What do you think of when you hear "Belfast"? Rather shamefully, my first reaction to hearing I was off to Belfast for a feature was of the "eek" variety, thanks to a childhood where every news bulletin seemed to feature the words "Belfast" and "bomb" in close proximity. Even the knowledge that the city had put that behind it, and that it was a fine, buzzy place couldn't shake that initial feeling. Seriously, John Craven has a lot to answer for...
I would hope though that now, when people mention Belfast, my reaction will be more of positive. Mind you, that's not helped by taxi drivers dropping you off at the charming Crown pointing out the building opposite and describing it as "the world's most bombed hotel". Still, that's not important right now.
The purpose of the trip was to meet Paul Rankin, perhaps Northern Ireland's most famous culinary son. While things haven't been great for Paul of late, that's the same for a lot of people (hell, you should see the state of MY bank account) and, over an excellent couple of pints in The Crown - which is every bit as beautiful as everybody says - it's clear he's not lost any of his passion. And, unlike many other chefs we could all mention, at least if you go to Paul's remaining restaurant Cayenne, the lack of distractions - save for the supermarket bread range - means you've got a very good chance of finding Paul in the kitchen.
Which is exactly where he went post pint, to "sort a bit of lunch" as I believe he put it. While others haven't enjoyed Cayenne (you'll never guess who...), I wonder if the fact that it's now Paul's focus has improved matters? Or whether the menu, which changes every six weeks, has just been tweaked properly a year or so on? Because I had a pretty damn fine lunch.
To qualify that, I would also like to state my position on fusion cuisine, and that is this: it nearly always sucks. I first started dining out on a regular basis in the 80s, when fusion was at its peak. And dear God, I ate some crap in the name of "Pacific Rim". When done well, it's a culinary greatest hits. Done badly, it's inedible in two (or more) languages. Mr Rankin is firmly in the former category. He's also, as proven by the tapenades / dips that accompany the bread, not scared of a bit of authentic Asian spicing.
While it was tempting to go straightforwardly Irish (you can have smoked salmon, followed by daube of beef and a colcannon potato cake, if you're so inclined - well, for the next six weeks anyway), a little hybrid activity allowed the quality local produce to shine. After a few extra tasters - a mussel of melting freshness,
salt beef so tender and innocent I felt slightly perverse taking advantage of it,
and the signature dish of chilli squid -
it was into the meat.
At the waitress' recommendation, after dithering over the salmon and a foie gras option, I went instead for Seared Korean Beef Salad, with kimchee. The description didn't tell the full story: as well as the kimchee, there were hints of other Asian flavours on the plate. It might be deliberate, of course. If I'd known pickled ginger would make an appearance, alongside slices of crispy fried garlic, I'd have chosen the foie gras. And I'd have missed out on something very good, the flavours combining to zingy effect.
Better though was the venison. It's a meat that can take some serious spicing with ease, and the Szechuan peppers that studded this excellent slab of Finnebrogue venison were a fine, tongue-tingling foil to the richness of the flesh and the sweet joys of the poached fruits. It was a very fine dish indeed, and almost didn't need the foie gras flan that also accompanied it... but hey, I like it when more animals have dined for my culinary pleasure. And geese are evil little bastards. The salsify was a nice touch too, which makes that another vegetable I need to have a crack at chez Lambshank...
The meal finished in damn fine fashion too. The (persuasive) waitress took pity on my dithering between cheese and pud, and so brought me a sliver of perfectly ripe Ardrahan, that was as good piece of that superb cheese as I've ever had (and, as a former Neal's Yard Dairy cheesemonger, I've had a LOT). I have to say though that the steamed marmalade pudding, with custard and a spoonful of creme fraiche was even better: warming, sticky and beautifully bitter. That, I reckon, was the reason I dozed so readily on the journey back to North London. And not the Guinness and very large Bushmills that we squeezed in before the taxi, oh no...