Roam Pop-Up at Kaff in Gymco, The Devenish, Finaghy. www.roampopup.com
Earlier this week, Michelin announced the Ireland and GB restaurants to be awarded stars and Bib Gourmands for their 2021 guide. It was good news and bad. Our three Michelin-starred restaurants, Ox, Eipic and Muddler's Club retained their awards but we ended up in a Bib Gourmand deficit with the loss of James Street, Clenaghans and Fontana from the roster.
The Bib Gourmand tally is a reflection of excellence and affordability, something for which the north's restaurants, bistros, and bars have built an unrivalled reputation. Yet we are down to five Bib Gourmands: Home, Noble, Wine & Brine, Deane's at Queens and Balloo House. It's a poor reflection on the Michelin inspectors not to have kept the three others but also to have overlooked Stock, Brown's in Derry, Catalina in Fermanagh and a good number of others.
But still, there are many great advantages to the region securing any Michelin acknowledgement. The stars and awards bring a broader benefit to the restaurant sector. Here in the north, the very fact that we have three Michelin-starred restaurants and five with Bib Gourmands, is evidence of a wider restaurant trade which strives for excellence.
Take Ryan Jenkins. Only 28 and already with 12 years under his belt, Chef Jenkins came up the hard way, washing dishes and eventually making it to the pots and pans. Five years in Slims, two in Output and a number of work experiences with Michelin man Stevie Toman in Ox, have fine-tuned the skills of a cook who never received any formal training. His passion is unmistakeable and real. When he talks about other chefs and restaurants he does so in admiration. He says he was in Ox when it reopened briefly in the late summer. "Stevie's beurre blanc was so perfect I nearly cried," he says.
It's so telling that it was a beurre blanc, a deceptively simple sauce which features just white wine, white wine vinegar, shallots, salt and cold butter, and which requires a steady and patient hand, which moved him so much. This is a chef who instinctively understands quality.
When Jenkins set up his own pop-up restaurant, Roam, everybody raved about his dinners. Now, Roam Pop-up is back and this time, it's in my kitchen, or yours if you're wise.
His take-home dinner kits have been selling out fast as people have copped on to the value of four courses for £25 per person. There is some faff involved but as I always say, bring your kitchen assistant in, open it and pour into a large glass and you'll very quickly be in the swing of things.
To add to the mood and motivation, Ryan has even offered his specially selected Spotify tracklist to play while you're cooking and eating.
On this occasion there is a show-off little prawn tartlet with broccoli, asparagus, XO sauce and the daintiest little pastries to bed it all in. Raw prawns are beautifully sweet and fresh, the veg has been prepped and you bung it all on a baking tray and into the oven for four minutes. Now's your moment to get cheffy, bring the tweezers out (unnecessary, really, but do it for the craic) and compose your tartlet adding the dark and dangerous XO at the end. This was a major hit in our house. Lush, crunchy asparagus and broccoli salted up with the XO and then the sweet, briny firmness of the prawns fighting for space in the little pastry cup made for an entertaining ooh aah starter.
What followed was the reverse: robust and wintry, a magret of duck already water-bathed required only six minutes in the oven while the part-roasted potatoes, kale, carrot puree, roast beetroot and carrots played a close support role aided by a rich, five-spice jus which was beautifully balanced sweet and sour.
Mileens and cais dubh cheeses from Cork with rustic crackers and a chocolate mousse with blackberry sauce, almonds and seasalt completed the Jenkins picture perfectly.
Box for two (veggie option available) £50