new year with hope and optimism, chef Gemma Austin has delved into the reassuring warmth and comfort of fairy tales and fantasy for inspiration. A Peculiar Tea, her new restaurant on University Road, is as inspired as a Disney theme park where the mood and environment bring you back to your eight-year-old self. It’s exciting, sparkling and welcoming.
Gemma Austin’s Covid months have been remarkably productive. A solid appearance on BBC’s Great British Menu, reaching the finals of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best Chef in Ulster competition and a new restaurant where Beatrice Kennedy’s (then, briefly, the ill-fated Bull & Ram) used to stand, show that she has been busy.
And what a little triumph A Peculiar Tea is. The dining room is charming and the booths at the back of the intimate space populated with items of Alice in Wonderland-cum-Harry Potter stage sets provide even more privacy and magic. Staff are classy and confident, knowledgeable and attentive and mercifully the temptation to dress them in costume has been resisted.
Dinner on this Tuesday night is a tasting menu. There are pros and cons to these tasting menus and my experience over the years has been less than positive unless created and executed by people who know what they’re doing. It takes a lot of self-belief for chef to carry this off successfully. There is some reassurance in a tasting menu as you know the kitchen has been churning them out and that you’ve a far greater chance of consistency in the quality.
And fair play to Gemma Austin’s six courser because the sequence and pace, the link between each dish, and the variety of ingredients are surprising, subtle and ultimately exact.
The first course, a sturdy re-interpretation of a French tartiflette, potato, bacon, cheese and the added luxe truffle shavings is memorable. Half a potato’s skin performs as a tasty, crispy cup for the cheese and bacon, the finely grated truffle over the top adding earthiness in looks and flavour.
The follow up is a plate of guinea fowl done two ways.
One fillet is juicy, gamey and tender while beside it lies a dark and crisped mystery. Biting into this reveals tender meat and crunchy skin made from a boned wing. It produces the kind of munchy gratification as good, just cooked fried street food.
We come out of this tasty trip to the woods and embark on a sea voyage where we find a brick of perfectly baked cod which has been sexed up with a champagne and caper sauce and finely chopped tomatoes. We eat very slowly, such is the enjoyment of each morsel. And even then it’s gone too quickly. And I’m not even a fan of cod.
Well into the dinner now, the gentle buzz of the busy restaurant induces comfort and relaxation. The server asks if we want to pause before the palate cleanser. The timing of each dish has been Swiss movement perfect.
We turned down the offer of wine pairings and I’m now regretting this. If the food and service are this good, they’re not going to ruin things with poor wine and bad timing. Spending the equivalent on some white and red, however, we have secured our stash (a pinot noir and an albarino) and feel happy to be able to reach for it when we want and not have to wait for a next course.
After the sorbet, a very successful, clever and humorous take on a Christmas pudding, we go in for the venison. It’s the heart of winter on a plate. A generous fillet cooked medium is in the company of sprouts, kohlrabi and celeriac. A crispy topped potato fondant and a rich gravy are unparalleled in roast world.
And with a final flourish of chocolate, eye-watering yuzu and caramel, our trip through the enchanted forest concludes. It has been a blast with a happy ending.
Tasting menu x 2 £90
Two Paddocks Pinot Noir £44
Medusa Albarino £29