I t takes nerves of steel to open a Belfast restaurant now. It takes guts to open one where vegetables play a big part. And it takes a sense of humour to call it Ox.
The past four months have been horrible for Belfast restaurateurs, with flag protests disrupting their trade. Last month the Daddy of Northern Ireland's food scene, Paul Rankin, announced he was closing his restaurant Cayenne. On the day the bad news broke, two friends were opening Ox, a new restaurant in a former tile shop, on Oxford Street.
Glamorous this location ain’t. Belfast’s Oxford Street is a three-lane Laganside highway where court buildings and office blocks provide nothing on a human scale. Most of the passing trade is passing at 30 miles an hour.
The two men behind Ox are chef Stephen Toman, who was head chef at James Street South and French maitre d'Alain Kerloc'h who was manager and sommelier at Deanes. The two worked together in Alain Passard's Paris restaurant L'Arpège. Passard, a three-Michelin starred chef, was famous for his seven hour meat roasts until he shocked Paris (in as much as you can shock Paris) over a decade ago when he decided to stop cooking red meat and put vegetables centre stage.
Passard is a purist who believes the “single gesture” dish, like a perfectly sliced tomato, is a higher accomplishment than a tomato confit.
Ox sits behind an enormous plate glass window looking onto the traffic. It’s a spartan room, with no pictures on the painted brick wall of the double-height space. The furniture is 1950s looking: square tables, which might have been made with leftover floorboards, along two sides and larger round ones in the middle. The plain wooden chairs have built-in boxes at the back where you could rest a menu or book. The entrance wall is painted arsenic blue. Small long-flex glass lights hang in a line over the side tables.
My Mum and I have walked the short stretch from Belfast Central Station for a 1pm lunch. People stop to look at the simple lunch menu on display in the window.
There is no online menu yet, so the list on brown-paper card has been a lovely surprise, not least of all the astonishing value. Set lunch starters are £3, main courses £10 and desserts £3. The a la carte prices are a bit more hefty, and there’s a £40 vegetable tasting menu.
Ox is not as high church as L’Arpège. You will find beef, chicken and fish here. Even on the vegetable menu meat is used as a garnish unless you request a strictly-vegetarian version.
And does it work? Oh boy does it. I smile while chewing almost every bite of food here because things taste of themselves so much that they feel like a discovery of something lost.
On paper, my tasting menu reads like a five-a-day list: beets, radishes, potatoes, mushrooms and carrots. In reality we are talking Dorothy stepping into the land of Oz, out of black and white and into colour.
Amuse bouche beets are small cubes and segments of purple, yellow and rhubarb pink beetroots, with sliver-thin slices of chervil root which taste like a cross between a nut and an apple. Chicken skin cooked to a flat cracker-crunch gives a gutsy garnish.
The first tasting plate is an edible botany text book illustration. There are three different kinds of radish sliced skin-thin. One is long and pale, like an x-ray of a carrot, and there’s a brown skinned one that looks like it’s been created in a porcelain factory. There are tangy leaves and a clean curd cheese at the base of the plate to bind all this freshness down.
Mum gets chicory leaves filled with nuggets of musty blue cheese, and draped with pieces of butter-soft bresaola. There’s a sprinkling of nutty hard tiny cubes which are grated cured egg yolk (the egg is salt cured over night and then baked at 65 degrees). I get more chicken skin and an onion cracker made from a meaty onion jam that’s been baked paper thin with filo.
We sip a carafe of Rhône L’Ameillaud (£14) which adds a damson and liqourice blowsiness to it all. It’s a great wine list that has small and large glass portions and carafes.
A pause and then a searingly hot plate of potatoes comes shaped into small tubes, with oyster mushrooms over them, smothered in a mushroom cream with toasted shards of ham. It's the best Ulster fry I've ever had.
My final savoury dish is a large plate of nettle and barley risotto and Comber carrots. There are roasted orange carrots, yellow ones and deep purple babies that taste like they’ve been injected with essence of carrot.
Mum’s Fermanagh chicken is bone-in and skin-on and tastes like the chickens of my childhood.
A small buttermilk panacotta is heavenly, a baby’s milky breath made solid. Beside it I get candied beets – root vegetables transmogrified into winegums. Mum gets a gorgeous spoon-sticking roll of white chocolate parfait with butterscotch and biscotti.
I love Ox, whether it stands for oxymoron or Oxford Street or just the “o” and “x” child’s code for a hug and a kiss. That’s the culinary gesture that’s happening here. After a nearly three-hour lunch I’m sad to leave. And I can’t wait for a return visit.
Lunch for two with wine came to £79.75.
THE VERDICT: Brilliance on a plate. A great reason to visit Belfast
Ox, 1 Oxford Street, Belfast,
tel: 0044-(0)28903141 21
Music: Lovely. Jazz to show tunes to arias.
Food provenance: Excellent. Fermanagh chicken and Comber carrots a specialty
Facilities: One size fits all
Wheelchair access: Yes