The Academy, Ulster University, York Road, Belfast
The future of hospitality looks rosy if Ulster University’s Academy Restaurant is anything to go by. Young, willing and smart students learn the ropes in this beautifully appointed working restaurant under the watchful eye of their lecturers and tutors.
In the kitchen getting bawled out by stressed chefs or out front dealing with fusspot diners, the lot of a restaurant professional can’t be easy. But once these students of the culinary arts make the grade, they are effectively bullet proof, immune to the terrors of restaurant life, ready for anything including pompous critics, bloggers and influencers, never mind shouty chefs and picky diners.
You can’t help but love and admire the young ones for putting themselves through the Culinary Arts Management BSc course. No other university course apart perhaps from medicine exposes its students to the hard edges of working life and yet still they come.
The Academy restaurant has been rehoused on the corner of York Street and Donegall Street. Its street presence makes for a very pleasant interior with views out to Buoy Square and St Anne’s Cathedral. It is urban, elegant, warm and bright. It is also home to the university’s current series of culinary salons in which world-renowned restaurant chefs come over to Belfast to cook a dinner with support from student brigades and teams out front and in the kitchen.
On this occasion it was the turn of London Soho’s Quo Vadis chef patron Jeremy Lee. I’ve eaten in Quo Vadis a few times and love the intimate mood, the hint of chaos and the sublime food. Last time I was there was in January and there was haggis on the menu to doff the cap to Rabbie Burns. Lee is from Dundee. No pursed lips or conservative convention here, though. He may be a stickler for detail and his eye for quality is super sharp, but add to this his florid expression and bravado, his huge and handsome hulk giving him a commanding presence everywhere he goes. No better man therefore than to take a group of students and put them through the paces.
And on this night in February, for only £45 per head, began a sequence of dishes all using Irish produce and blessed with the Quo Vadis treatment. Big and bold, everything is cartoonishly robust. From the golden logs of salsify encased in cheesy, gruyere-like crunchy coatings to the big langoustines, fillets of smoked eel and trout, you get a sense of Chef Lee’s preference for assertive presence rather than delicate prettiness.
And the flavours match the visuals. The warm, soft and earthy salsify with hints of celeriac and artichoke lie within the salty crunchy cheesiness of a golden crust, a combination which makes it hard to avoid addiction.
The prawns, eel and trout, displayed like a graceful 19th century still life painting, have all been treated light-touch if at all. The prawns are unusually large and have been steamed and allowed to cool. With a dollop of in-house mayonnaise, this, the Academy version, is my chosen last supper. Until that is, the roast beef rib is plonked down. Pink in the middle, browned and with a little char on the outside, the inch thick slices – there are two of them – come with plenty of jus and a table spoonful of horse radish sauce. Heaven is complete with the arrival of the crunchiest roasties ever known and a hush sweeps over the room. I cannot overlook the dish of root veg and buttery cabbage served up on the side for its contents are memorable. Turnip, carrots, celeriac and cabbage are just so, not so crunchy as to be underdone and not on the verge of mush either.
At this stage a meringue of such proportions is delivered and I am convinced Jeremy Lee is now taking the mick out of us, in a kind, generous and affectionate way, of course.
Even if you came out of three years hard study at UU with only this simple dinner under your belt, I’d say your future in catering would be sealed. Look out for the remaining dinners in the series and make sure you get to at least one of them.
Five courses: £45