Eating In: A Noble undertaking - at home
27 Church Road,
028 9042 5655
IT'S taken a while but, by and large, restaurants, at least from the diners' perspective, are back to 'normal'.
The experience now is pretty indistinguishable from what it was before Covid, though there are still reminders here and there that, whatever some may insist on telling you to their own ends, we're still not after Covid.
But it's definitely different, although that doesn't mean restaurants don't have new problems to deal with. Staff shortages have affected opening hours, while the cost of living explosion, most keenly felt in the price of keeping the lights on and the stoves burning, has barged its way onto menus themselves.
Last month the venerable Michael Deane, and Jonny Taylor from Blank and Shed, spoke about how the spiralling cost price of produce has seen some items fall off the menu. Fillet steak and salmon - two solid-as-a-rock crowd pleasers - are getting so dear there's no point offering them, with the necessary mark-up unpalatable for diners.
But the respite of no distancing, and being open in the first place, is at least something.
Some have taken down their screens. Some have left them up - it's not going to cost nothing to remove them and, anyway, some punters like them. The money spent on outdoor dining space should see a greater return as we head into what's supposed to be summer. The more common taking of credit card details with reservations will hopefully dissuade the scourge and pig ignorance of no-shows.
Noble was one of the first out of the traps with eat at home boxes, and one of the few to continue to offer them on a regular basis.
Recently it was number 100, and the Holywood gem still hits the mark with a generally foolproof way of bringing a bit of eating out fanciness back home.
Every week it's offered it goes live around Wednesday and, proof positive there's still an appetite for this pandemic innovation, it's invariably sold out by the time you pick it up at the restaurant on Saturday.
The menus strike a balance between practicalities and that touch of something special you want when you're paying around £30 per head for something you have to put some effort into yourself.
A fillet of beef with Café de Paris butter easily ticks both boxes. Before that, there's a starter, but we'll save that to the end.
The meat goes into an oven where there are already beef dripping chips, that come out swinging with flavour but missing the crunch you'll get when they appear at a restaurant, shimmering from the fryer.
But comparisons with what you'd get in the restaurant are moot. For a start, you're not getting all this for £32.50 per head. Not even close.
When the beef does come out, and after five minutes resting while a pat of the spiced butter melts on top of it, you've got yourself a fine steak, with those chips and some broccoli you'll need to dunk in a pan of boiling water.
Dessert is a good version of a sticky toffee pudding, just requiring a microwave to emerge soft and rich and soaked in butterscotch sauce.
Some excellent examples of what's on offer in Mike's Fancy Cheese shop in Belfast - including his own by this stage ubiquitous Young Buck blue - come with crackers and chutney.
But back to the starter.
When Noble opened, its parmesan and truffle risotto became something of a signature. And rightly so.
It's famous enough that when it's absent from the box for a few weeks it gets a shout out - 'truffle risotto is back' - like a supergroup returning with a new album and blockbuster tour.
But there's a reason. It is, even here in this kitchen, in my hands, an absolute banger.
It helps that all you have to do with it is what restaurants themselves do to get a risotto to the table as the orders come flooding in.
A little hot water brings the partly-cooked rice back to life. A wee tub of mascarpone, parmesan, butter and truffle oil goes in at the end. The feeling of beaming satisfaction that you've actually had much to do with the end result is utterly misplaced. The end result is utterly gorgeous. It really does transport you somewhere special. Which is what Noble was trying to do when they began offering these boxes more than two years ago. And more than a hundred later, they still are.
Noble@Home box x2 £32.50