The Ox meets the Rabbit in New York

Belfast-based friendship and ambition unite the people behind Ox Meets the Rabbit, an exciting pop-up cuisine venture in Lower Manhattan

Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry outside The Dead Rabbit: Muldoon says of Ox, ‘It was honestly one of the best dining experiences I’ve had this year’

Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry outside The Dead Rabbit: Muldoon says of Ox, ‘It was honestly one of the best dining experiences I’ve had this year’

 

A young Belfast chef boarded a flight to New York last night with some unusual packages. All going well Andy Michaelides should be unpacking dried fig leaves and vacuum-packed hops in a kitchen in Lower Manhattan today. It’s all legit, “but we were going to get him a Narcos T-shirt”, his boss Stephen Toman jokes.

The ingredients are for Ox Meets the Rabbit, the mother of all pop-up diners. Over two nights next week, Belfast boys (and a Belfast-based Frenchman) will take Manhattan with an idea that almost fell through the crack of Facebook’s messaging filter.

The ox is the Michelin-starred Belfast restaurant of the same name. The rabbit is the Dead Rabbit, a famous downtown Manhattan bar run by Belfast friends Seán Muldoon and Jack McGarry. They were named world’s best bar at the Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards last year. It’s an accolade taken as seriously in the drinks world as the 50 Best list is in the restaurant world.

Toman got the idea of a collaboration when he walked into their three-storey 19th-century building on Water Street, on a visit with Tourism Ireland to promote Northern Ireland’s food. He was impressed at how “two boys from back home actually took on the world and became number-one bar in the world”.

Ox food and Dead Rabbit cocktails seemed like a natural fit. There was the Belfast connection but also a lot of other parallels. Both ventures opened on different sides of the Atlantic in the early months of 2013. They were both put together by friends, (Muldoon with McGarry and Toman with Frenchman Alain Kerloc’h) who had worked together for other people before setting up their own ventures. Both were meticulously imagined, researched and executed. And both were high-stakes gambles.

Muldoon and McGarry weren’t in the Dead Rabbit when Toman visited. “I came up with the idea of Ox Meets the Rabbit and sent Seán a message on Facebook. ”

Then . . . nothing. For a long time. Weeks and then months passed and Toman put the idea out of his head until it turned out that Muldoon’s Facebook page had a message filter switched on. When Toman’s idea washed up in a flood of unseen messages, Muldoon messaged him back to say he was “definitely interested”. Then he ate in Ox on a trip home to Belfast to see family. And he loved it.

“It was honestly one of the best dining experiences I’ve had this year,” Muldoon says. “In most Michelin-starred restaurants I’ve eaten in before, I always found the food very rich and filling.” That wasn’t his impression of Ox. “The dishes Stephen served were very delicate, very fresh and all the ingredients were very deliberate.”

The Dead Rabbit partnership began a stone’s throw from Belfast’s Oxford Street in 2007, when Muldoon and McGarry met in the Merchant Hotel where they both worked behind the cocktail bar. One of their regulars was a man called Conor Allen. He was the Canada-born, Belfast-educated vice-president of the New York Stock Exchange, working five weeks out of every six in New York, staying beside the Merchant in Belfast for the sixth week. He offered to invest in the two talented barmen. But it was a tough-as-nails proposal. “He said we had one chance to get it right,” Muldoon explains. “We ought to go away and think of a cocktail bar concept that nobody else was doing, something that would have longevity, something that would not be here today and gone tomorrow.”

So the pair looked at where they worked – a “high-end, sophisticated cocktail bar where everything was table service only” – and where they went after work “a no-frills Irish whiskey pub called The Duke of York”. They decided to bring both ideas together in one bar and aimed “from day one to make the world’s best cocktail bar an Irish whiskey pub”.

Keeping Allen’s words about longevity in mind, they mined New York’s Irish hardman past for the name. The Dead Rabbits were a notorious Irish-American street gang fictionalised in Martin Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York.

McGarry researched the history of drinks and potions to put together a cocktail menu rich in ideas as well as ingredients. And the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog (as it was first called) was born. Grocery and grog didn’t stick but everything else did. It helped that Allen’s business partners Danny McDonald and restaurateur Peter Poulakakos had serious form with a restaurant and bar empire in Lower Manhattan.

When the Dead Rabbit opened in January 2013 with sawdust on the floor of its beer whiskey bar, the New York Times called it “a time portal of a tavern in Lower Manhattan”.

Was it tough to impress New Yorkers? “Yes,” Muldoon says. “They are very discerning . . . but if you are good in New York the people here will receive you well. Although if you’re not good the word will get out very quickly. There are no second chances, get it right first time or forget it.”

Most Irish bars in New York are sports bars. Theirs was different. “The story of the Dead Rabbit gang is a New York-Irish story and New Yorkers see the history associated with the bar as their own history.”

Back in Belfast, more recent street violence was dominating the restaurant scene when Ox opened in early 2013.

