Situated opposite the Beacon of Hope sculpture in downtown Belfast, the location of Northern Ireland's hottest restaurant seems appropriate - and owners Alain Kerloc’h (former restaurant manager at Deanes Restaurant) and Stephen Toman (former head chef at James Street South) are to be congratulated on their vision and courage in introducing OX to the city.
The concept - of simplicity, quality and accessibility, combined with a steadfast focus on seasonal local foods - is strong, original and confident, and it has generated huge excitement. The atmosphere is electric in the restaurant, which is partly down to the sense of anticipation among diners, but it's also that the room just works. The lighting is excellent and, whether in the ground floor restaurant or the first floor dining room which is especially suitable for groups, it's a wonderful venue when looking out over the river at night.
The main restaurant is a simple, modern room; designed by Oscar & Oscar, it flows into the open kitchen where both front of house and chefs are all kitted out uniformly, a statement of intent, as - in the modern Scandinavian style - dishes coming out of the kitchen are placed on the table by the hand of both waiting staff and chefs, who are equally well versed in the ingredients on the plate and the ideas behind the dishes.
OX describes itself simply as 'A restaurant with seasonal creativity’, and a short à la carte menu offering just six (extremely reasonably priced) dishes on each course is a model of pared down promise.
Meat, fish and other ingredients, including foraged foods, are each afforded equal respect: two tasting menus are also offered and while one is the OX Menu of the Season (£45; £65 with wine pairing) the other, more unusually, is the OX Vegetable Menu (£40; £60 with wine pairing) and anyone seeking inspiration with vegetables will thrill to the creativity of this kitchen.
While Stephen doesn't credit suppliers, the care taking with sourcing is very evident - as also is the originality of each dish, notably the vegetarian ones such as an unusual and innovative starter of milk curd with black radish, baked onion, galette and verbena (just £6.95) and a main course of pied de mouton, papperdelle, confit shallot, egg and Comt (£15.50), both of which offer a creative and deeply flavoursome combination of non-meat ingredients.
With every dish equally appealing, choices will be hard to make; but it would be hard to resist a fascinating starter of Salt baked beetroot with Lough Neagh smoked eel, oyster and squid ink (£7; a special treat for diners up from the South, where eel fishing is banned) and, perhaps, an equally original main course of Comber carrots with sweetbreads, wilted chicory, pearl barley and nettles (£17.50).
As would be expected of a man who has worked in the three star restaurant Taillevent (and returns annually to stage at great kitchens in Paris), Stephen Toman's cooking is exquisite, with great attention to detail - and interesting use of textures is a special feature.
Service has been impeccable from the outset too, with seemingly laid-back, yet highly efficient service from Alain Kerloc’h and his team bringing a casual air to proceedings.
Alain Kerloc’h has long been highly respected in the world of wine and (although tasting notes would be welcome) his original and well priced wine list complements the food perfectly. Here too, accessibility and quality go hand in hand, with several wines by the glass offered for as little as £2.50 - while the classics include just one splurge bottle for that day of exceptional celebration, a 1996 Petrus at £1380...
Beginning with aperitifs that include a craft beer and cider, a very welcome manzanilla and equally welcome 'juice of the day', it just gets more interesting as you work through bubblies and a seasonal selection of about a dozen of what are effectively house wines, all available in three sizes (7cl, 12.5 cl, 50cl), to a brilliant collection of 'Artisan wines from interesting places', which is given equal weight with the classics.
A great team and a wonderful, affordable restaurant - and Belfast diners clearly know how lucky they are to have this gem in their city. Such is the popularity of OX that, in its first year, it became clear that extra space was needed. So, with the help of the original design team, they knocked into the building next door and created Ox Cave, where you can enjoy an aperitif before going to your table, or linger over a post-prandial glass or two.