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Putting the Ox into Oxford Street

Belfast is a most intriguing City. Opinions are strongly held and that goes for the food producers as well as the politicians. Generally this is a good thing. When I, and a gang of assorted Great Taste Awards judges, chewed through half a dozen tasting sessions last week there were some splendid local delicacies – potato farls, smoked fish, wheaten bread, soda breads and awesome meat. Mighty ribs of beef aged in a chamber lined with bricks of Himalayan salt. Good bacon, but profoundly ordinary sausages. The run of the mill Northern Irish sausage is a sad, pink, fatty, tough-skinned little chipolata, and despite the evocative name they have for them in Armagh (where chipolatas are known as “hangover sausages”), the bangers in N.I. tend to disppoint.
The mantra of using locally sourced, seasonal food has taken a firm hold of Belfast. In 2013 two friends, (chef and local boy Stephen Toman and front of house Alain Kerloc'h from Brittany) got to open their own restaurant which they called Ox after its location on Oxford Street. Both Stephen and Alain know their way around haute cuisine – indeed they first met when they worked together at L'Arpège. Ox is a very modern and very chic place and also a very busy one. At lunch there is a grand bargain: a choice of three starters, three mains and three puds costing £20 including service. One evening the assembled ranks of G.T.A’s foodie judges sat down to a four course tasting menu. As a precusor a bag containing home made bread and Cuinneog butter - bread a bit on the dry side, but make a note of the butter which comes from County Mayo. The first course was “milk curd, peas radishes and verbena” delicate flavours and great combinations of taste and texture. An “onion brioche” was the size of a large postage stamp,
wafer thin and crisp as glass with an intense flavour, memorable. The second course was “John Dory, black olive, samphire, spring leek, crab”. Perfectly cooked fish, pearlescent in the middle. Delicious. The third course was “loin of Mourne lamb, girolles, asparagus, spelt and garlic scapes” Garlic scapes are the green stems and flowers of hard-necked garlic plants, interesting but not as fascinating as the “spelt” which was bright green after being turned into a risotto heavy with herbs. The dessert course was “polenta cake, honey, mascarpone, pecan, apricot. Baked lemon curd, coconut, pistachio” and if that sounds like a lot of different elements …. it was.
Toman has a very distinct style, dishes have layer after layer of flavour, so much so that every course can be both dainty and intimidating. Take the asparagus that comes with the lamb – three spears, wild, white and regulation green. This verges on overkill and you cannot help wishing for a simpler plateful, perhaps one that presents three stems of green asparagus with a little butter. Ox means great cooking and dishes look good on the plate, but it is hard to stop yourself thinking fondly of a simpler way. Perhaps 6 elements to each dish rather than 12? Service is friendly slick; and there’s a sensible wine list where you could find a sound bottle for under £20. OX is rammed and with cooking this good deservedly so.
Ox, 1 Oxford St, Belfast BT1 3LA, (028 9031 4121)

www.oxbelfast.com

www.greattasteawards.co.uk

Charles Campion - Saturday 7th June 2014

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