Let's borrow a title from Deborah Madison, and let's call it the new vegetable literacy.
Where other chefs are still struggling to express themselves with the basic alphabet of vegetables, Stephen Toman of Belfast's OX restaurant is using his vegetable vowels and consonants to write vegetable haikus, to create odes and poems about the earthy stuff he serves in his bowls and on his plates.
Where other cooks offer the equivalent of Spot The Dog in terms of composition, Toman is writing verse in tightly wrought, elegantly composed culinary quatrains, the John Keats of the Comber carrot, the Wordsworth of the radish, the Billy Collins of the turnip.
To eat in OX, two months into the life of this new restaurant, is to eat the life-blood of restaurant ambition, two guys sculpting their dreams, plans and ambitions of what a restaurant can be, and what a restaurant should offer. The excitement they conjure brings to mind other great creators of the Irish restaurant kitchen – Paul Rankin; Seamus O'Connell; Liz Mee; Jess Murphy; Robbie Millar; Bernadette O'Shea. OX is not just their theatre for eating, it is their body and soul that is in this arena.
The alphabet of this culinary literacy are vegetables and grains and wild things - barley, nettles, beetroot, fungi, chervil root. There are the bulletin points of the usual consonants - the duck, the cod, the Antrim beef, the scallops and razor clams – but, for once, their pre-eminence is turned on its head. It's not the protein that counts here: it's everything else in that tight weave of flavours and textures that Mr Toman is bringing to your table.
In a dish of Skeaghanore duck, for example, what counts most is actually the glazed turnip, the chard, and the salsify, and the acidity of verjus. The same is true of sweetbreads with Comber carrots, where an intense piece of chicory steals the show. The meat protein bullet-points the vegetables but, in reality, the vegetables are the star.
Mr Toman will have learnt this at L'Arpege in Paris, where he cooked with Alain Passard and where vegetables are the star attraction. But it seems to us that he has also learnt from a short stint at NOMA, where you might encounter meat protein in no more than two or maybe three courses of a twenty-course dinner.
The menu is fashionably concise in both the offer – six each of starters, mains and puds, and in its use of language – “confit vegetables, pearl barley, mushroom foam”; “Pollen, almond, artichoke, clam, Sauvignon Blanc” – but the food is marvellously expansive with flavour. What is wrought with a dish of salt-baked beetroot, Lough Neagh smoked eel, oyster and squid ink with crispy chicken skin is a whodunnit in tastes – where is that umami coming from; see the tension of the chicken skin; the smokyness of the eel; the viscousness of the squid ink reduction; the unctuousness of the oyster. And all of these flavour explosions are coming from a small, compact bowl of food, which means the food is miniaturist in form, but maximalist in terms of taste, and success.
We ordered one Spring menu and one Vegetable menu and, from the considerable wine menu on offer, we did what everyone should: put yourself in the hands of Alain Kerloc'h, the sommelier and manager, and allow him to find the wines to match each course. Right from a brilliant Picpoul de Pinet from Domaine Guillemarine to start, the wines were as exceptional and nuanced as the cooking.
Ox is that place you have dreamt about where kaiseki meets Café Paradiso, where the Comber carrot is king and the tranche of foie gras seems little more than an afterthought. The kitchen is getting its umami flavours from vegetables, from grains and seaweeds, so the cooking is not just pretty, it is wholesome in the most healthful way.
It seems quite incredible that the team here have only been working together for a couple of months, for everything works so smoothly and calmly. Just make sure to book that table well in advance. And if you can find a sweeter piece of beetroot in the Western world than that which comes with the buttermilk pannacotta, then please let us know.
1 Oxford St Belfast
Tel: 00 44 28 9031 4121