The review: Ox Cave - "A little world of lovely wines and delicious morsels"
Ox Cave, 3 Oxford Street, Belfast BT1 3LA. +44 28 9023 2567
'What Stephen and Alain are doing here," says my new friend, as he attempts to explain the Friday night habits of Belfast as opposed to Dublin, is "challenging the psyche of Belfast."
John is a solicitor who eats lunch in Ox every Friday. He has moved next door to Ox Cave for a post-lunch glass of red with a group of colleagues who are celebrating the fact that one of the team has just been made a partner. Usually, he's back at his desk by half past two, but this is a special occasion.
If I lived in Belfast, I think that I'd have lunch at Ox every Friday too, not least because it's an extraordinary bargain at £20 for two courses, and £25 for three. For that you might start with a dish described as 'asparagus, chanterelle, yolk, truffle' - a sublime and luscious plate of spring, the slow-cooked yolk bathing the tender new season asparagus in richness. Follow with three perfect tranches of tender, flavoursome Mourne Mountain lamb with salsify, miso and sea herbs, and a dessert of rhubarb, white chocolate, blood orange and hibiscus. It's no wonder that the restaurant is full, with a gentle buzz of contentment in the air, and a clientele that's a happy mix rather than over-male and over-suited, in the way that some Michelin-starred restaurants can be. Of course, if you don't live in Belfast, and you are only going to be an occasional visitor to Ox, then you might opt instead for the five-course spring tasting menu at £50, with matching wines at £30. It's still a bargain.
I'm in Belfast to interview Stevie Tolman and Alain Kerloc'h about their upcoming pop-up at The Tannery in Dungarvan for the West Waterford Festival of Food and it's an opportunity to eat Tolman's food for the first time in well over a year. Yes, of course, they pull out all the stops for a visiting journalist but, as I don't pay for my lunch, it's not reviewable, other than to say that the restaurant has gained in confidence since I was there last, and that along with the subtle elevation of the décor and table settings (I have been coveting the Robert Welch cutlery ever since), the food has gone up several notches too. The Ox team is clearly not inclined to rest upon its laurels, and there's the unmistakeable whiff of ambition in the air. What does that mean in restaurant terms? That a second star is not out of the question.
Anyway, after a bit of a post-lunch stroll and with a couple of hours to kill before heading to the station for the train back to Dublin, having failed to get into the recommended Muddler's Club, which, they tell us, we would have had to book two weeks in advance for dinner at 5.30pm (I know), we find ourselves back on Oxford Street, this time in Ox Cave, next door. Which is where John comes in. It is not, he tells us, the Belfast way to be sitting around on a Friday evening drinking glasses of wine, which perhaps explains why Ox Cave is only ever half-full during our time there. In London or Dublin the pubs and wine bars would be heaving after work on a Friday, but Belfast isn't like that. Granted there's a match on, and perhaps the post-work crowd are more inclined to down a few pints in the pub, but perhaps there's a hangover from the years in which Belfast was not a city that you wanted to hang around in any longer than you had to. Maybe that's when the Belfast habit of getting home as early as possible on a Friday night was born, and no amount of Cathedral Quarter PR is ever going to change that.
That, I think, is what John means when he says that Stevie and Alain are challenging the psyche of Belfast, putting it up to people that they can be Europeans too (no matter the result of Brexit), and enjoy glasses of wine and tasty plates of delicious things to eat and convivial conversation at the end of the week.
We put ourselves in the hands of a charming woman from Istanbul who knows her wines, and ask her to bring us gorgeous things to eat and drink. There's an Irish drinks menu that features no fewer than 10 Irish gins, as well as whiskeys, vodka, craft beers and cider, but we're in a wine mood so it's a couple of glasses of Kalecik Karasi, 2014, Kayra from Turkey, with some thin slivers of delectable pata negra, and chicory leaf boats with a cargo of Young Buck cheese, pear, walnut and truffle, followed by fine slices of Coolattin cheddar with truffle honey, and a couple of glasses of Saumur Champigny, 2012, Tuffe, Chateau du Hureau.
There's nothing cooked on the menu at Ox Cave, it is all assembly of carefully chosen ingredients, and none the worse for that. The wine list, as you would expect, given that it has been curated by Alain Kerloc'h is imaginative, exciting and certainly the first on which I have ever seen a Japanese wine (Grace Koshu, 2015, Kayagatake). There's also one from Essex (Bacchus, 2015, Reserve New Hall Vineyards). Our bill, for four glasses of wine and the three small plates, came to a fraction under £60. Ox Cave isn't Ox, rather it's complementary, so don't go expecting anything like the restaurant proper, but do go with a relaxed attitude and a willingness to be absorbed into a little world of lovely wines and delicious morsels.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
A glass of chenin blanc and a portion of pickled Irish herrings with toasted sourdough will set you back £13.
ON A BLOW-OUT
A bottle of Chateau Lanessan 1999 at £91 and half a dozen small plates to share including the Connemara pork with cornichons, Connemara beef with celeriac remoulade, pata negra, aged Comté with truffle honey, chicory boats and pot au chocolat, will cost £143 before service.
THE HIGH POINT
The challenge to the psyche of Belfast.
THE LOW POINT
That on a Friday evening Ox Cave is not full.