Restaurant review: Arun Kapil at James Street South
James Street South, Belfast. Tel: 028 9043 4310
It's not the first time that James Street South graces the pages of this magazine, but nor is it every week that the multi-award winning restaurant (Georgina Campbell's 2016 Restaurant of the Year) is transformed into an Indian.
In the light of the forthcoming Irish Curry Awards (more on this in the coming weeks and months) and this being the NI Year of Food and Drink, it was only a matter of time before the two culinary legends, Niall McKenna and Arun Kapil, should meet in an explosive fusion of eastern and western culinary cultures.
But this wasn't going to be a case of slipping a tandoori oven in through the kitchen doors. This was to be a fine experience, something which would work as a fusion. You would be right in thinking that there is something experimental about the exercise, something requiring laboratory conditions. And that's what we got.
Arun Kapil is the former manager of the girl band Sugababes. He is an electrifying man whose post-pop world dedication to spices is unparalleled.
He has the charisma and charm to match this knowledge and is therefore embarking on a second, global smash-hit called Green Saffron. It's not the name of his new band. Green Saffron is a business which Arun runs from his new base in Cork.
Niall McKenna rates Arun very highly. But then so do other world-class chefs, including Alain Ducasse, who consults Arun on spices, blends, cooking techniques and all sorts of secrets from the darker side of the restaurant world. I use the term carefully because Arun is not scared of taking risks, nor is he afraid of taking his band of fans and followers into unknown territory. The Pied Piper of Hamlin would envy Arun's powers of persuasion. Who else could possibly convince you of eating a spatch-cocked chicken which has been marinated in a spice known as the devil's sh**e?
That's right: asafoetida, the mysterious eastern spice originally from the Iran/Afghanistan area is famous in India for its stink. Magically, when used by people who know how to handle it, it transcends into something entirely different, something approximating leeks or onions and garlic. This is an important point because certain religious beliefs in India require people not to eat onions and garlic.
Niall McKenna's team put together an Indian evening which featured gol guppa, a crisp, egg-sized, puri shell into which you could inset a set of mixes including chickpea and potato, chilli relish and tamarind water. Like a super-posh, three-dimensional poppadum, these were presented as amuse-bouches to start with. The journey eastwards continued into a pleasantly fresh and sweet dish of cured salmon, asparagus, broad bean and peas salad with roast mustard seed, carom, cardamom and cool mint yoghurt dressing.
Strikingly European, the dish managed somehow to develop an eastern identity thanks to the bite of the carom. This is where Arun Kapil's talent for balance and blend comes through: mustard seed and cardamom? Who'd have thought of it?
Peppered Strangford mussels in a shallot and garlic broth were served up with big chunks of charred sour dough and aioli. This is a take on the advisor's favourite way to enjoy mussels: as a mouclade. A very mild and savoury curry, the sauce and mussels matched well. Arun and Niall say the secret to this is to use cider vinegar rather than white wine vinegar.
The spatch-cocked chicken with saffron, celery and shallot mix and an outstanding pilau rice made from a rare three-year old basmati and some Mogul style (north Indian) preserved lemons provided all sorts of kicks and flavours.
The closing act of rhubarb meringue, cumin and orange, Chantilly cream and stem ginger ice cream, pretty much sums up the point about successful cultural fusion.
In fact, the experiment was so successful that instead of ending up with a nicely balanced east-meets-west dinner, Kapil and McKenna created something seminal and new. Alain Ducasse experiments a lot and it's no wonder he reaches for Arun Kapil. But you don't have to go to Paris or Los Angeles to find these new flavours. Just look out for the next Arun Kapil/Niall McKenna dinner.
Tasting menu x 2 £90
Bottle Pouilly Fumé £31