Eating Out: Our restaurant reviewers' Top Bites of 2019
I’M ALREADY planning my New Year diet but until then there are at least three more festive meals to squeeze in.
This has been a great year for food in Northern Ireland. Belfast now has three Michelin-starred restaurants and I’ve been lucky enough to eat in two of them, with the third, Eipic at Deanes, firmly on my list.
Ox is a jewel in our city, and so it was no surprise when they retained their prestigious star and I imagine will continue to do so as long as super chef Stephen Toman is in charge of the kitchen.
It was here I had one of the best eating-out experiences of 2019, when visiting Parisian chef Alain Passard took over the Ox kitchen, bringing decadence on a grand level, the lamb-pigeon chimera bringing gasps from diners, paired with some of the finest wines. I thanked my lucky stars for the experience of a lifetime. Handy hint: for Ox on a tighter budget try their amazing lunchtime menu.
A celebratory tasting menu after middle daughter aced her chartered accountancy exams was my number two Michelin-star meal, this time in The Muddlers Club. A place that I am always excited by and with a standard of cooking that seems to elevate every time I visit.
Once again I was a grateful judge in the Irish Curry Awards and as a result discovered one of Belfast’s best-kept secrets, Bites of India on the Ravenhill Road in east Belfast and its beautiful authentic southern Indian cooking in unassuming surroundings, a BYO budget night out. The foot-long filled dosa is my new favourite Asian dish.
A crispy chicken taco from those badly behaved boys at Taquitos Belfast will fix your wagon after a few beers. They’re moving from their mobile van usually parked at the Big Fish to the newest hipster place in town, the Ulster Sports Club.
The tapas in Ora Great Victoria Street are so good I’ve been three times already. Order a bottle of crisp white and some crab claws Tom Yum, the black tempura monkfish, confit baby back ribs or a sharing steak with beef marrow butter.
Not a bad wee round-up... but now for some January gym time to undo all the damage done by a life well lived.
FIRST, a confession: My review of Piccola Parma in east Belfast actually appeared in The Irish News on December 29 last year. But somewhere so surprising, so unassumingly good, shouldn’t be allowed to fall through the end of year cracks of a greatest hits collection like this. And anyway, my list, my rules.
There’s a big selection of local standards but the other side of the menu is where things come alive.
Chef Christian Lanfranchi has brought something entirely unexpected to the Woodstock Road. The Italian menu is short but everything is on the nose, and unbeatable value: a glorious selection of cheeses and meats, rib-sticky gnocchi, a strawberry crostata and a world champion lasagne. You just won’t find Italian food done better anywhere in the city.
A world away, though just a few stops down on the 6A bus, is Stock Kitchen and Bar, where Danny Miller has established the perfect delivery system for the quality produce coming into St George’s Market below.
Whatever looks best could end up in the seafood casserole, while the quality of meat and skill of composition roared through in beef tartare and lamb sweetbreads.
And drawing everything together is a clear spirit of respect for the ingredients and generosity in showing them off at their best.
Miller’s previous post was the executive chef of the Balloo Inns group, a role taken over by Danni Barry – who regained a Michelin Star for Michael Deane in 2016 before helping establish Clenaghan’s in Aghalee as a destination.
She has combined the best of both influences in Overwood, above Balloo House near Killinchy, where a wood and charcoal-fired Kopa grill is the centrepiece of a blockbuster addition to the north’s restaurant scene.
The grill works its magic on meat and fish, and tomatoes supercharged with bone marrow. But there’s delicacy too. Cured scallops come with slivers of gooseberry, oysters come with buttermilk and dill. Overwood floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.
MAKING the long list of my favourite restaurants of 2019 was easy. Whittling it down to a final three was tougher than an over-cooked steak, and it was tempting to put the names of all the contenders into a hat and pick them out blind.
In the end, though, I managed it, with a heavy heart and, well, just heavy generally, to be honest.
Which meant that, in third place, comes Chapter V, in Moy, even though the journey there and back from Derry takes up the best part of a day. Elegant, sophisticated, relaxed, and understated, Chapter V serves cleverly conceived and beautifully presented food. But, no matter how much effort goes into making the dishes look good, it’s the taste that counts, of course, and Chapter V has that down to a tee – or a lunch, or a dinner...
An altogether more raucous, boisterous affair, former Derry's Pyke ‘n’ Pommes, which finally moved indoors, finishes second. It’s a lively, bouncing place that respects its street-food roots in serving probably the best burgers west of the Ponderosa, but also makes the most of the opportunities afforded by having a kitchen that isn’t open to the elements.
Bright, inventive, willing to take chances, the chefs there produce bold, colourful dishes, full of fresh and striking flavours.
Unlike the Turner Prize, then, there has to be a winner, and that is Fisk Seafood Bar, on the road leaving Downings, looking down on Sheephaven Bay. So good we went back there again the next day, and then again the day after that. Serving fresh seafood, cooked simply and expertly, the menus change according to the day’s catch, but the quality doesn’t vary, and the same high standards are applied to the side dishes, salads, and wines, too.