It may be late summer, but in restaurant land a new spring has sprung as chefs and servers come back out blinking into the daylight following months of isolation.
he sense of optimism is palpable, even with the storm clouds of a second Covid surge gathering. In the meantime, the general consensus is to make merry and enjoy the moment because here's the surprise: restaurant food never tasted so good.
Everybody seems determined to be better than ever. From Gerard McQuillan's Freight in east Belfast to Paul Cunningham's Brunel's in Newcastle and from Chris Fearon's Deane's at Queens to Eddie Muldowney's Teach Coll in Donegal, restaurants seem to have spent the last four months honing skills, recipes and menus to create eating experiences that are a step change from their previous output.
Niall McKenna and David Gillmore in James Street South are not just back on form, they're fired up and there is a fresh charge of energy running through their dishes. Even the super-bland corn-fed chicken is now supercharged. Crispy-skinned, deeply flavoured and tender, the breast meat has undergone a stars-in-their-eyes transformation and is now a sparky piece of culinary art further enlivened by a gorgeous garden potage of leeks and artichokes and added punch from a potato gnocchi.
But this week's champion of change is Ox's chef Stevie Toman, who has re-entered the atmosphere like a burning, fizzing space capsule full of visions and new ideas. His food has evolved into something even more sensational than before. Lunch and dinner in Ox has always been a revelation, wiping out the memory of the previous visit and replacing it with a new experience each time. But this time, more than five months since a visit, Ox has pressed the reset button.
Some kind of divine intervention appears to be taking Stevie Toman from his earlier comfort zone of delicate, colourful compositions to new pastures where colours are still intense but darker, where flavours and textures are as beautifully balanced but bolder.
His move from the French principle of micro-managing fine ingredients so as not to interfere with them any more than is needed to achieve perfection, to a more muscular and assertive approach which results in the likes of a tiny but explosive pea tartlet featuring smokey eel, grapefruit and horseradish is proof that, just like David Bowie, Toman wants to change before he has to.
The summer tasting menu, at £60 for six courses (it's actually closer to nine courses if you count the likes of the canapes, petits fours and a verbena before dessert), is a series of surprises, each one joyful and robust. The deceptively delicate compositions belie big flavours and textures within.
There is plenty of miso and shiso here and there: the lobster with courgette and shiso beurre blanc (the shiso leaves give the butter a herby, citrusy note) is a generous, meaty chunk of fine tail meat refined and enhanced by the supporting cast.
The rib of beef with girolles, miso and bone marrow will linger on in my memory until I can get back to have it again. The impact of the miso on the beef creates that hard-to-nail umami flavour which fills your mouth right up to the back of your nose. Bone marrow has always been a profoundly rounded, deep and savoury booster, adding new dimensions to the tastes of meats. In Toman's hands it is weaponised and transformative, amplifying the beefy flavours hugely.
All this wonderment and staff in visors are clear signals that Ox is not just back with a bang but as transformed as it would be if it were a brand new restaurant.
The social distancing may have reduced the numbers, but the intimate, informal and familial atmosphere remains intact.
I've said this before, but it is high time Michelin revised its inspections and gave Ox the two stars it easily merits.
Tasting menu x 2 . £120
Bottle Savennieres Chenin . £75
1 Oxford Street
Tel: 028 9031 4121
A delightful feast to lift the spirits after dull lockdown
Deanes at Queens
1 College Gardens
These are not takeaways but restaurant-quality meals prepared with high-end ingredients
Finegan & Son
9 Kildare Street
Newry BT34 1DQ
Mexican delight provides wholesome gratification
Boojum at Home