Eating Out: Blank has the creativity and skill to cash fine-dining cheques
43 Malone Road,
028 9040 6399
WARNING: This review contains spoilers. Kind of.
The entire concept of Blank on the Malone Road in Belfast means it's almost impossible to say much about it without revealing something that gives away the ending – though dessert is definitely not Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box.
So, while spoilers for films that came out a quarter of a century ago aren't really spoilers, writing about what you had for dinner at a restaurant that wants to keep its menu a mystery and only opened a couple of weeks ago is trickier.
Even visiting on just the third day of paying punters meant knowing exactly what was coming after a media preview night and subsequent immediate tweets and Insta-stories.
Although by the time you visit, these spoilers might not be spoilers at all as the menu itself may have changed, which is kind of the point.
The whole 'Blank' bit isn't just a gimmicky ruse to stir up buzz.
The idea, say Jonny and Christina Taylor, the husband and wife team behind the excellent Shed bistro on the city's Ormeau Road, is the push the produce, and the producers, to the forefront.
So instead of a menu there's a 'Blank list' which is simply a selection of the ingredients that will go into your dinner and where they come from. At the bottom there's an invitation for producers to get in touch and offer their wares for future menus. As far as concepts go it's a good one, any way you want to define good. But for it to work the food needs to be good as well and, thanks to head chef Niall Duffy and his team, it is.
It's a five-course tasting menu, at £50 a head – £58 of you want to add cheese, with wine pairings for another £25.
The combination of price and pitching things at the more adventurous diner – they'll accommodate two allergies per person and there are vegetarian and vegan menus, but if you just don't like something, you're in the wrong place – means Blank is aiming high, somewhere near the top level of fine dining in Belfast. The cooking makes that a more than achievable target.
An amuse-bouche of cheddar gougères is gone in a second because it melts immediately, the cloud of choux giving way to the tang of cheese inside.
The first fish course was two perfect little oblongs of salt-cured salmon, sitting with barely pickled cucumber on a pool of dill oil speckled buttermilk.
The cure on the fish tenses things up just enough to bring it to life, with the buttermilk and cucumber a sharp, fresh relief against the richness. Maybe the only off kilter note the whole night was the grains of salt – albeit from one of the featured players, the O'Malley family from Achill Island in Mayo. There was enough crunch from the cucumber and salty bursts from the little pearls of roe to render them unnecessary, but the fact I'm reduced to picking out actual grains of salt as something to quibble with shows you the territory we're in.
More fish, a piece of pearly cod under a hazelnut crumb with celery and celeriac was as autumnal a plate of seafood as you could want, while the meat of the menu, blush pink slices of duck with beetroot and blackberries, doubles down on the seasonal theme, even though it's still unsettling warm outside.
A bright apple granita and foam take you to a chocolate bomb of a cremeaux, a dense mousse sitting on a crisp praline and coated in a dark, brooding, glistening glaze, with the grains of salt this time absolutely necessary to balance the bitter-sweet mix beneath it.
The flecks of gold are just for fun – "to match the decor" according to one of the unfailingly enthusiastic and welcoming servers, as she nods to the wallpaper in the handsome room in the Victorian townhouse that are everywhere in this part of Belfast.
The cheese isn't just cheese, but a truffle sandwich made with Ballylisk's superb triple cream and served with a dollop of pickled walnut puree. It's a beautiful looking and tasting thing, which sums up what they're doing at Blank – where a piece of cheese becomes so much more while still retaining what makes it special in the first place.
And if that sounds like your sort of thing, go on – spoil yourself.
Tasting menu x2 £100
Cheese x2 £16
Tequila cocktail x2 £19
Whiskey cocktail £12.50
Alcohol-free cucumber cocktail £5.50
Alcohol-free lemonade cocktail £5.50
Still water £4
Service charge £16.25