Have you noticed how successful people from Northern Ireland look like famous actors and celebrities? Christine Bleakley looks like supermodel Christy Turlington, property developer Andy Creighton is a dead ringer for Joe Pesci and tourism supremo Howard Hastings must surely be tired of being mistaken for Tom Hanks.
The fact that James Street South chef patron Niall McKenna is a chunkier version of Frank Lampard is, on this basis, a qualification of success. The lookalike blessing must be the reason why McKenna’s confidence seems so solid and unshakeable. Because how else would anyone have the nerve to open not just a new restaurant but also a cookery school and private dining room?
As the UK casts itself (and us) adrift from the heart of the European decision-making process, McKenna has switched on all the lights, made room in his new restaurant for a £14,000 charcoal grill, and is now serving comfort and chips to anyone with the price of two McDonald’s meal deals.
James Street South has been the preferred watering and feeding station of the be-suited classes for nine years. And while the food is widely admired, the dining room has never been warmly talked about. Comparisons to a dentist’s surgery have been made and, in fairness, these have been acknowledged by the management, even if little has been done about it.
“But all this is to change,” says the energetic McKenna, “once I’ve got the new Bar & Grill next door up and running.”
I’ve been to the new bar and grill next door to his restaurant three times since it opened in November. New restaurants always have teething problems, adjustments need to be made on the hoof, and staff have to hone their muscle memory before they can do that famous, effortless glide between tables. You can’t expect the soul of a place to express itself moments after opening. Yet, a week after my first visit, with family in tow, it became the “best restaurant in Belfast” according to Charlotte (11). In fact, that’s where she chose for lunch to celebrate the end of the entrance exams season a couple of Saturdays ago.
The brasserie/diner menu provides a great script to match the bare brick walls and leather banquettes. It’s an ode to robustness, comfort and joy. It’s all plain talking and easily understood. There are no mysteries. So the crab on toast for instance is just that, and in generous portions too. Egg-sized mounds of shredded crab with hints of chilli and a little crème fraîche to keep it vaguely solid are zingy, fresh and cool. Crab flavours sing loudest at these temperatures and the crunch of the toast beneath provides no more interference than good texture.
The risotto, a simple one with cheese and chives, is wonderfully creamy and even the small version is filling. In the end, as you approach the last few spoonfuls, you’re eating it because you can’t resist those flavours, not because you’re hungry. The seafood chowder is exceptionally good — smooth, smoky and crammed with first-class whitefish chunks, prawns, salmon and remarkably few potatoes.
The fact that McKenna has invested so heavily in the famous Josper Grill meant we had to test it — these things are so hot the chefs went through 30 steaks before they got the hang of cooking on it. The advisor’s litmus choice was a rib-eye, which she wanted medium rare. I had been offered a 600g sirloin and now the family wanted to see if I was man enough.
Both arrived accompanied by a roast chicken dinner for the girls. They were all pretty much spot-on. The little buckets of fries, accompanying sides of salad, onions and various vegetables, were set on wooden boards, on which rested the steaks. The big sirloin didn’t look so daunting after all and as soon as I’d tasted the first mouthful, the full strength of that dark charring created by the white heat of the charcoal came through. It was a fabulous marriage of flavours with an almost crust-like exterior making way for a very red, tender inside. I can still taste it as I remember it.
The rib-eye was approved, as was the chicken.
There is, however, despite all the brilliance, a flaw. And that’s the burger (I had this earlier), which is as solid and dense as a neutron star. These theoretical, gravitationally collapsed stars become so dense, a coin-sized piece would weigh thousands of tonnes. McKenna’s burger is achieving similar results. He’ll soon have this sorted out and once he’s come up with the perfect burger, there’ll be queues out the door.
Belfast Bar & Grill (remember, not the Ramada one of the same name that Paul Rankin put his name to some years ago) is democratic, cool and geographically blessed in the heart of Belfast. It’s good, but now I want to see what Niall McKenna does to the posher fine diner next door.
Small risotto £5.50
Crab on toast x 2 £12
Small crab spaghetti £6.50
Rib-eye with chips £19.50
Half chicken £13.50
600g sirloin £25
Tomato salad £4
Lettuce salad £3
Banana split £6
Bread & butter pudding £5.50
Ice cream £4
Cante Perdrix red £16
Diet Coke x 2 £3.20
Glass Finca Antigua £4
Large sparkling water £3.50
23 James Street South, Belfast BT2 7GA.
Tel: 028 9560 0700