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Rolling stones: we review Belfast's latest bistro, Stix and Stones

By Joris Minne

Some may consider cooking your own steak on a hot stone a gimmick, but there’s no doubting the quality of this new eatery’s fantastic food.

Northern Ireland’s love of spending loads of money on eating out continues unabated. We spend more per head in restaurants than Londoners so is it any wonder that new restaurants keep popping up? And while some commentators warn darkly of the madness of this proliferation of bistros and brasseries, many of us welcome it because competition means better standards.

The latest contender to climb into the ring is Stix & Stones, a large, modern place mixing bare timber and leather, grand open spaces, intimate corners and round tables. It is so well lit it feels a bit like a set in a TV studio. Yet there’s nothing false about it or the service.

Stix & Stones is betting on our appetite for doing a bit of cooking ourselves and has introduced the concept of hot stones. For those who enjoy some interaction with their food, what can be more fun than cooking your own steak on a hot stone? Answer: getting a professional chef to cook it for you in a kitchen.

Presenting this as a departure from the norm is full of risk that Stix & Stones will be viewed as a DIY restaurant with no chef. But the reality is that the menu is interesting and varied, that there are not one but two chefs, brothers Martin and Daniel Courtney, and the cook-your-own-steak hot stones thing is only one of a number of otherwise-cooked options.

A bean and bacon soup with truffle oil had the depth of flavour and musky aftertaste of a quality and well-considered dish. Soups are tricky when you want an exceptional one. This was exceptional.

Crab salad made with avocado, apple, lime zest and pak choi is a fresh and zingy success. There are big country chunks of bread on the table but a bit of skinny toast with the crab would have perhaps created a bit of balance.

Sticky chicken wings with a side salad of shredded celery, cucumber and scallion are excellent, slow-cooked, moist, flaking from the bone and served in an unsweetened barbecue sauce. These are the best we’ve had in months.

So what about these stones? The two teens are mad keen to have a go at cooking their own steaks. If this tiny sample constitutes valuable market research then the future looks good for the gimmick. It’s showbusiness, it’s a distraction and it fits in with the relentless move of western civilisation towards “customer interaction”. We’ve seen it happen to museums which now have had to transform themselves into visitor experience centres. If we keep going down this route we will soon be playing our own guitars at the next Red Hot Chilli Peppers gig.

For young people and those who enjoy a bit of control — the mother-in-law said she knows lots of older people who’d love to have a go — the hot stones on, which you can grill your steak in bits at a time or in its entirety, are not a distraction but the main attraction. What’s more, the meat has been prepared sous-vide and is from Crossgar and Kettyle’s — which means the quality of the materials is very high. There is a choice of rump, sirloin, fillet, rib eye or a 16oz T-bone.

The problem is with the extension of the hot stone idea to fish. I had a decent piece of halibut served up cooked on one side on the stone and the advisor had the blackened king prawns in similar fashion. You’re likely to ruin the fish on these as they are more delicate. I quickly removed the halibut from the stone as it was just starting to be overcooked a minute or two after being brought to the table.

The prawns fared better. Shelled, firm, moist and coated in a Cajun spice, they held up well on the stone. The advisor wisely removed them in time. There is a tuna steak on the menu which is served on the stone — because of its denser texture the tuna’s chances of coming out of this well are far greater.

Sides of cauliflower gratin are very good, creamy, crispy on top and with just enough cheesiness. Cajun fries should be called something else. They’re good, crispy, skin-on fries which look like skinny autumn leaves but are disturbingly covered in pesto.

Desserts are outstanding. A set custard with crunchy rhubarb and praline crumbs, apple tarte tatin and coffee crème brulee with shortbread are all top dog.

Stix and Stones is a welcome addition to the firmament. It will attract young people in the evenings and perhaps the occasional suit at lunch time. There will be violent debate and division over the stones but you can’t get away from the quality of the food on offer.

The bill

Chicken wings x 2 £11.90

Crab salad x 2 £13.90

Soup £4.95

Fillet steak on stone x 2 £44

Halibut special £21

Cauliflower gratin £3.50

Cajun fries £3.50

Hand cut chips £3.50

Apple tarte x 2 £9.90

Brulee £4.95

Set custard £4.95

Drinks £31.90

Total £157.95

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