Eating In: District's Deli Box is right up my street
75 Saintfield Road
THERE are lots of things about the restaurant experience that are obviously impossible to recreate, or even get close to, at home. The atmosphere, the theatre, the sights, the sounds, the smells and the joy of quality service are all products of the restaurant environment itself.
And then there’s obviously the food. Professional chefs are professional chefs for a reason. Not only in experience and skill but in access to ingredients and equipment and time, and possibly an army of minions, all things a home-cooked meal doesn’t approach.
But sitting down to cook for yourself isn’t just missing the mystical elements that make going out for a good meal special. It can be more prosaic than that. A lot of the time you just can’t be bothered.
So, while you might go out and treat yourself to some bread, a starter, mains and a dessert – cheese, sir? Don’t mind if I do – or a tasting menu with snacks and palate cleaners and post-this and pre-that, at home things will inevitably be simplified.
Almost every genre of menu these days will in some shape or form offer one of modern eating out's favourite conceits – small plates. Lots of little dishes, beloved of the glutton and the indecisive alike.
While established parts of many cuisines, small plates are also a fantastic way to order far more food than may be considered socially acceptable and get away with it.
If it’s one big dinner it’s much more difficult to sneak in what equates to an extra main course somewhere on the table. Someone’s going to notice that spare half a chicken.
But with small plates, who can keep count? And they’re for the table, aren’t they? Lovely. Another (little) bowl of half a chicken please.
But at home small plates are a pain, mainly because the time and effort restaurants will put into just one comes to about the limit a home cook can justify for the entire meal. So God bless District on the Saintfield Road in Belfast.
Their deli boxes are made up of a collection of hot and cold choices, seven of them for £35 to provide a generous selection for two. Uncomplicated instructions have everything out of the oven at the same time and ready to go on your own small plates – or one very big one if you prefer.
The project is overseen by Jean-Luc Lewis, formerly of Le Cafe Petit Ormeau, where the food was fantastic but the experience couldn’t quite match it thanks to chaotic service.
It closed five years ago and that fantastic food was a mix of French bistro classics – the croque madame was the Zinedine Zidane of toasted sandwiches – and then-on-trend stuff like pulled pork and salt beef.
The eclecticism on display there is here in these deli boxes too. There’s tartiflette, a little Alpine cake of cheese, potato, cheese, bacon, cheese, onions, cheese, and a concerning look from your doctor.
There’s no getting round the immense richness of the thing but the size is perfect as it’s so well balanced that you’re just going to eat whatever amount of it is put in front of you, whatever the coronary consequences.
The slow-cooked beef, topped with crisp onions, along with a crunchy little potato rosti and a Dijon-mustard-spiked mayonnaise, was as good as any daube you’d find in Provence, while there’s a more subtle French nod with the Bourguignon glaze on the fall-apart ribs.
In the non-Gallic corner there are chicken wings with a sweeter than you’d expect, though no bad thing, Buffalo sauce.
A little loaf of wheaten is light and cakey – a plus for someone generally unconvinced by the bread – and comes with intensely flavoured crab to be smeared across it, while the combination of shimmering breasola, salty Parmesan and peppery rocket will always work if the ingredients are the quality they should be.
There’s no question of that here, with the pulled pork, grated carrot, and dill mayonnaise flatbread another small plate of perfectly thought-out, expertly executed enjoyment.
Dessert boxes – this time a white chocolate and raspberry tart and a strawberry cheesecake – are optional extras for another tenner. And why wouldn’t you? Sure they’re only small plates after all.
Deli box £37.50
Dessert box £10