The nature of this sort of retrospective end-of-year greatest hits list is such that, if it was compiled another day – or a different time of the same day – it could look completely different.
Like trying to pick a favourite song or film, the mood at the moment can influence the selection when looking back over the year and picking the three or four best places I visited for this column in 2023. And then it ends up being five anyway. My list, my rules.
Obviously, not everywhere over the year was great. But nowhere, looking back, was awful, and there’s an awful lot of good stuff being done out there, invariably against the odds in an industry where just getting from one year to the next is an achievement.
So before getting into this year, it was worth reminding myself of what made the list 12 months ago and all of them – Lasa, Waterman, Roam, Flout! and Pie Queen – are not just still going but impressing, as repeat visits simply to enjoy rather than review attest.
Professionalism and diligence would forbid just listing them all again so, thankfully, minimal effort was required to find one of the stars of 2023.
Fin moved from north Belfast to Trademarket on the city’s Dublin Road, where I would say it’s located barely the length of a piece of haddock away from Pie Queen – if Fin’s fish wasn’t actually closer to the size of hunks of driftwood. Washed ashore on mounds of fat, shimmering chips, it’s unimpeachable stuff, and there’s a rotation of out-of-the-ordinary-chip-shop fare too, including southern fried sole, chowder and deep fried broccoli.
While Fin was busy perfecting a familiar classic, Frae in Holywood took a couple of old favourites and combined them to create something spectacular – a Veda treacle that was elegant, comforting and in constant danger of falling out of your mouth. It’s not easy to eat dessert when every bite is accompanied by an ‘oh my God’.
It was entirely in keeping with the acclaimed spot, with huge flavours blasting out of precise dishes like fat fingers of sourdough topped with curried egg mayonnaise and a sliver of anchovy, or jambons that manage to turn oozing cheese and ham into a puff of air like a magic trick.
Precision is hardly a surprise at OX, now into its second decade of blazing the fine dining culinary trail in the north and still holding its Michelin Star.
The time and attention put into a carrot – dehydrated then brought back to life in a bath of its own juice to produce something as far removed from the original vegetable as you could imagine while retaining everything that makes it a carrot in the first place – sums up OX perfectly.
And then you taste it – and everything else – and remember that all the tricks and techniques are in service of creating something that just tastes bloody good.
Holy Smokes BBQ Shack
Every bit as much time, but in a different way, goes into the bloody good stuff coming out of Holy Smokes BBQ Shack in Co Armagh.
Tom Quinn has set up shop up a narrow country road off the main carriageway between Portadown and Armagh and, out the back, smokers chug away for hours before platters of remarkable meat hit the picnic tables or head out the door with top-flight sides and an apparent surfeit of napkins.
Which is just as well as, whether it’s the mammoth ribs, brisket or one of his many specials that Instagram was frankly made for, you’re going to need them.
You’d be hard pressed to find anywhere as good at this as Holy Smokes. And it would be the same if you went up a country lane off the main road somewhere in Texas or the Carolinas.
The likes of pulled pork and mac and cheese have cemented themselves as menu staples here over the past decade or so, so finding somewhere that does them as well as Holy Smokes is a real treat.
Mama Bobo Africa
So too when you find somewhere bringing something different, enriching not just the food scene but the overall culture of a place, which is what Mama Bobo Africa is doing in south Belfast.
Traditional Nigerian dishes, from deeply flavoured stews and smoky grilled beef and turkey suya, to mounds of jollof rice, a tentpole of west Africa cuisine, and fiery bowls of pepper soup are all fantastic.
At the start of 2023 I never would have guessed that one of the very best things I’d eat all year would be a bowl of chicken gizzards and plantains, and I’d be able to do it while watching people wait for a bus into Belfast city centre.
In difficult times for hospitality it’s heartening to see good places stay good and stay open, and new ones join them for company. More of the same in 2024, please.
Happy new year.