Like many elements of contemporary fine dining, the tasting menu originated in France.
Known as the menu degustation in the 1970s, well-known French chefs used it to show off their experiments with new flavours and dishes over 10 or more similar small courses rather than three large courses.
In Northern Ireland we are now spoilt for choice for restaurants offering tasting menus, from the Michellin-starred Muddlers Club and Ox to Six By Nico, which offers it at a much reduced rate than many others.
Recently, I enjoyed the best tasting menu experience I have ever had in Ireland (and as a foodie who has sought them out, I don’t say that flippantly). The location was Blank, a Victorian townhouse on Belfast’s Malone Road which won culinary experience of Ulster and vegetarian menu of the tear at this year’s YesChef Ireland Awards.
The restaurant’s name lets you in on the secret at the heart of its menu — the menu is blank, bar a list of the ingredients and the farms and businesses from which they originate.
There is a strong emphasis on Northern Irish produce.
When I dined there, there was asparagus from Conway Farm in Armagh, goat’s cheese from Fivemiletown in Co Tyrone, leeks from Scott’s Family Farm Shop in Dungannon, lamb loin from Carnbrooke Meats in the Mourne mountains and Atlantic cod from Walter Ewing in Co Down.
For a £70 tasting experience, you get to enjoy five courses taking you on a culinary journey like no other. For an additional £35 pair it with wine (you won’t be disappointed).
Blank’s manager Alex Daley, who previously managed Saphyre restaurant on the Lisburn Road, is a passionate trained sommelier who ensures the fine wines perfectly match the flavours of the dishes. His choices were so good I made a note of them all to purchase myself at a later date.
The first course was a large ravioli with goat’s cheese and spinach served in a tomato consomme foam with heritage tomato salad. Dining just four days before a summer holiday in Italy, this dish and its perfectly made pasta certainly got me in the mood.
What followed was a voyage from the sea to the land, with a cod and seafood salsa verde and a perfectly pink lamb loin cooked in parsley, rosemary and thyme. The herbs worked wonderfully well with the lamb, as did the artichoke crisp and purple sprouting broccoli on the side, which gave a little more texture to the plate.
For desserts, we enjoyed a pre-dessert of rhubarb foam and milk sorbet with granita before a very moreish chocolate delice (from NearyNogs in Kilkeel) with chocolate and whiskey crumb.
Washed down with a 10-year-old Tawny Port from Portugal, it was a fabulous end to a fabulous meal.
Unlike some soulless fine dining establishments, Blank has a cool vibe with excellent choices of background music. The restaurant is a hive of activity. Service was exceptional, the best I’ve enjoyed here. Every staff member knew each dish and wine pairing inside out. I will be back.
43 Malone Road, Belfast
Tel: 028 9040 6399
Five-course dinner x 2 £140
Wine pairings x 2 £70