Tasting menus used to be a bit of a pain. My inherent paranoia told me that the concept was conceived by money-grabbing, over-confident restaurateurs who were more concerned with giving diners what their chefs wanted to give them. I worried about being locked into an inescapable series of dishes I wouldn't have chosen otherwise.
To further tighten the straitjacket straps, you could opt for the wine pairings. Things have changed in recent years but in the not-so-distant past you could have bet your driving licence that not one of those wines would be a belter. The wines would be at best safe and passable, at worst, cheap and mediocre.
Most stressful of all was the number of times I sat in front of an empty glass for a seeming eternity between courses having swallowed the two mouthfuls in the glass paired with the earlier dish. Anxieties surrounding a wine drought at the table defeated the reason I came out to the restaurant in the first place.
Those days are long gone. Like most facts of life such as the introduction of safety belts in cars, the smoking ban in bars and algorithmic exam results, tasting menus have become accepted and they now abound in the best of restaurants as well as some who think they are among the best. While I still suffer from wine pairing fear, I'm working hard to come to terms with it.
Which brings me to the delights of Noble in Holywood where there is an abundance of wine knowledge and an absence of tasting menus with wine pairing options. Today, the enthusiastic wine advice of Saul McConnell is dispensed with (it's his day off) and replaced instead by the newly crowned Best Sommelier in Ireland, Daniel Stojcic, who has been in Noble since the start. In a staggeringly positive example of European collaborative progress, Daniel who is Austrian will represent Ireland in the European Championships at the sommelier finals in Cyprus next year.
We are having a family dinner and in respect of his newly elevated position, we leave it to Daniel to pair a good white to the three crab on toast and two garlic prawns starters with some scampi snacks thrown in. It's a tricky ask. The generous crab salad is served on a bed of dressed cherry tomatoes perched on a big slice of sourdough so there's plenty of tangy, vinegariness while over in the prawns is a sea of salty melted butter and mouth filling garlic.
For this he brings a bottle of Tokaji, the dry furmint from Hugh Johnson's vineyard near MAD in Hungary. The wine's crisp dryness is perfect for the seafood spread and drinks like a much more expensive Loire sauvignon blanc.
For the steaks, roast and pork belly, I wondered about the big classic Morgon but Daniel has a better and cheaper idea: the Perverso "garage wine" from Chile, a Bordeaux-like red made from carignan and cabernet sauvignon, light enough to cut through like a Gamay but with plenty of depth and flavour.
Noble has always been consistent and now since reopening, there is a sense of exuberance, even on a wet and drab Sunday. The dishes are exciting, every little roastie is golden and crispy and the mood in the dining room is happy and upbeat. Chef Pearson Morris has created an ultra-reliable menu which never lets us down. The chocolate delice on its bed of peanut brittle is as enticing and seductive as ever and the cheeses are cared for as lovingly as new born pups, served up soft and at room temperature.
Now that Daniel Stojcic's new perspectives bring fresh dimensions of quality, I wonder how long it will be before we see a tasting menu with wine pairings. I'm in.
Sunday 3-course lunch x 5 £120
Bottle Tokaji £34.50
Bottle Perverso £44.50
Noble, 27a Church Road, Holywood. Tel: 028 9042 5655