Eating out: Stix & Stones is more than smoke and mirrors
Stix & Stones,
44-46 Upper Queen Street,
028 9031 9418
THINKING back over the procession of make-at-home dinners that made it to our table over the course of the various lockdowns the past 18 months, I marvel at the fact I didn't make a mess of any of them.
The imagination and diligence of the restaurants involved should really get the credit for that, with one after another providing well thought out offerings to ensure that if you had an oven, a clock and a rudimentary knowledge of how time works you would end up with something tasty to eat.
There was the occasional complication – throwing a saucepan into the mix like a sadist – but I had forgotten that the closest I came to (relative) disaster was the very first time a make-at-home order was placed, to Six by Nico in Belfast.
Everything went safely into the oven except for one thing – a hazelnut and orange custard. That needed to be heated in a pan and to this day has no idea how close it came to an unasked-for new life as scrambled eggs.
So, praise the lord that with restaurants open again and 'Eating In' back where it belongs as 'Eating Out', all of that responsibility can be handed back to the people who actually know what they're doing.
Until I walk into Stix & Stones in Belfast city centre and read a menu that suggests I might need to up the concentration levels a bit more than usual after ordering steak and chips.
The restaurant's gimmick is those stones. They're heated to temperatures slightly below those that the upstairs in our house reached the week before last, and you can 'cook' your steak yourself. It's utter nonsense, but all the best things are.
When your stone arrives you get a concise tutorial from one of the friendly, helpful staff. First of all, don't touch the thing, which should go without saying, but given how the table next door appears to be doing everything wrong – "don't do it like that," whispers the polite server – stating the obvious isn't the worst idea in the world.
Next you take your seared-on-the-outside, raw-in-the middle steak, cut off a piece and set it on the stone until it's done to your liking. In my case that means not very much, and the £20 rump is of such obvious quality that more than a few bits don't make it to the stone at all and are dunked as they are into the pot of bearnaise, which is well flavoured but unfortunately split.
The whole thing is a bit of fun, and it fits the atmosphere of the place, which is busy on a Monday night, but is more than big enough to handle the crowd without it feeling crowded.
Thankfully, you don't need to cook your own dinner if you don't want to. A piece of smoked pork belly is a huge, tight swirl of crisp skin and melting meat, while the chips, blanketed in a bacon mayonnaise and a snowdrift of parmesan, are hot and craggy and excellent.
A starter of goat's cheese and beetroot goes about the standard combination by coating balls of the cheese with a crunchy coating to create 'bon bons' with a raw, sharp, sweet quenelle of grated beet.
Classic flavours, nicely put together, and expertly constructed by a kitchen you're happy to be doing as much of the legwork as possible. That shows in another substantial starter, a confit duck leg whose skin shatters on top of soft flesh that couldn't go better with the little pools of intense peach gel.
A salted caramel torte is perfectly fine but a plate of the utterly fantastic pistachio macarons it comes with would have been more welcome. A little more gingernut crunch than the single line of biscuit crumbs you get would be welcome, but the plate of pure silk lemon parfait, chewy meringue, sweet lemon cream, rose scented granita and perfectly sharp lemon sorbet is one joy after another – and something I couldn't replicate at home in a million years.
Stix & Stones likes its theatre, but if that's all there was it would pointless. If you want theatre and you're in a restaurant, you've lost your way.
Stix & Stones succeeds because it's more than smoke and mirrors.
Duck leg £10
Goat's cheese £8
Pork belly £18
Rump steak with king prawns £25
Hand cut chips £5
Bearnaise sauce £1.50
Lemon parfait £5.50
Salted caramel torte £5.50
Stix Classic cocktail £9
Long Island Iced Tea £9.50
Fevertree elderflower tonic £2.50
Acqua Panna £4.50