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Eating Out: Belfast's Dog Track leading the pack in 'concept' dining

Dog Track on Ormeau Avenue in Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell.

Dog Track,

11B Ormeau Avenue,

Belfast,

BT2 5YB.

028 9031 9454

Dogtrackbelfast.co.uk

CONCEPT. The very word can send shivers down your spine. Especially if it’s prefixed with 'new' or 'exciting' or 'brand new, exciting' and trumpeted as something that will BLOW YOUR MIND.

The problem is that, when it comes to restaurants, concepts and gimmicks can get in the way of, you know, going out for something nice to eat and, whisper it, the food.

Dog Track in Belfast city centre is very 'concept', with a sushi train-style conveyor belt trundling around the central kitchen and seats allowing punters to perch around it while lifting the small, tapas-esque plates off at their leisure.

It’s definitely a conversation piece, including with the chefs putting the to-order dishes together: chef Michael O’Connor and manager Michael Fletcher already run The Barking Dog in the south of the city.

While Dog Track may scream 'newfangled', it benefits from its location in the refurbished former Armagh House, an Edwardian linen warehouse whose huge windows let whatever sunshine Belfast can muster flood in.

You don’t have to sit at the ‘track’ with its colour-coded plates – there are plenty of tables elsewhere – but the basic principle is the same.

The plates are priced by colour, ranging from blue at £3.50 to orange at £7. Whether you’re helping yourself or being served by the knowledgeable, efficient, friendly staff – who’ll guide and explain perfectly if the concept hurts your head – you can put together your meal any way you choose.

The guidance is welcome too, as the menu is a bit overwhelming at first. Even if you’ve got the mechanics of things nailed down, there’s a lot to choose from.

We were recommended three dishes each to start with, and that turned out to be just about right. Deciding which three to pick was another matter: there are 52 savoury plates and 13 desserts. And I liked the look of all of them.

Here’s a cross-section – none of which were actually ordered, though all easily could have been:

Blue (£3.50): potato and tallegio pasta fritters with truffle mayonnaise;

Green (£4): ham hock terrine with piccalilli;

Yellow (£4.5): beef short rib with chilli jam;

Red (£5.50): crab slider with fennel and apple slaw on a seaweed bun;

Pink (£6.50): octopus, chorizo and chickpea cassoulet;

Orange (£7): flatiron steak and fried quail’s egg.

Dishes arrive as they’re ready, with the cold stuff off the track hitting the table first – in our case, that meant the tea-smoked trout with fennel and orange salad.

Of every shot they took, this was the one that came back off the post. There was a good tea flavour to the smoking but the fish was a little dry and the salad could have been a bit better dressed.

This was clearly a blip, as everything that followed was bang on: Scallops, black pudding and cauliflower was the first thing I ordered the first time I went to a fancy restaurant nearly 15 years ago (it had a star from a tyre company, dontcha know) and there’s a reason you still see it on menus now.

When it’s done right, it just works – and this one was done right.

The pieces of guanciale – like pancetta but made from pork jowl – that came with a fried quail’s egg were a combination of slightly chewy, deeply savoury, bacony meat and melting luxurious fat.

But where the Dog Track really excelled was its vegetables. The chips – huge, fluffy, crispy, salty things – might be the best I’ve ever tasted and, unlike so many other examples, actually tasted of the duck fat they bragged about being cooked in.

Like the chips, the cauliflower popcorn came in a paper cone but, being smaller, that means the battered, lightly spiced crunchy florets are in danger of cooling and going soft if allowed to wait around.

Never going to happen. Half of them were gone before I realised there was some very nice but honestly unnecessary walnut pesto mayonnaise along with them.

Sweet chargrilled carrots with a smoky aubergine purée and that pesto without the mayonnaise turned out to be the best of the lot. Vegetarians of the world unite (though maybe avoid the duck fat chips).

Most of the desert choices come off the track, which may be a clever ruse because one plate of the salted caramel doughnuts – especially when enjoyed with Dog Track's very good coffee – doesn’t seem enough.

One of the made-to-order sweets, a little pineapple tart tatin and gorgeous coconut sorbet was just another perfect balance of classic flavours. They also serve super cocktails – the spiced caipirinha had a chilli slap, while the seductive lemon drop came with a soothing vanilla hug.

That’s what you’ll get at Dog Track. For all its bells and whistles and conveyor belts, it’s good ingredients, combined thoughtfully and executed well in a place with a bit of craic about it.

Quite the concept.

:: The bill

Scallop, black pudding, cauliflower puree £6.50

Guanciale, fried quail’s egg £4.50

Duck fat chips £4

Chargrilled carrot, burnt aubergine puree, walnut pesto £4

Tea smoked trout, fennel and orange salad £4

Cauliflower popcorn, walnut pesto mayonnaise £4

Salted caramel doughnuts £3.50

Pineapple tarte tatin, coconut sorbet £3.50

Spiced caipirinha £9.50

Lemon drop £8.50

Americano x2 £5

Total £57

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