Toman’s friendship with Kerloc’h began when he was working as a stagaire at L’Arpege, Alain Passard’s Paris restaurant where Kerloc’h was maître d’. The two clicked, thanks in part to their Belfast connections – Alain’s wife Laura is from the city.

Toman returned to Belfast in 2006, earlier than he had planned but he was nursing a shattered shoulder broken in a fall on a “chef’s night out”.

He joined the kitchen at James Street South and worked his way up to head chef. Kerloc’h moved to Belfast a couple of years later and started working in Deans. The restaurants shared a yard, so the two friends saw each other every day.

“We always wanted to open our own restaurant. We’d meet up for coffee and talk about it and keep an eye out for stuff.”

There was something about a tile shop on Oxford Street that had always appealed to Toman and, in summer 2012, he saw a “to let” sign as he drove by. He rang the letting agent a few minutes before they closed and met there with friend Orla Maguire of designers Oscar Oscar the next morning.

“Alain came back from holiday and I said go look at Number 1 Oxford Street. If you don’t like it, we’ll say no more about it. But he phoned me straight after and said, ‘I can’t get that out of my head. That’s the place.’”

But in the time that it took to apply for the licence and fit out the restaurant, their place had become a flashpoint. A decision in late December 2012 by Belfast City Council not to fly the union jack every day on City Hall sparked street protests by Ulster Unionists. RUC officers regularly lined up along Oxford Street just outside the restaurant Toman and Kerloc’h were building. It was a grim winter. Two years earlier Michael Deane had lost his Michelin star, leaving the city with no starred restaurants. Belfast’s restaurant trade suffered its worst Christmas since the Troubles, as people stayed home to avoid the flag protests. In March 2012, just as Ox was opening, Paul Rankin announced he was closing his flagship place, Cayenne. As a restaurant city, Belfast was on its knees.

Lots of people told Toman and Kerloc’h they were mad, not only because of the difficult atmosphere but also because of the new direction they were taking with food. It was a short, tight menu favouring vegetables over meat, no sides and (in a revolutionary idea for Belfast) no chips.

But the minute they opened the door they were “really really busy”, Toman explains. A few people “just didn’t get it”. The absence of chips was a big talking point. “We don’t have a fryer. We’re probably the only kitchen in Belfast that doesn’t have a deep-fat fryer.” They stuck to their guns and the requests for chips have faded away.

Then last year they got a Michelin star. “It’s the best feeling in the world to be understood,” Toman says.

It was a contrast to the disappointment of not getting one the year before, and a turnaround for the city. Danni Barry at Michael Deane’s Eipic also bagged a star, making her the first woman Michelin-starred chef in Ireland since Myrtle Allen.

“As Alain said ‘It’s a lonely place to be on your own.’ So it’s great there are two offerings and they’re both totally different,” Toman says. “The stars have helped start a spider’s web of good restaurants in Belfast.”

Next week the heart of that web lands in a dining room overlooking the Hudson for a press night on Tuesday and a 50-seat sold-out $200-a-head meal on Wednesday.

The fig leaves come from the fig trees at Ballywalter House outside Belfast, grown by Danish food historian Vibse Dunleath, who has been a fan of Ox since it opened and supplies some of their ingredients. They will go be part of the dessert of caramelised apples with treacle and fig leaf. The cocktail brings Kerloc’h’s French roots into the mix with calvados and Pommeau de Normandie. But an obvious pun has been been resisted. Because Ox Meets the Rabbit will be as much about celebrating Belfast’s rebirth as a restaurant city as it is about the Big Apple.

NEW YORK FEAST The five-course menu, with accompanying cocktails, is:

Course 1: Beetroot, gomasio-cured sea trout, broad beans, fennel, pollen Cocktail: Looking Glass A light and refreshing cocktail with sesame-infused Powers Gold Irish Whiskey, which complements the gomasio and broad beans, along with pale cream sherry, maple, banana and cinnamon.

Course 2: Hay-baked celeriac (celery root), trompettes (mushrooms), lardo, truffle Cocktail: Doppelgänger A dry and savoury Martini-style drink with Powers John’s Lane Irish Whiskey, Linie Aquavit and Yellow Chartreuse to balance the lardo and truffle’s richness.

Course 3: Squid, chorizo, ink, romesco Cocktail: Night Owl This Tanqueray Gin cocktail is enriched with basil, fennel and lime that complement the squid and squid ink, with gentiane providing a contrast to the dish’s umami elements.

Course 4: Chateaubriand, hops, smoked potato, artichoke Cocktail: Pocket Watch This Manhattan variation with Rittenhouse Rye and arbol chili infused-Old Forester Bourbon complements the dish’s smoky notes and stands up to the rich beef; hopped grapefruit bitters match the dish’s hops.

Course 5: Caramelised apple, treacle, fig leaf Cocktail: Spell Spoke The rich and decadent flavours of Montreuil Calvados Selection and Pommeau de Normandie marry with fresh citrus to provide a tangy contrast to the dessert course.

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