Award-winning chef Stephen Toman keeps the customers coming back by focusing on pure flavour, says Andy Lynes
But nothing prepared the pair, who met while working at Arpège in Paris, for the level of scrutiny Ox came under when they opened the doors in March 2013.
"The first customer on our first night of service was the Irish Times restaurant critic, and it just spiralled from there," says Toman.
When Jay Rayner arrived with nine fellow food writers in tow, the restaurant team were understandably nervous, but they needn't have worried.
In his review for the Observer, Rayner wrote that Ox is "about top-quality ingredients to which the best things have been done" and signed off with: "Ox knows it's the most interesting thing to happen to Belfast in a long while. And the city seems grateful for it."
Rayner was right: the city has been filling the 40-seat former tile shop, with its austere but appealing minimalist interior and open kitchen, every service. "We'd probably do 60 or 70 on a Friday or Saturday," says Toman. "We don't try to turn tables or do sittings, but some people come early and go off to a show."
The restaurant opens Tuesday to Saturday for Á la carte lunch, offering three choices at each stage with starters at £4 and main courses at £10. A la carte dinner is available from Tuesday to Thursday with five choices per course: starters range from £4.50 to £9, mains from £15.50 to £22 and desserts are all £6.50. Friday and Saturday night tasting menus cost £45 for a five-course seasonal option or £40 for five vegetarian courses.
Menus constantly change, even to the extent that courses on the tasting menu can vary from table to table in order to keep the kitchen, and customers, interested. "We don't just want to stand there churning out the same thing," says Toman.
Pricing is keen, especially when you factor in the long list of awards the restaurant has already won, including 43rd in the Good Food Guide 2014 UK's Top 50 Restaurants and a clutch of gongs at the 2014 Irish Restaurant Awards, including Best Chef County Antrim and Best Restaurant Ulster.
"Belfast is very competitive. You can't push the pricing too hard - you want the same people to come back," says Toman. "We're ambitious, but not intimidating."
But despite the price point and relatively casual surroundings - whitewashed bare brick walls, no linen on the tables - a meal at Ox is a memorable event, with Toman and his team going to the painstaking lengths of the two- and three-star establishments like Tallivent, L'Astrance and Noma that Toman has staged in. The signature, and free, amuse bouche of curd, radish, pea and onion galette is a good example and a dish that Toman is
particularly fond of.
Intensity and clarity of flavour is at the heart of everything Toman does at the restaurant, from little touches like first blanching white asparagus and then slowly cooking it in a pan with olive oil to drive off the moisture (it might then be served with wild asparagus, warm Ibérico ham, dehydrated and truffled egg yolk, Comté sauce and nasturtium leaves and flowers) to how he makes his stocks and sauces. "I try and do things
as pure as possible here. Everywhere I've worked stockpots have had mirepoix and aromates in them, but I don't. I use bones and filtered water and that's it."
Toman likes to use as much local produce as possible - including heather-fed Dorset-breed lamb from Ivor Skillen in the Mourne mountains, which he might serve with baked purple carrot, spelt and herb risotto and crapaudine beetroot - and says it's a full-time job organising deliveries. It's not unusual to see a supplier with muddy boots walking through the restaurant - there's no back door - with a box of sea urchins or razor clams from Strangford Lough in County Down.
Such has been the success of Ox, Toman and Kerloc'h have recently expanded into the next door premises with Ox Cave, a wine bar that gives customers somewhere to have a pre-dinner drink, freeing up the restaurant's mezzanine level for private parties.
"There's no outside investors; just myself and Alain," says Toman. "I wanted us to be in control. I didn't want the noose round our neck of a silent partner. We're here, we do the hours, and if there's a mistake then it's our fault."
From the menu
- Hay-baked celeriac, crapaudine beetroot, chanterelle £7
- Onion 'ravioli', Comté, artichoke, Ibérico ham, truffle £8
- Finnebrogue venison, fermented kohlrabi, black garlic, sorrel £8.50
- Chateaubriand, aubergine, crosnes, cavolo nero £22
- Rademon Estate pigeon, foie gras, parsley root, quince £18
- Red mullet, scallop, courgette, oyster leaf, gnocchi £17.50
- Valrhona chocolate, praline, blackberry £6.50
- Polenta cake, mascarpone, apricot, pecan £6.50
- Peach parfait, orange blossom, honey and thyme £6.50
1 Oxford Street, Belfast BT1 3LA
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In