A gentle aroma of buttery frying hung in the air as I walked into OX. Or at least, I think it was buttery and pan-related. Irrespective of the source of the aroma, it was the perfect welcoming touch at this very hot and very popular restaurant in Belfast. The bleak exterior gives nothing away, but inside the ceiling high windows flood the room with light, caressing the golden wooden furniture and the surprisingly warm blue woodwork. With an open kitchen set at the rear of the room and soft overhead lights, it's unique and comfortable all at once.
The tributes have been rolling in lately for Belfast, and in particular OX, the poster child restaurant for all that is good in the culinary world of Northern Ireland. Head chef Stephen Toman (formerly of James Street South) and Breton Alain Kerloc'h bring their combined experience to bear in this space on the banks of the River Lagan.
|The warm yet crisp interior at Ox|
I'm visiting on a Saturday lunchtime and the a la carte menu is very tempting, especially as main course dishes are priced at just £10. But the chance to explore the world of OX through their winter tasting menu, with five courses for £45 (or £70 with wine pairing) triumphs.
What follows is a wonderful collection of dishes, all exemplifying the best attributes of this season of cold air, bare trees and hibernation. A single perfect scallop is accompanied by surprisingly mild liquid parsley, air-dried ham and a ribbon of beautiful beetroot. A plate of Finnebrogue venison carpaccio, topped with perfectly matched mushrooms and fermented kohlrabi is clean on the palate, yet rich with the earthy denseness of mushroom. The accompanying medium bodied Villa Wolf Pinot Noir is simply stunning.
|Scallop, parsley, crapaudine beetroot and chanterelle|
Abondance 2013, Domaine la Bastide 13% Languedoc
|Finnebrogue venison, black garlic and fermented kohlrabi|
Pinot Noir 2012, Villa Wolf 12.5% Pfalz
Wild halibut is paired with romanesco and soft curry, sharped with the herbal notes of bergamot. A piece of Chateaubriand is some of the best cooked meat I've ever enjoyed. While I am intrigued by the little crosnes, I find myself intensely disliking the bitter chicory leaf that is draped across the plate. I am offered a choice of red or white to accompany my beef and I choose the Pouilly Fuissé, which stands up well to the meaty flavours.
|Wild halibut, curry, romanesco and bergamot|
Condrieu 2011, Domaine Perret 13% Rhône
|Chateaubriand, shallot, crosnes and chicory|
Pouilly-Fuissé 2011, Manciat-Poncet 13.5% Burgundy
The rich burnt sugar of treacle apple and a delicious ice-cream flavoured with local fig leaf bely the apparent simplicity of my final course. It's a final hurrah as autumn departs, leaving ripe apples in storage for the winter months. Special mention goes to the accompanying dessert wine, a stellar Petit Manseng with enough syrup and sweetness to tackle the rich apples.
|Apple, treacle and Ballywalter fig leaf|
Pacherenc du Vic Bilh 2012, Les larms celestes, Chateau Boucassé 13%
|Selection of macarons|
On the riverbank, the Beacon of Hope sculpture (or Nuala with the Hula in local terms) has her back to me as I leave OX, very well fed, and even better libated. Wine pairings are a great way of exploring a restaurant's wine list, but they can leave you full and foggy-headed. What I especially liked at OX what how my own unique preferences were listened to and incorporated into my tasting.
The atmosphere at OX is decidedly unpretentious - some dishes arrive by waiting staff, while others are delivered by kitchen staff. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is warm and pleasant, happy to engage in conversation or explain something from the menu. As I leave, Alain presents me with a printed menu on simple brown card, listing the dishes and wine pairings that I had just enjoyed. A perfect gesture to encapsulate what OX does.
Tel: +44 (0)28 9031 4121