Restaurant Review: Barking Dog team takes the lead in trend for world tapas
Dog Track, 11b Ormeau Avenue, Belfast
Beautifully restored building in Belfast's Linen Quarter is setting for this fabulous restaurant which borrows from sushi joints to stunning effect
The signs of a collapsing civilisation are upon us: self-service check-outs in supermarkets, automated pumps at petrol stations and online banking services amount to a collective rejection of human contact. Automation is the avoidance of compassion, the reverse of empathy and the destroyer of that which bonds us all together: small talk.
Automated services are business' way of isolating us and saying: "I really can't be ar*ed talking to you: just follow the on-screen instructions, pay up and leave."
Into this increasingly lonely world enters the fourth horse of the apocalypse, the sushi train. The sushi train has now leapt from its host, the Japanese restaurant, to that which was always associated with something altogether less formal, keeping bad company on languid afternoons, Rioja in hand, shaded from blistering summer sun: your Spanish tapas bar.
But I am ahead of myself. I panicked without cause. Because, contrary to all my profoundly held fears about automation, all is well in the new Dog Track restaurant and its 50ft or 60ft circumference sushi train.
Barking Dog partners Michaels Fletcher and Corrigan have achieved something unique and charming in their new venture and its vast choice of "world tapas".
Dog Track provides the best of both worlds: modernity and fast and fluid service on the one hand and proper human contact on the other.
Let me explain. You can choose to sit up high and close to the passing cold dishes and desserts as they trundle along on the "train" encircling the exposed kitchen. It's like sitting in a theatre in the round where all the action is on the stoves as head chef Michael Corrigan paces and supervises his crew, keeping things ticking along.
You can either take your pick from those plates doing the rounds, or choose hot dishes from the menu, which means talking to people in the kitchen on the other side of the little track. If you're really not interested in anything new-fangled, you can sit at the conventional tables and be served by very bright and buzzy people who know their stuff and are delightful with it.
The Dog Track is housed in one of the most beautifully refurbished and restored Edwardian-era factory buildings in Belfast's Linen Quarter, Armagh House on Ormeau Avenue. The restaurant is bathed in light, even on a dull day and, at night, it shines out a bright, warm glow like a huge street-level lantern.
New-fangled it might be, gimmicky, too, but this stuff actually works. There is a seductive ambience to the place and you sense the people working here want you to come back and to keep coming back. The sushi train works, too, because it provides a focal point as well as a kind of fence between neighbours which paradoxically encourages engagement and chatter. It is perfect, as the adviser suggests, for a first date.
Three of us went for lunch earlier this week and the encounter was so pleasant and uplifting, we agreed we would be back as quickly as possible.
At the heart of all this is Michael Corrigan's food. This is the man who gave the world the beef shin burger. He may be minimising the sizes in Dog Track, but he's still delivering huge flavours and great textures.
Mussel popcorn is addictive because it's sinfully easy to just keep popping them in your mouth until you burst. The lamb slider is a proper kofte, juicy, meaty, and delicately spiced. A crab meat mini-burger is cool, lush and exotic with its apple slaw and seaweed bun. There are seemingly endless choices, all which are very desirable: coq au vin, smoked Toulouse hot dog, sweet cured beef brisket, Tyndale goat pie. The three of us tried about a dozen offerings and they were all fabulous. Standouts include the duck fat chips, halloumi fries and chargrilled prawns. Also, the salted caramel creme brulee and those tiny stuffed doughnuts are irresistible. The wine list is intriguing and we were well-advised to take the unusual Ampelomeryx chardonnay/sauvignon blanc, which goes with everything.
Dog Track is one to get used to, because like its older brother Barking Dog, it's going to create its own community and neighbourhood and people are going to keep coming back for more.
It's not to be missed.
Green plate x 4: £16
Yellow plate: £4.50
Red plate x 2: £11
Orange plate x 2: £14
Pink plate x 2: £13
Blue plate x 2: £7
Glass wine: £8
Ginger beer: £2.75
Fevertree elderflower: £3
Coffees x 3: £6.50
11b Ormeau Avenue
Tel: 028 9031 9454