Saphyre is about one and a half miles from the city centre, in a building that also houses owner Kris Turnbull’s design studio. You will know when you have arrived.
The former Ulsterville Presbyterian Church building stands majestically at the top of a flight of steps. Two wheelchair friendly access ramps weave their way through a manicured melange of shrubs and hedges up towards each side of the 1923 Grade B listed building: the left leads you to the restaurant, the right to the café. It’s a short walk but it will take some time, as you take in the exterior design details along the way.
Sumptous and sophisticated describe the restaurant, a room that's been sympathetically renovated with golden alcoves contrasting with the strong blue walls and subtle, easy on the eye lighting from modern chandeliers. The music is in the background and, unlike so many other places, doesn’t make conversation a challenge.
Before picking up the menu you will want a good look around. Plush is the only word for the table settings. Robbe and Berking cutlery keep Furstenberg plates company on crisp white cotton tablecloths surrounded by high back chairs. Fresh flowers adorn each table. The tables around the walls have luxuriously comfortable two seater sofas - another detail to make your visit all the more pleasurable.
The friendly staff are very attentive and an extensive drinks menu arrives immediately. Nineteen cocktails and ten gins are on offer, and Suntory Hakushu whisky from Japan, Zacapa rum from Guatemala, and La Fee absinthe are just three of the offerings not often found on local menus that catch the eye
On the à la carte menu it’s a case of less is more with just four starters, four mains and four desserts. There is an emphasis on seasonal local produce and vegetarian options are included. Chef Joery Castel, who joined the team at Saphyre early in 2017, has a strong track record, having previously run one of Northern Ireland's top dining destinations, The Boat House, in Bangor, Co Down.
First up is an unexpected amuse-bouche. Such titbits are always a welcome treat, but when it consists of crab meat in XO brandy with a beetroot purée, the pleasure only increases. Co-starring are two types of warm bread served with pats of butter and, if you will, sea salt flakes on the side. If it’s the little things that count, then these all add up to a tantalising total.
As each dish arrives you want to gaze at it like you would an old master in a museum - and, just like a museum audio guide, the server talks you through the ingredients of each dish as it is served. This may sound like too much information but it works, especially for those truly interested in what’s on the plate as well as those who want photographs for social media.
Starters may include roasted cauliflower, which comes with Dukkah spices, (the traditional Egyptian spice and nut mix, without the nuts), Coolattin Crème, black garlic oil and truffle purée. Another starter might be a shaped roll of pan fried chicken with asparagus and mushroom tips. The chicken is poached keeping it moist and tender on the inside, then it is browned. The effort pays off - but the taste sensation in this starter is the accompanying ajo verde (Spanish for green garlic) leaves. Other options could include marinated beetroot, goats cheese mousse, candied walnuts and truffle honey, or a fish starter of cured sole, with mussels, herb emulsion, compressed apple and black garlic purée.
Main courses are likely to feature Peter Hannan's acclaimed Himalayan Salt Chamber Dry Aged Fillet of Beef (£28) from Moira, Co Down, perhaps with schezwan butter, beetroot and onion gel and a red wine jus. Other options might typically be lamb with kohlrabi, confit lamb fritter, curried dressing and a tomato jus (£24) and a subtle fish dish such as brill with potato and buttermilk mousseline, asparagus and spinach. (£21), The vegetarian option could be spring broccoli and asparagus, potato and buttermilk mousseline, confit potato and spinach. (£18).
For dessert a white chocolate ganache may be served on slices of cucumber with grenadine poached rhubarb, an unexpected combination that works well. There may also be a deconstructed Tiramsu (£8), panna cotta and an Irish and continental cheese plate (£13).
Joery Castel is known for producing beautiful food that is full of flavour and he is living up to that reputation, and more, at Saphyre.
The extensive and mostly expensive wine list includes offerings from the usual places around the world and, less predictably, bottles from Austria and Serbia. Also on the list are six dessert wines, including one from Corsica, ranging from £4 to £13 a glass.
The uninitiated can be intimidated by grandeur and luxury, but the staff at Saphyre are down to earth, chatty and know their stuff. Nothing is too much trouble.
Be warned Saphyre is expensive but, given the quality of the food, service and, equally, the décor- this is a place for a special occasion rather than a midweek meal - it is not overpriced. At lunchtime it’s s little cheaper, with a three course menu offering great value at £20 (you can book online on the extensive and informative website).
Overall the experience is one to savour. And don't forget to smarten yourself up for this treat - everyone else does.