What’s your typical lunch?
Chances are, the same as me – a hastily-scoffed sandwich (home-made, if time allows) or perhaps a slightly insipid salad, sweating in a plastic tub or maybe a bowl of soup heated to thermonuclear temperatures in the office microwave.
But what if you were feeling a little more ambitious and wanted, not only to escape your building, but to slip the surly bonds of the city centre?
The Lisburn Road is one option and a good one, but parking can be tricky. The Ormeau Road suffers similarly and its eateries are fairly spread out. Another is Ballyhackamore, with its growing nucleus of cafés, restaurants and takeaways to suit all appetites. With a fair wind, you can be there in 10 minutes from the middle of the city and there are a plethora of places to park.
There’s a self-contained, village feel to the neighbourhood and Oliver’s can be found on its outer reaches.
Inside it’s a mix of rustic wood-fired warmth and exposed brick, with urbane slate-grey tables and Shawcross-like artwork.
Greeting us on arrival, the front of house staff set the tone for the dining experience, by being at once polished and proficient while utterly charming and relaxed.
Chef Thomas Wightman, trained by Michael Dean, has worked with his team to craft a new lunch menu and here it is…
A quick look at the descriptions shows an admirable dedication to local produce, with the steak and pork sausages sourced from Carnbrooke, fish from Ewings and bread from Yellow Door.
It’s a deceptively broad menu, with six main options augmented to ten, with the option for a larger version of the starters.
I began with the chilli squid, which was the perfect antidote to the chill January winds – with its pleasant kick of spice and heat in the crispy coating.
When deep fried, squid often becomes either tough or rubbery. This was perfectly tender.
The squid can be ordered in a main-sized portion and I easily could have eaten a greater quantity, but wanted to do justice to the other courses.
Having started with fish, I had a hankering for a comforting, meaty main. A forkful, with a skewered slice of sausage, wrapped in sweet, slow-cooked onion with a smear of mustard mash and a splodge of rich gravy is the edible equivalent of a warm woolen blanket.
The gravy was the result of two days of maturation, with a combination of beef bones, homemade chicken stock, bottles of red wine and port reduced to a thick, dark, meaty essence.
That chef Thomas would go to such lengths for an
accompaniment to a supposed lesser cut shows how serious he is about his craft.
Pudding is generally my least favourite course and one I frequently skip in favour of cheese, but on the recommendation of our waiter, I ordered the lemon tart. While Oliver’s isn’t a themed restaurant, based on the Lionel Bart musical, its tart is an example of truly glorious food and when my empty plate was taken away, I did find myself thinking ‘please sir, can I have some more?’.
The list of flavours was as expansive as I was beginning to feel after such a hearty plateful of sausages and mash. The top of the tart had been bruléed, there was a tuile-type sugary biscuit perched on top, with a dollop of blueberry sorbet on the side. Raspberry coulis was matched with a chocolate crumb and sweet blackberries and blueberries made for a flavourful garnish.
This is not everyday food -it’s unabashedly rich and calorific and you’ll find no ‘meal deal’ offers here – but nor does it profess to be. Oliver’s new lunch menu is designed to elevate the midday meal, to luxuriate over and to enjoy. In this it certainly succeeds. If you’re looking for a departure from your typical lunch, then this is it.