Food & Drink

Eating Out: A Peculiar Tea - use your imagination and try out Willy Wonka and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-themed tasting menu

A Peculiar Tea, University Road, Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
A Peculiar Tea, University Road, Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell A Peculiar Tea, University Road, Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

A Peculiar Tea,

44 University Road,

Belfast,

BT7 1NJ.

075 1306 9697

a-peculiar-tea.com

It’s not even a year and a half since I reviewed A Peculiar Tea, in its first week of existence near Queen’s University in Belfast.

If you’re open and you’re charging people then you’re also open to criticism but it’s only natural that things may take some time to get exactly where they need to be.

On the whole, the food was excellent, the service was good and the experience was lovely but back then there were a few bits and pieces that were just a little off and those nits that were picked really just made you wonder what A Peculiar Tea would be like once it hit its stride, all guns blazing. Well, like this.

From the start, chef Gemma Austin sold her restaurant as a place of fun and playfulness.

So, when it comes to a £70, seven-course Willy Wonka and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-themed tasting menu, if this place can’t get it right then what’s the point?

Between the decor and menu it looks like a truck full of whimsy has crashed through the doors.

It should be too much but it’s carried off with such affection and enthusiasm that it all makes sense.

The website notes “if you’re not open to unique flavours, you are unlikely to enjoy the menu”.

Given any restaurant that doesn’t serve chips here should probably carry a similar warning it’s fair enough but, with a few exceptions, there’s not that much truly off the wall in the experience.

Everything is dusted with the creativity of Austin and her kitchen but beneath the cocktails served with gobstopper machines and scrumdiddlyumptious allusions to the book and film it’s just bold, confident, precise cooking.

And it’s also a load of fun.

A Peculiar Tea, University Road, Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
A Peculiar Tea, University Road, Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell A Peculiar Tea, University Road, Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

The ‘three-course meal’, evoking the chewing gum that provides the same experience – that’s the last of the Wonka explanations, including them all would take up too many words – is a trio of bites with a fresh little basil cone filled with tomato and topped with an avocado espuma providing the starter. A tiny blueberry tart serves as dessert with the best of the three the ‘main course’ of braised beef topped with pickled sweet corn and another espuma – this time the froth transforming everything that’s good in a bowl of champ into a puff of air.

Cheese-filled tortellini comes in a verdant, strident, wild garlic-laced smasher of a pea veloute that gets mopped up with pillowy focaccia whose twist is the brilliant addition of cabbage.

By this stage the place has filled up – no mean feat for early on a Wednesday evening – with the oohs, aahs and laughs that come with each plate hitting the table making you want to look around to see your fellow diners’ reactions.

Charlie’s Bucket is filled with meaty boulders of monkfish in the percussive crunch of a coating that disappears in the mouth, with dots of lemon gel and crisp capers adding zing and zip that’s there at every stage of the menu.

It’s conspicuously absent in the only slight misstep – the Jerusalem artichoke ice cream that follows which is very nice but too sweet with a salted caramel sauce and not quite enough of the cracking crisps of the veg sprinkled on top.

But it’s barely a hiccup. Slices of duck breast blush pink under the snap of a crisp skin, deeply flavoured leg and mince form a dainty tart and soft and yielding wing meat is coated in crunch and a lick of gold because, why not?

A Peculiar Tea, University Road, Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
A Peculiar Tea, University Road, Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell A Peculiar Tea, University Road, Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

A butch, brooding duck sauce brings it all together along with bursts of balance from apricot and rhubarb.

Dessert is a Wonka Bar, as it should be.

A soft, bitter chocolate cream sits on the snap of a perfect feuilletine, with roasted banana ice cream that belongs in the Good Things Hall of Fame. Little bit of aerated sesame chocolate and yuzu jellies prevent a sweetness overload, which is just as well because to finish comes a crème brûlée macaron, a square of marshmallow and chocolate, and strawberry and elderflower shots in miniature beakers. It’s a fitting finale as it provides the twang and zip that’s been a hallmark of a couple of hours in Gemma Austin and her team’s laboratory of imagination.

You can tell this is a kitchen – the whole restaurant, actually, with the service sharp but relaxed and entirely engaging – having fun. But they’re not just entertaining themselves. At no stage does it feel like “look how clever we are”. It’s “look what we did, come and share it with us!” 

And what could be more fun than that?

THE BILL

Tasting menu x 2 £140

Mocktail x 2 £10

Come With Me cocktail £11.50

I Want It Now cocktail £11.50

Total £173