Better quality food at cheaper prices means James St South should be a winner for all
All told, Northern Ireland restaurants are a mixed bag of good, very good and indifferent quality. With only one Michelin star, however, in the entire north and a handful of Bib Gourmand references in the red guide, visitors might be forgiven for thinking Northern Ireland was a backwater, a place where men eat spuds boiled in swamp water and women make gravy from pig spleen and toad skin.
I know of three places which serve this kind of food. One is in Northern Ireland and the two others are in Ulster counties.
Thankfully, the three places are a good bit away from Belfast. But you really would think sometimes, judging by the lack of media acknowledgement that most restaurants here are not good. The focus tends to be on the same handful of admittedly top places including Deane’s, Cayenne and Mourne Seafood Bar.
Yet we are blessed with broader brilliance. There are fabulous places to eat in Bangor, Newry and Armagh as well as in Belfast but it takes time for reputations to grow.
Nonethless, the brilliance is at last gaining respect across the Irish Sea. In London, Paul Rankin’s exclusive grip on TV cheffery as the only jolly Northern Irelander may be weakening as new Ulster faces start making bridgeheads into TV land.
This second wave started four or five years ago with Richard Corrigan who isn’t from Ulster at all — he’s a Meath man — but who was given a by-ball by the producers of the Great British Menu three years ago and was deemed Brit enough to represent Norn Iron. In fact, Corrigan doesn’t have a restaurant anywhere near Northern Ireland, and more’s the pity, but sure, things are flexible in the world of the small screen.
Since then, the extravagant young Clark Gable look-alike (and proper duncher-wearing, card-carrying member of the North Belfast posse) Danny Millar has scooped the Northern Ireland regional prize (and recreates his winning pie in the Parson’s Nose in Hillsborough). Danny has gone on to become one of the country’s finest chefs with great tables in his other restaurant Balloo House near Comber.
But now it’s the turn of another young chef, Niall McKenna, to stir the nation’s appetite. Mind you, the 2010 Northern Ireland heat winner of the Great British Menu didn’t just start out last week. He’s been around for years running the excellent James Street South.
Previously reliant on the expense account market of obscenely and recently wealthy property magnates, James Street South was a hushed temple of self-adoration where the rich out-riched their friends and neighbours and where food was a secondary requirement.
Undaunted, Niall McKenna nonetheless kept making excellent food. Now that the rich have departed, McKenna has got even better and, blessing of blessings, cheaper.
I’ve been there a few times during the year and the £16.50 set lunch of three courses remains the best quality you can buy at the price by a mile.
Last week, lunch for two in James Street South proved a testing ground in which the challenge was to examine the quality of the set menu, set it against the a la carte menu and to determine if there was a discernible difference between the two which reflected the price differential.
Except for the starters, the quality of the remaining two courses in each meal was the same.
The set menu’s broccoli soup was a bit plain. Creamy and spring-like green in colour, it was appetising and wholesome, but lacked the punch you come to expect from McKenna. It was no match for the crab meat and Parma ham from the a la carte menu. Chilled but not so as to blight the delicate flavours, the generous little moist mound of slightly compressed crab meat was mouth-watering just to look at. The mild but deep brininess came through beautifully and all the more so with the dry salty slice of Parma.
The difference between menus stopped at the starters. The mains were much closer in character and quality to each other. The rabbit at £17.50 was a pound more than the three courses of the set menu yet there wasn’t more than an inch of difference in the quality of the textures and flavours than in the chicken dish (which looked very like it), what with the nice assortment of spring vegetables and light gravy.
The set menu chicken also had far more flavour than the disappointing rabbit which had no gameyness at all. In fact, the chicken (a plain breast roasted in butter and oil) was poultry heaven with the evocative flavours and aroma of the spit roast birds you often drool over in good delis.
Desserts were both top flight with a perfect apple tarte tatin with the slightest, skinniest and flakiest pastry under a deep bronze circle of softened and sweetened apples. Not too sweet from the caramelized sugar and daintily served in a little copper frying pan. The ice cream on the set menu (from a choice of three: ice cream, crème caramel or chocolate fondant (or cheese)) included an apple sorbet. It was a tight little snowball of Granny Smithiness.
Whatever you do, keep £16.50 aside for a rainy day and spend it in James Street South. You won’t need to save any more to go a la carte because Niall McKenna seems to be going through a phase of altruism in which he wants to feed us, show us his brilliance and secure our approval for next to no money. By doing so, he’s proving the point that when you’re that good, cooking from the heart doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. And isn’t he the best we have, according to the Great British Menu judges?
3-course lunch £16.50
Crab starter £8.50
Tarte tatin £6.50
Glass prosecco £5.95
Glass sauvignon £5
Glass riesling £5
Mineral water £7.90