You need to be very lucky if you’re a young chef opening a restaurant, and you can factor that up by a hefty pick-your-number percentage if you’re self-taught. Restaurants self-combust faster than you can splutter “still or sparkling?” and that’s for the experienced people in a red hot location.
Ryan Jenkins from Finaghy in Co Antrim never trained as a chef. He started out doing the kitchen jobs nobody else wanted to do to earn a few bob, found that he loved the whole restaurant vibe, and learned to cook by observing the chefs at work, eating out and burying his head in cookery books.
Instead of working his way up through the ranks – commis, sous and head chef – in 2018 he struck out on his own and opened Roam restaurant pop-ups, switching to meal kits when the pandemic hit, both of which were hugely successful.
Amid closures, rising costs and all the other challenging industry news, he opened a Roam bricks and mortar restaurant on Belfast’s Callender Street in September 2022. It’s a scenario with enough Hell’s Kitchen ingredients to have Gordon Ramsay producers panting like Pavlov’s dogs behind the large wheelie bins across the street.
This column is not called “where not to eat” for good reason, so when I’m reviewing restaurants that require a bit of a jaunt, I’m doubly cautious. But a number of food chums in the North assured me that this hip refurbed room, with a small kitchen that packs a six-ring burner, flat grill, oven and a Japanese-style charcoal grill, was worth a trip.
The beurre blanc sauce is clearly made by someone who could do it in their sleep
Expecting hipster-central menus – small plates and a wine list of bottles with labels drawn by feral three-year-olds – I’m surprised to discover that it’s basically an a la carte three-courser with a few snacks, and the very compact wine list is more about the classics. But the entry level white is well-priced, so it’s a bottle of Simonsig Chenin Blanc (£29) as the very tasty snacks (£4 each) hit the table. An oblong brioche bun is slicked with stewed apple and piled with dark, intense bacon jam, while a smoked eel tartlet gets a clever pop of heat from kimchi.
For starters, scallops with charred shallots and sea purslane (£12), cooked whole and cut into irregular chunks, are beautifully caramelised and served in a sauce that has depth and complexity from chicken bone stock, butter and a splash of lemon juice.
Sounding deceptively like a tartare, rare beef with yolk (£12), which arrives on an expensive looking earthenware plate, is decidedly more caveman. Four rugged slices are dotted with blobs of egg yolk and black garlic and dusted with what seems to be a mix of toasted onions and breadcrumbs. You get a real sense of the beef, which is decidedly chewy – a bit of time dry-ageing no doubt, and perhaps this cut should be sliced a shade thinner – but it eats well and feels just a bit braver than the ubiquitous chopped beef rendition.
Ryan Jenkins has got talent, a good palate and an instinct for pulling things together
The main courses arrive on scalding hot plates, and there’s proper evidence that the grill has been put to good use on the cod (£22), which is cooked precisely. But what stands out here is the beurre blanc sauce, which is clearly made by someone who could do it in their sleep, and has just added in a few mussels, samphire and a crushed potato for good measure.
The flat iron steak with pressed potato (£23) has been cooked over charcoal on the Japanese grill and sliced across the grain. Again, it’s a piece of meat with good flavour, and sprouting broccoli and a deeply savoury sauce are good accompaniments.
Dessert is a skilfully made chocolate crémeux (£8), the intensity relieved with a quenelle of caramelised milk ice cream. If you have room for cheese, it’s just £12 and comes from the wonderful Mike’s Fancy Cheeses, the cheesemaker behind Young Buck.
When a menu reads simply, it’s no guarantee that it won’t be over-ambitious and under-skilled. But Jenkins has got talent, a good palate and an instinct for pulling things together. Even with the euro to sterling exchange rate, this menu is well-priced. It’s pure Michelin Bib Gourmand territory. If you’re considering a bank holiday weekend break, a roam up North may be just the thing.
Dinner for two with a bottle of wine was £114.
The verdict: A young talented chef cooking very smart food
Music: Marvin Gaye barely audible above the chatter, the acoustics are not a strong point
Food provenance: Fish from Ewing’s and Keenan, meat from O’Doherty’s, Carnbrooke and McConnell’s, Silverhill duck and vegetables from Glasswater Farm
Vegetarian options: Cauliflower with curry and hazelnut and seasonal veg roast with black garlic
Wheelchair access: Accessible with accessible toilet