'It doesn't feel like you are sitting in a Belfast restaurant' is a phrase my wife has used on previous occasions when dining in Saphyre and I tend to agree with her. The restaurant's ambience is more Dubai Marina than Lisburn Road, plush, extravagant and affluent to the extreme. Located in a redeveloped church many people would be quick to pass by and not realise what opulence lies inside. It comes as no surprise however that owner Kris Turnbull is an interior designer by trade with a showroom showcasing his work to the front of the church. Where else in Belfast, in fact anywhere in Ireland, can you purchase designer furniture before you dine on the finest of fine foods? Ikea this is most certainly not.
My usual preference when dining out is usually geared towards Asian restaurants or casual bistros, however, I do love the surprise element that haute cuisine provides. Tasting flavours that you didn't know existed is something that greatly excites me along with flavour combinations that shouldn't work but do. So when I had the chance to experience a top chef work his magic on my favourite beef it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.
First up was a puff cheese pastry with beef butter. Yes- beef butter, a great way to start a beef banquet. The pastry was light with mature cheese shining through and the butter adding a substantial richness from the fats and concentrated beef stock. The dish gave you the option of making it as rich or as light as you desire by using as little or as much of the butter your palate could handle.
The second dish was named simply as Tartare with Beets and Wasabi. The tartare was encased in a thin cylinder of pickled beetroot with a wasabi sauce, egg yolk and a bread crisp that added texture. As you can see the dish was a work of art with a lot of thought put into the presentation. Like a traditional tartare the egg worked wonderfully with the beef and the wasabi was perfectly balanced, not overpowering the dish. The pickled beetroot added a zingy sourness that helped cut through the richness of the egg yolk and raw beef. A well thought out dish that was light and vibrant and much needed after the beef butter and what was to follow.
Next up was probably my favourite dish of the night, braised short rib. I love slow cooked meats and have cooked short ribs numerous times (see my simpler version here ) but never marinated in coffee and stout. The marinade did shine through with the stout making the beef darker and presumably helping to tenderise the meat along with the slightest unmistakable coffee flavour. The rib was served with a roasted squash purée which was fine and added colour which complimented the beef well. I loved the toasted sunflower seeds which gave a much-needed crunch to the dish, an idea which I will definitely use in the future.
With this particular dinner being a wine pairing evening I thought I should highlight at least one of the wines on show. Every wine complimented each dish very well but the Pinot Noir paired with the short rib really stood out for me. The wine in question was a Payton Jones 2014 Pinot. Dark cherry and earthy notes shone through and it was surprisingly robust for a Pinot with the perfect amount of acidity to cut through the umptiously fatty cut of beef.
The last savoury dish was a perfectly cooked aged sirloin and thankfully the chef got the portion size spot on. At this stage of the meal, I was beginning to fade as the previous courses and the volume of paired wines began to take their toll. Served with a small cep mushroom and a perfectly cooked Roscoff onion these paired excellently with Hannan's salt aged sirloin. The jus had fantastic depth with more beefiness and red wine shining through which tied all the elements of the dish together.
If you are a regular reader of Swankfood you will know my sweet tooth is all but missing and I admit to having little knowledge of pastry techniques. There were actually two desserts served but my beef and wine coma had bypassed any desire for sweetness and I essentially dismissed the first. The final dessert and last dish was a french Clafoutis which is essentially a buttery flan served with small plums called Mirabelle. The star flavour was the elderflower like cream dotted around the plate which from looking back at the menu is actually called meadowlands, all very nice.
All in all a fantastic experience in what is probably the nicest restaurant ambience in Belfast. Perhaps not something I would want to attend every week but then again I don't think that is the intention. Head chef, Patrick Rowan is certainly top drawer and I expect with events like this further accolades won't be far behind.