With exterior and interior décor at a minimum, one might suspect that west Belfast chef Stephen Toman (32) and his Brittany business partner Alain Kerloc’h (41), are sheepish about their culinary and hospitality skills.
Any thought there may be some reason for this quickly dissolves, however, before even sampling the first tantalizing item on their special tasting menu at Belfast’s OX restaurant. Such is the effect of seeing the impressive, diverse gin list from a number of different countries. Two – Aviation from Oregon in the US and G’Vin from the Cognac region of France – suffice to prepare our palates for the delights to come.
Soon thereafter it becomes more than obvious that the pair – who met while working in L’Arpège, the Parisian Left Bank restaurant owned by Alain Passard – have simply chosen to display their considerable skills on the plate rather than in any show of extraneous architectural decoration.
The pavement-side building in which OX is housed was once a tile store and is located on Oxford Street, across from the Queen’s Bridge and close to the newly developed Titanic Quarter and is entered through a short, side corridor. Inside, upon first glance, one is reminded of school-day innocence, with plain wooden tables that look like classroom desks.
Even the chairs are of a simple wood design leading one to half-expect inkwells in the corner of each (Stephen later tells me the furniture was made from reclaimed wood from an old leisure center).
The room is cosy and square with a high ceiling and walls of bare, whitewashed brick. Lighting emerges at the end of a long cord from which a granulated bulb dangles over every table.
An open kitchen is at one end and a glass window looking on to the street and the River Lagan beyond at the other, outside which a giant metallic statue of a woman holding a hoola hoop stands gazing down over all (homespun humor has led her to be christened ‘Nuala with the hoola,’ perhaps alluding to the ‘floozy in the jacuzzi’ nickname of Dublin’s downtown statue, Anna Livia Plurabelle). Oscar & Oscar designed the 40-seat restaurant, which also has an intimate mezzanine area providing for more secluded dining.
The OX celebrates its first anniversary this month (March) and Stephen and Alain say they are more than satisfied with the response their endeavor has received thus far from clients. It’s not difficult to understand why.
A friendly waiter brings us the opening surprise – a dainty linen pouch (appropriate as Belfast was once the linen capital of the world) containing delicate, thinly-sliced bread fingers, perfect for soaking up our amuse-bouche of northern Italian truffle rolled in egg yolk with cauliflower shavings and crispy chicken skin. A simple dip-and-eat strategy yields delicious rewards.
This is followed by an original milk curd salad of red pepper caramel, beetroot and thin coins of radish with droplets of bergamot oil.
The third course is a creative spin on the turf n’ surf theme – spaghetti-like strings of squid on a soft bed of chorizo cappuccino with a few sweeps of the creature’s own ink – a veritable artistic mélange accompanied by crunchy bits of Romanesco brocolli. The fourth course, however, is the highlight of the menu.
Rarely have I tasted such smooth, buttery-like, slices of meat as the Chateaubriand served, so tender a knife is barely more than a decorative instrument. The roasted aubergine in miso sauce is both an intriguing and delicious complement.
Dessert continued the evening’s high level of quality – a velvety mousse of French Valrhona chocolate from Hermitage near Lyon, containing seventy percent cocoa content, with banana and burnt milk ice-cream, plus a selection of home-made macaroons, surprisingly in the subtle flavors of beetroot, parsnip and carrot.
Displaying his native pride in the fruit of the vine, Alain selected several excellent wines through the meal and, remembering our strong appreciation of Corsican varieties, showed his perspicacity by including a Vermontino and a Muscateddu from Domaine Fiumicicoli, as well as a Piemonte Moscato Passito.
So if it’s local flavor with international sophistication you seek, in a simple setting, OX ticks all the boxes.