Restaurant review: A Taste of Prehistory
Ulster Museum, Stranmillis Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9044 0051
Belfast has evolved in two decades to claim its rightful place at the top of a glittering array of foodie cities and destinations from across the world. Which other city, I ask you, of barely 350,000 people, can claim two Michelin-starred restaurants, a rich seam of excellent mid-range bistros and brasseries, country house pubs and some of the best fast-food outlets available.
We have embraced the concept of eating out and, as a result, our appetites have become increasingly adventurous.
Vietnamese, Thai, Taiwanese, molecular cooking and veganism, post-nouvelle cuisine and small plates, sliders, venison burgers, Mexican/Pakistani fusion takeaways... we're loving all this.
So, is it any wonder that a bright spark at the Ulster Museum has called for a pause in this galloping forward movement? The museum raises the question: have we gone far enough with our insatiable hunger for the new and exciting? Perhaps the time has come to take stock and a look back.
Back to a distant past, it turns out. The Ulster Museum is hosting a dinner, for one night only on February 23 (and available to the public at £50 per diner), to coincide with the Northern Ireland Science Festival this month.
This is no ordinary meal: the menu is entirely pre-historic and validated by top museum curators, who have carefully vetted the ingredients to ensure as authentic an experience as possible.
The Yellow Door people, who run the restaurant in the Ulster Museum, have devised a revealing three-course menu which will feed, inform and entertain you. Having been allowed a sneak preview, I can vouch for the quality of the dishes which took an age to perfect and to pass the forensic scrutiny of the curators.
The entrance ticket includes the dinner and pairing of mead, a honey based, ale-like alcoholic drink, one of the first ever devised by humanity and still being made today.
But for the chefs this has been no walk in the mesolithic forest park. The rules of authenticity, as laid down by expert curator Dr Greer Ramsey, mean that all the dishes must be made from produce available in Ireland when the first settlers arrived on the island almost 10,000 years ago.
Unsurprisingly, there is a limited harvest from which to cook a three-course meal. Yet, if the sneak preview meal is anything to go by, the experience is remarkable.
And there are surprises; there is goat's cheese and cream, roast leg of pork and vegetables. On the other hand, there is no cereal-based dish, as arable farming only began a few thousand years later.
The challenge for chef Himanshu Sabarwal of Yellow Door is to make something interesting from ingredients which are ultimately unexciting. And against his own expectations, he has brilliantly completed the silk purse from sow's ear challenge.
Based on the preview, there is a starter of goat's cheese, fresh little quails egg-sized spheres of delicately flavoured, bright white cheese. They rub along very nicely with some rough toasted sourdough bread which somehow passed the Dr Greer test of authenticity.
Some leaves (these could be dandelion, as well as any other amount of edible weeds) add colour and texture and I discover that they are actually beautifully crisped dulse.
The dish doesn't look so much post ice-age as something from the kitchens of Niall McKenna, Michael Deane, or Stephen Toman. And I mean that in the most complimentary way.
Salmon gravlax with sourdough wafers and also with dulse is the alternative starter option. I detect a hint of lemon in the salmon, which has otherwise been naturally cured. Chef Sabarwal admits to adding a drop or two of lemon juice while marinating the salmon - "how could I not? I'm a chef. I want to feed people nice food."
Two options for the main course include a honey-glazed ham hock with braised cabbage and a poached egg, or a wild mushroom barley risotto. Both are exquisitely made, the approximation of the rare-breed pork to boar entirely acceptable, the sweetness of the honey glaze and the unctuous oozing egg yolk standing in for gravy and blanketing the bitter, crunchy steamed cabbage beneath making for a very hearty and tasty dish.
The wild mushroom barley risotto appears to be the one dish which actually looks pre-historic, or how one might imagine it: a brownish mound of creamy barley, whose flavours are both intense and earthy, deep and redolent of a very natural time before.
Berries, nuts and goat's milk cream make a dessert as modern as a Muller Corner - only much, much better.
For anyone with a mild interest in the origins of food on this island and the central role it has played in our societal development, this dinner is a must.
A Taste of Prehistory in three courses with mead pairing £50