Food review: Star performance at Eipic
Eipic, 28-40 Howard Street, Belfast BT1 6PF + 44 28 9033 1134
When Eipic's chef, Danni Barry, was awarded a Michelin star last year, there was an amount of newsprint devoted to the fact that this is an accolade that has been awarded to very few women chefs. Elena Arzak and Clare Smyth (also from Northern Ireland but working in London) may have three stars apiece, and Angela Hartnett has one, but restaurant kitchens across the world are dominated by men.
Long and antisocial hours and a prevailing macho culture both perpetuate the population of the industry by young men who are prepared to work in that way, at least for a few years. There's plenty of talk about changing the working conditions in restaurants to make them more family-friendly, and if this gains traction then perhaps we will see more women with serious cheffing careers, but for now Danni Barry's gender - and the fact that she was only 29 when she won the star - is unusual in her profession.
Barry is only the second woman chef working in Ireland to have been awarded a Michelin star. The first was not, as I had thought until Georgina Campbell put me right, Myrtle Allen from Ballymaloe, but the late Catherine Healy who, with her husband, Nick, ran the successful Dunderry Lodge in Co Meath, where they held a Michelin star from 1986 until they sold the restaurant in 1990 due to illness. Catherine was a mainly self-taught cook who, according to Campbell, "upped the ante at Dunderry hugely by spending working holidays with some of Europe's finest chefs (notably Roger Vergé at the Moulin de Mougins on the Cote d'Azur)."
Danni Barry's boss at Eipic is Micheal Deane, a veteran of the Belfast restaurant scene who himself held a Michelin star for 12 years, longer than anyone else in Ireland. Deane and his wife, Kate, run seven restaurants in the city, from the casual Deanes at Queens to the Italian-themed Deane & Decano. Eipic is their only fine dining restaurant, opened when they persuaded Danni Barry to return to Belfast after working for Simon Rogan in the UK as head chef at his Rogan & Co restaurant in Cartmel, having also worked at L'Enclume in Cumbria. Barry previously worked at the Michelin-starred Deanes back in 2003.
Eipic (it's the Irish word for 'epic' apparently) is located next door to the Deanes' Love Fish and Meat Locker on Howard Street in Belfast city centre. On a Friday lunchtime, both are busy and buzzing, in contrast to Eipic where only one other table is occupied. The long and liquid lunch has gone the way of the dodo, and in the UK a number of upper-end restaurants have simply stopped opening during the day, as it's too costly in staff terms when the only beverages on the bill are going to be sparkling water and coffee, rather than the wine which they can mark up by anywhere between 100 and 200pc. Eipic only opens for lunch on a Friday, and the luxe décor is better suited to night-time. All 32 seats are booked out for dinner.
We start a His Epiphany (don't ask me why) cocktail based on local Shortcross Gin with green chartreuse, kummel, lime juice, bitter orange sherbet, Dead Rabbit Orinoco bitters, fresh coriander and freshly ground black pepper that I would love to be able to recreate at home. Our snack is a little filo tart with beetroot and vinegar, and the amuse a small bowl of mousse made with local Young Buck cheese served with celery and a garnish of chicken skin (an ingredient that crops up everywhere these days) for texture and contrast. It's intensely savoury and makes for a good start. There's house-made bread - white and wheaten - with the whipped Abernathy butter that's one of the new stars of the Northern Ireland food scene, followed by a delicate plate of Strangford crab with pretty-as-a-picture slivers of different-hued carrots and a buttermilk dressing. Then a scorched almost-tartare of 90 day-aged shorthorn beef topped with transparent slices of turnip and splodges of lovage and mustard, and a tranche of meaty turbot with an intense sauce of roasted bone that has us running our fingers across the plate to get the last of it. The last of the savoury courses is perfect venison cooked sous-vide, with cocoa and caramelised Jerusalem artichoke. Pudding is poached rhubarb with a sweet cheese pannacotta, and little cigarettes of meringue flavoured with pink peppercorns. Finally, there's burnt blood orange under a layer of chocolate rice.
The wine pairings throughout are assertive and inspired. The crab is matched with an off-dry chenin blanc, Vouvray Tuffiers 2014 from the Loire Valley, while the beef gets a German Spatburgenuder. With the turbot, we have a bio-dynamic, almost sherry-like, Domaine Joncier Lirac 2013, and with the venison an elegant Garzon Tannat 2013 from Uruguay. Pudding is served with a Pacherenc du Vic-bilh 2014 from south-west.
I and some other journalists were guests of the restaurant, so there was no bill. The meal that we were served is the £60 (€78 approx) tasting menu.
On a budget
The £40 (€52 approx) menu is served both at lunch on Friday and at dinner and offers four courses - at the moment you'd get the Young Buck and celery amuse, duck yolk with charred greens, a choice of either the turbot or the venison, and the rhubarb dessert,
On a blowout
The £60 menu is what we had. You could wash it down with a bottle of Chateau Petrus Cru Exceptionnel 1983 priced at £3,000.
The high point
Michelin recognition for a talented young female chef.
The low point
It's a room better suited to night time.
7/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
River Cottage chefs Gill Meller and Steven Lamb (above) are the star attraction at Kilkenny's Croan Cottages' three-day residential cookery course to be held from April 15-17. Croan is a working smallholding run by Francis and Niamh Nesbitt who were originally inspired by Channel 4's River Cottage TV series to escape city life and move to rural Kilkenny. Many of the ingredients will come from Croan itself, there'll be workshops and demonstrations, and participants will eat what they cook. The cost is €690 (full-board) with a limited number of non-residential places available. croancottages.com