Restaurant review: OX in Belfast
1-3 Oxford Street, Belfast. Tel 028 9031 4121
OX opened to instant applause a little over three years ago. At the time, its impact was compared in this column to that of the original Roscoff opened by Paul and Jeannie Rankin in 1989. I suggested that OX had the same potential to change Belfast's dining scene as had Roscoff 20 years earlier.
No one likes a smart-arse, but... I told you so.
Amazingly, the Michelin guide kept going past it until this year's publication, in which it and Eipic finally secured a star. Much fury was vented by me and others each year when the new Michelin Guide was published. How on earth could it have any credibility while it refused to give OX even a Bib Gourmand?
Fast-forward to the future and now the question is: how long will it take Michelin to realise OX is actually a two-star in disguise? I am not alone in arguing this. People exposed to bigger, more international environments than me have repeatedly said it: OX is up there with the likes of Jose Andres's Bazaar in Miami Beach, Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in Chelsea and Alain Ducasse's Spoon in Paris.
An outing to OX last Saturday night with the advisor revealed new depths of experience, flavours, textures and enjoyment. It was almost as if, despite the regular visits for lunch and occasional dinners, some invisible force had breathed into the kitchen and the front-of-house staff a new, more mature and even more confident sense of technical know-how, purpose and entertainment.
Alain Kerloc'h, the welcoming and smiling conductor of operations. and the equally calm (on the outside) chef Stephen Toman, keep the standards on a constantly rising path of improvement. The result is remarkable in its informality and effortless in its brilliance.
Consistency is maintained throughout the five-course tasting menu we were offered. I'm not a fan of tasting menus: it's a straitjacket from which there is no escape.
In my experience, the matched wine options threaten to be perfectly balanced and well-chosen, but paltry in volume. I've sat at too many tables with an empty glass for too long to enjoy the evening, because it's just not the done thing to ask for more.
Here, the wine option adds £30 per head to the bill. But I recommend you listen instead to Juliette McCavana, the sommelier, who suggested a bottle of Minervois (she said it was sensational) to follow the carafe of Le Grappin (Danny Millar introduced me to Le Grappin a couple of years ago and I am forever grateful). We complied. As a result, there was plenty of excellent wine on the table at all times; one less thing to stress about.
And then the pearly gates opened a bit more and in came an amuse-bouche of smoked Lough Neagh eel with some bits of flowers, beetroot, fennel pollen (yes, really) and buttermilk. Sounds pretty bad when you write it down like that, but honestly, this was pretty neat stuff. It set the scene for what was about to come.
What came next was a knockout single, thumb-thick, white asparagus which appeared to be loosely wrapped in cling film. The transparent wrapping was actually lardo, a sheet of cured pork back fat transformed into a sheer, clear leaf of bacon, which melted instantly on contact with your tongue.
The lardo actually held in place bits of truffle and burnt onion, which provided another dimension entirely to the soft, rounded and slightly metallic flavours of the asparagus.
A piece of halibut, like a white block of marble, sat on top of a little bed of white sprouting and slightly charred broccoli, some bergamot and pool of dark pink seafood bisque.
A return to the shore followed with a brick of tender, dark red Skeaghanore duck magret with crispy, salty skin appearing with root reinforcements of potato, carrot and wild garlic. Anyone who suggests OX can be short on volume needs to try this, because by now, quantity has caught up with quality and we're reaching the "gros et plein" red level.
Nonetheless, we persevere. Two desserts are offered - one valrhona chocolate bar with coconut, blood orange and, of course, miso (Japanese vegetable stock) and the other caramelised pineapple with star anise and saffron ice cream: both are hedonistic and heavenly. And, as if to prove our insolence, we had cheese with Japanese plum sake... naturally.
Spring Tasting Menu (x2) £100.00
Carafe Grappin £30.00
Bottle Minervois £38.00
Plum sake (x2) £8.00
Sparkling water £4.50