“Where,” asked a friend, has The Gannet flown recently? “Istanbul,” I said airily. “Bordeaux, Hong Kong, Bangalore, Naples… and Belfast.”
“Belfast? Why did you go there?” Well, for the same reason that I go anywhere: in search of fine food and drink. For obvious reasons, the city was shunned by travellers for several decades, but these days both Belfast’s economy and its tourist industry are booming.
So, I am pleased to report, are its bars and restaurants. Take Meat Locker, Michael Deane’s brasserie on Howard Street. I dined there with butcher Peter Hannan, whose beef is also the backbone of the menu at Mark Hix’s restaurants. It is aged in a Himalayan salt chamber: I am unsure exactly how this helps the meat, but the proof of the (steak and kidney) pudding is in the eating, and it is splendid stuff. Deane is one of the pioneers of good food in Belfast; as well as being a terrific chef, he is a very accomplished restaurateur.
We started with braised ox cheek, cooked till meltingly tender, served with scorched petals of onion, a scattering of chanterelles and a silky purée of celeriac – in every way a perfect dish. Then a platter stacked unfeasibly high with sugar-cured short rib, thick slabs of T-bone cooked alla Fiorentina, tender and rosy rib of beef, roast chunks of bone marrow, beef-dripping chips, and – as memory serves – quite a lot of red wine.
The hottest ticket in Belfast at the moment also has a beefy resonance, though Ox (pictured) is actually named after its location on Oxford Street. In fact, one notable feature of the menu is its emphasis on beautifully cooked vegetables, perhaps something to do with head chef/proprietor Stephen Toman’s stint at Alain Passard’s L’Arpège in Paris, where produce from the soil is valued as highly as that from pasture or ocean.
Scallops are served with slices of crapaudine beetroot, a “heritage” variety like a chubby carrot; fermented kohlrabi and black garlic partner carpaccio of red deer from County Down; duck from west Cork shares a plate with black carrots, chestnuts, chicory, parsley root and coffee.
The wine list veers towards the modishly artisanal, but there are plenty of classics too. A lot of care, imagination and ambition are evident in everything Ox does. A Michelin star beckons, I’m sure.
What both Meat Locker and Ox amply demonstrate is that there is now a distinct appetite for eating out in Belfast, from residents, visitors on business and the city’s new tourists alike: when I was in town, both restaurants were packed to the gunwales. Their success is a very welcome part of Northern Ireland’s peace dividend.
For more morsels from Northern Ireland, discover these Two County Derry Delights.