Six by Nico, Waring Street, Belfast. www.sixbynico.co.uk/belfast
The tasting menu is creeping further and deeper into restaurant land. No longer confined to the high church of Michelin-starred poshness where the stellar reputation of the chef is such that we gladly relinquish our freedom of choice and accept anything they put in front of us, the tasting menu straight-jacket is finding growing numbers of willing buyers in less august places.
The challenge lies among the lesser known restaurants and their ambitious chefs for whom the tasting menu’s economic efficiency is too attractive not to give it a go. Some, like newbies Blank and A Peculiar Tea, get it right.
But it takes a lot of savvy and planning to get six courses out for under £40. Enter Six by Nico. Its six-course taster changes every six weeks in a neat marketing strategy encouraging repeat visits. The chain has proven that the appetite for tasting menus is out there and hundreds of people are more than happy to have the choices made for them rather than to have to go through the tedious process of choosing from an a la carte menu.
And fair play to chef entrepreneur Nico Simeone because a recent visit clearly showed that what once was the reserve of the gourmet connoisseur has now been democratized and is available to all. At £32, nobody is getting ripped off. The current theme of Ancient Rome adds even more interest. How exactly did they eat 2000 years ago in the capital of the empire? You can get a feel for it in Six by Nico whose team have been reading the oldest cookery book in the world, the Apicius.
How accurate this culinary archaeology might be is worth debating another day but for now, the fact that the menu includes pasta, meat, fish, cheese, tomatoes and a variety of Mediterranean vegetables indicates enough ties to ancient Italy for me.
The menu kicks off with cacio e pepe, a Roman classic of pasta with parmesan and pepper (the veggie version is made with goat’s cheese). It’s as rich a cheese sauce as you’ll find, unctuous, more cacia than pepe and accompanied by some pasta, one bit of which is crisped. There soon follows what looks like a scotch egg. It’s a duck egg with white asparagus, hazelnut and brown butter and the lush warmth and savouriness with the crunchy hazelnut is delightful.
Roasted hispi cabbage with little bite size cavatelli pasta, pickled girolles, truffle foam and pecorino is another balancing act of flavours and textures which will leave you satisfied and content. The fourth dish called Bay of Naples features a curled up sole roll, a juicy big smoked mussel, aromatic lovage and turnip accompanied by a mussel cream. Flavours are starting to become repetitive. It’s like a wardrobe of dresses all cut in the same style but using different textiles. Still, I’m enjoying each one and everyone else seems to be too.
But Nico pulls out the surprise in number five: some belly, fillet and rib of pork with fennel, bean ragu and apple. The fillet and belly are rich and moist, full of flavour and piggy goodness but the rib is a bit chewy. The beans and fennel ring out that Italian theme like a church bell.
The finishing line is ahead with a honey and cheese parfait made with ricotta, preserved quince, fizzy muscat grapes, pear and citrus. If you add £27 to your dinner budget the nice people in Six by Nico will bring you glasses of wine with the five courses which follow the cacia e pepe. I’m not sure why this is. But each wine thereafter is not from the cheap end. Quality from Spain and Portugal as well as Italy includes a Ribeiro from Spain and Douro Branco over the Portuguese border. This is good value. It is also joyful and unpretentious. And it is a comfortable introduction to tasting menus, a genre not normally given to informality and craic.
Dinner for two £64
With wine £54