The future of the hotel industry looks rosy if we are to believe the Academy restaurant at the University of Ulster. Young, strong-willed and intelligent students learn the ropes in this beautifully appointed working restaurant under the watchful eye of their teachers and tutors.
n the kitchen being yelled at by stressed chefs or having to deal with restless diners, the fate of a catering professional cannot be easy. But once these culinary arts students graduate, they are effectively bulletproof, immune to the terrors of restaurant life, ready for anything, including pompous critics, bloggers and influencers, not to mention the screaming chefs and picky diners.
You cannot help loving and admiring young people for submitting to the BSc in Culinary Arts Management course. No other university course, except perhaps medicine, exposes its students to the harsh realms of professional life and yet they come there.
The Academy restaurant has been relocated to the corner of York Street and Donegall Street. Its presence on the street makes it a very pleasant interior with a view of Buoy Square and Saint Anne’s Cathedral. It is urban, elegant, warm and bright. It is also home to the university’s current series of Culinary Shows in which world-renowned restaurant chefs come to Belfast to cook a dinner with the support of brigades and teams of students at the front and in the kitchen.
On this occasion, it was the turn of the chief patron of Quo Vadis of London Soho, Jeremy Lee. I have eaten at Quo Vadis several times and love the intimate atmosphere, the hint of chaos and the sublime food. Last time I was there was January and there was haggis on the menu to take the cap off at Rabbie Burns. Lee is from Dundee. No pursed lips or conservative convention here, though. He might be a detail junkie and his eye for quality is super sharp, but add to that his flowery expression and bravado, his huge, handsome carcass giving him a commanding presence wherever he goes. No better man then than to take a group of students and put them to the test.
And on that February night, for just £45 a head, began a sequence of dishes all using Irish produce and blessed with the Quo Vadis treatment. Big and bold, everything is cartoonishly robust. From golden logs of salsify coated in crunchy Gruyère-like cheese coatings to large langoustines, smoked eel and trout fillets, you’ll get an idea of Chef Lee’s preference for assertive presence over delicate beauty.
And the flavors match the visuals. Warm, sweet and earthy salsify with hints of celeriac and artichoke sits in the crunchy salty cheese with a golden rind, a combination that makes it hard to avoid addiction.
Shrimp, eel and trout, presented as a graceful 19th century still life, have all been treated lightly, if at all. The prawns are exceptionally large and have been steamed and left to cool. With a dollop of homemade mayonnaise, this, the Academy version, is my final chosen supper. Until it does, the roast prime rib is pressed. Pink in the middle, golden and slightly charred on the outside, the centimeter-thick slices – there are two of them – come with plenty of juice and a tablespoon of horseradish sauce. The sky is complete with the arrival of the crispiest roasts ever and a silence sweeps the room. I can’t ignore the side dish of root vegetables and buttered cabbage as its content is memorable. The turnip, carrots, celeriac and cabbage are so, not too crunchy to be undercooked and also not on the verge of mush.
At this point, a meringue of such proportions is delivered and I’m confident that Jeremy Lee is now taking the mick away from us, in a benevolent, generous and loving way, of course.
Even if you came out of three years at UU with just this simple dinner under your belt, I’d say your future in the restaurant business would be sealed. Look for the remaining dinner parties in the series and be sure to attend at least one of them.
The law project
Five courses: £45