Belfast restaurants cooking up a storm, says influential critic Jay Rayner
Leading UK restaurant reviewer Jay Rayner has ladled praise on Belfast's "passionate" and "open-handed" food culture.
"Over the past three or four years, the thing that struck me is just how passionate people in Belfast are about their city's food scene. They are very interested in what outsiders think.
"People in Belfast who are interested in food and restaurants are more even and open-handed than any I have come across."
The Observer and BBC critic was speaking last night ahead of his My Dining Hell show in Belfast's Black Box theatre.
It's fair to say he's had a sweet and sour relationship with Belfast's culinary scene in recent years.
The first review he wrote about a city restaurant was far from positive. In fact it was a stinker.
"It's not fair to name the restaurant again - it was four years ago after all," he said.
"But then I came back again and reviewed James St South very positively, and also did a collective review of four new places - and people seemed rather taken by what I said."
Of the four, Zen felt the heat, but both Coppi and the Mourne Seafood Bar set Jay's tastebuds tingling. But it was Ox that really baked his cake.
"It simply wants to be best in class and then some. It wants to celebrate the best ingredients on its doorstep, and do it with unstudied professionalism. On those terms it has more than achieved its goals. It doesn't need to show off. Ox knows it's the most interesting thing to happen to Belfast in a long while," he said.
Teasingly, he said that he had just returned from "a fabulous meal" at a restaurant outside Belfast - but refused to reveal where it was. "You'll just have to wait for my review in The Observer in a couple of weeks' time."
He said it was somewhere that already had people talking - "and it was as good as everybody has been claiming," he added.
Asked what he is looking for in a restaurant, the journalist in him comes to the fore: "Copy. I'm looking for good copy, a strong story - something that will give me enough material for 1,100 words.
"I see my job as to tell people how much pleasure their money will buy them," he said.
"And we all know that pleasure can be found in many different ways - not just in places with thick linen and crystal glassware."
Jay's tasty tips
- Ox: "It's about top-quality ingredients to which the best things have been done."
- James St South : "Why the hell doesn't every city in the country have a place like this?"
- Mourne Seafood Bar: "Brilliant"
- Coppi: "Jamie's Italian on steroids"