Seasonality is a term so heavily abused in the food industry it has almost lost its meaning, and, often, at restaurants the essence of raw ingredients is lost in a melange of complex techniques, and overbearing flavours.
OX restaurant in Belfast on the other hand has earned its stripes, and a glowing Michelin star in 2013, by its sincere approach to the ebb and flow of the seasons. Working with the structure nature has set, OX adds nothing more to the fruits of the season than top quality meat, sustainably sourced fish, imagination and creativity.
On a warm, hazy Spring evening, a large group of us of walked alongside the River Lagan, and into the dining room of OX. With high ceilings, painted brick walls, and a colour scheme of exposed wood and cream, with splashes of turquoise, owners chef Stephen Toman and restaurant manager Alain Kerloc’h have distilled their combined Michelin star experiences into a relaxed, and simply designed restaurant; hoping to let the food do the talking.
Our entire party opted for the surprise Tasting Menu; a 5 course seasonal tasting menu (£50 pp), or vegetable tasting menu (£45 pp), with wine pairing for £30 pp. My request for a tasting menu that paired vegetables with seafood was happily accommodated. Quiet to begin with, the room soon filled with a mix of locals, tourists, families, and young couples; all keen to sample the celebrated, yet approachable, menu.
The anticipation between each course was greatly increased when, just before each was served, chefs and servers huddled over a table in the open kitchen, in deep concentration as the final touches were applied. The team of well versed servers then descended on our long table, smoothly furnishing it with the next set of dishes, finally revealing their details. With kitchen and floor staff perfectly in-sync, the service scarcely disturbed the easy going vibe of the evening.
A colourful amuse bouche of Beetroot, Cured Halibut, Fennel Pollen, & Sea Aster sat in a dark ceramic bowl, licked with rapeseed oil, and dotted with creamy avocado puree. The soft white fish, acutely salty, was tucked into a thin fold of sweet beetroot; smooth textures that contrasted with the crunch of asparagus, sliced into thin disks, as if prepped for school science experiment to examine its inner workings under a microscope. Just this simple twist in preparation had an effect on how the palate perceived the vegetable, adding a crisp, grainy consistency; explaining why few at the table recognised the asparagus in this guise.
White Asparagus, Black Garlic, & Sorrel was simply, but strikingly plated. Almost masquerading as a dessert, a dusting of burnt onion powder mimicked cocoa powder, and emulsified black garlic posed as a sticky, dark chocolate sauce. It was sweet too, but only before a warm, spicy, mustardy taste sensation came through; invigorating the subtle Spring flavours of the tender baton of white asparagus, and lemony sorrel.
There was Scallops, Bisque, Leek, & Bergamot, with amber-edged seared scallops; their delicate but rich tasting flesh pulling apart with little effort. A pillow of herbed gnocchi crouched like a caterpillar, alongside tenderly cooked broccoli, beneath shards of crisp sea lettuce, and a wide ribbon of confit leek, that shredded into strands when confronted with cutlery. The pale hues of scallop and leek stained a deep orange when mingled with the bisque, split with bergamot infused rapeseed oil; just a spoonful of which brought an intensity of flavour.
The dry 2014 Saint-Jean des Sources Sauvignon Piquepoul, with notes of citrus, apple, and herbs, paired particularly well with this scallop dish.
Hay baking has become popular technique to manipulate celeriac, a knobbly, brute of a vegetable, into something more refined. Though even after this effort, the root can often remain dry and tough, with little smoky flavour imbued. For Spring Mushrooms, Hay Baked Celeriac, Wild Garlic, & Yolk, OX achieved a tender, moist wedge of celeriac, that had an earthy pungency. Perched on top were sautéed wild mushrooms and crisp wild garlic leaves, chive like in flavour. This taste of the season was in echoed in the pool of smooth wild garlic and parsley sauce; its vivid green colour only outshone the bright ochre 65 degree egg yolk in its centre – the cooking time that creates an egg yolk unrivalled in flavour and texture.
It took me a few moments of dazed admiration before I could summon the courage to dash the startling beauty of Caramelised Pineapple, Star Anise & Viola. Cracking open a halo of sunny caramel tuile revealed a sliver of warm, syrupy pineapple; lined with petals of colourful viola; resting on tanned buttery shortbread. The sweetness infused with the slightly spicy heat of star anise brought a tropical warmth to the palate.
Our blissful state was extended with a round of coffees and teas, delightfully accompanied by Petit Fours of dainty Blood Orange Macarons, intense Dark Chocolate & Rosemary Truffles, and jewel-like Passion Fruit Pastilles. The invitation to OX Cave, their wine bar next door, would have been welcomed as the natural next step had we not a prior engagement.
With asparagus, wild garlic, tenderstem broccoli, and wild mushrooms among the pillars of spring’s bounty, it’s clear that seasonality is truly at the core of OX’s ethos. Through thoughtful use of each element on the plate, intuitive seasoning, and a skilled yet playful hand, chef Stephen humbly delivers dishes that bring the flavours of the season to life. Not that OX is without complexity, far from it; it’s their ability to create complexity from a handful of ingredients that makes the dish in front of you so startling striking.
Put simply, at OX ingredients are gracefully, yet powerfully, elevated to an awe-inspiring level; just as nature intended.
1 Oxford Street,
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.