Restaurant review: Cru Club on the Ormeau Road
451 Ormeau Road, Belfast. Email only: firstname.lastname@example.org
Belfast's upper Ormeau Road is in constant flux. Like an experiment in social engineering, the road recently started sprouting cool restaurants and cafes such as Root & Branch, Le Petit Ormeau, Kaffe O, Soul Food, Shed, General Merchants and Bodens.
Close observers will point out that l'Etoile has been there since John de Courcy stepped off the boat from Normandy to build Carrickfergus Castle, and that the Errigle, Pavilion and Parador bars are part of the geology; but I'm talking about the hipster revolution which has been sweeping over the area in recent years.
And because it is a kind of revolution, meaning non-stop transformation and continual change, it is no surprise that the world's first robotic brewing pub opened up here a couple of years ago.
Brewbot is a wonder of automation and new technology and yet somehow manages to champion the old and now rare values of a proper city neighbourhood pub.
It's big yet intimate, cool yet not up itself and the beers are quite fabulous (and deceptively strong, as I discovered walking home one night after a couple of pints of Satan's P***, or whatever it was, only to find difficulty putting one foot in front of the other).
And as if that wasn't enough, another innovation has been revealed in the form of the Cru Club, upstairs at Brewbot.
A separate operation, the Cru Club is the brain child of Juliette McCavana and partner Olivier Machado. Juliette is French by way of Andersonstown (it's a long story) and Olivier is Portugese by way of Paris (that's an even longer tale).
Both of them are partners in trade and have an eye and palate for the best and most unusual wines, cheeses and charcuteries.
Technically, Cru Club is a wine bar, but the dedication to the subject these two have shown lifts the concept to a much higher plane, making a night there not only entertaining but informative.
This is due to some trade secrets they are happy to share. For instance, the Coravin pouring system, as first introduced by OX, means Cru Club can open the most expensive wines to sell by the glass.
Before the advent of the vacuum and pressure system, which effectively means the bottle is never opened, restaurants and bars could only really serve average or cheap wines by the glass as they were never guaranteed to sell the whole bottle within the short time necessary before it oxidised.
The second point worth noting is the number of magnums Cru Club is selling. I did not know that wine in magnums was, by and large, better. The bigger bottle means better maturing (and decreased chances of corking). So selling glasses of wine from a Magnum means everyone's a winner. For a larger table of six or more, it makes sense to go for the big, big bottle (as C&C used to call it, remember?).
Yet the concept of a wine bar serving nibbles remains unconvincing, particularly for that Rosetta crowd in upper Ormeau who like their volumes. This is where Cru Club is managing to change perceptions.
"Some regulars are now coming three times a week," say Juliette and Olivier. "They like to have a glass of wine and something to eat in the evening which is not a big dinner."
Sure enough, a platter of charcuterie (£8) comes with quality toasted sourdough from nearby Bread & Banjo Bakery, and there is plenty of it.
The charcuteries are among the best I've tasted, including in Italy and France. Saucisson and chorizo from Corndale in Limavady is out of this world. Textures are different to what you will have had on the continent but all the better for it: crumbly, dry, light yet packed with punchy salami flavours, the saucisson is earthy and the perfect foil for a glass of Morgon, a red pinot that has become Cru Club's unofficial house wine.
Peppered saucisson, lomo and coppa hams (the extraordinary coppa is laden with Hungarian and Spanish paprika) from Ispini, another local producer, are so good, you imagine this must be what the French, Spanish and Italian stuff tastes like before it leaves the farm on the long journey to the supermarket.
Ask the couple what their ideal pairing is and you get two very different answers. For Juliette, there is nothing better than a glass of Greek (yes, Greek!) Assyrtiko with some burrata cheese, an Italian mozzarella served with rocket salad. For Olivier, his current go-to wine is the Les Forques, a powerful Spanish red from Penedes, very similar to that Morgon, and a plate of the Irish charcuteries.
There's more food on offer than you think: toasted sourdough and salted butter, tapenades, hummus, cheeses, hams and, well, enough to make a decent supper.
But the wines are the big act here. Go on a Wednesday wine night when Juliette and Olivier reduce the price of 10 wines (four reds, four whites, a sparkling and a sweet wine) by 30%. Rest assured, there's no rubbish here, no offloading cheaper wines. You'll start to learn something about the subject, which may transform you into an expert enthusiast!
Les Forques glass.................................£7