Belfast Telegraph

Critics' choice: James Street South's Critics Table

By Joris Minne

James Street South's new weekly event to experiment with new dishes and gauge the diners’ reactions is a daring and brilliant idea.

Niall McKenna has achieved the impossible. He has succeeded in raising his profile to the point where readers and food fans feel agitated unless his friendly big face peers out of a newspaper each week. McKenna’s recipes, apprenticeship initiatives and sector-supporting pronouncements have pumped up the Frank Lampard lookalike chef (work with me on this) to star status. The remarkable thing about all this publicity is that we all still love him so much.

Belfast and Northern Ireland are fickle and irritable. One minute we love you, the next minute we are hostile to anyone who gets a wire about themselves and we move on. For any budding celebrities: the public love-in ceases after three media appearances in one month. Any further appearances and your career is over.

But not with our Niall. He and his business manager wife Joanne are firmly rooted to the ground and confront the same life logistics we all do, and more on top: children to get to school, late nights and non-family friendly working hours, constant public scrutiny and comment and so on.

For a family with its own team of PR advisers, the McKennas seem unself-conscious about any of this and just get on with it. By “it” I mean the successful James Street South Bar & Grill, Hadskis, another new restaurant across the street from the old Harland and Wolff drawing offices in the Titanic Quarter, and the rebirth of the operation which started it all: the posh bit of James Street South.

The recently revamped restaurant has prompted a fair bit of commentary, not all of it favourable. If the idea had been to soften the former dining room which the McKennas said was a bit too formal, then they have achieved the objective. But nonetheless, the teal leather banquette, more relaxed random lighting and new furniture have not erased the room’s cool grace and atmosphere.

This is not a bare floorboards bistro. It is upmarket and retains just the right air of formality. Most importantly it offers an experience which is now hard to find in Belfast: a place which is two notches above hushed with polished, whose staff strike the fine balance between friendly service and professional self-effacement without a hint of preciousness or prissiness, and food so good you’ll find yourself talking about it for days and weeks afterwards.

And to remind everyone that the customer is in charge, there is a weekly event called the Critics’ Table. This brilliant idea costs £35 per head (or £55 including wine pairing) and instills the notion that diners’ opinion matters. I have said for the last six years that everyone is a food critic now. Niall McKenna and his head chef David Gillmore have proved the point by providing everyone with a pen and paper, four or five courses, four or five glasses of wine (depends on the night) and a chance for younger cooks to show off.

Gillmore is anxious to get the price right as there is a degree of experimentation which may not be to everyone’s liking. But how can it possibly go wrong when he confirms that the menu is dictated by the seasons and availability of produce? So earlier this summer the adviser and I took the plunge and put our fate in the hands of James Street South’s nutty scientists and prayed their experiments would not kill us.

Four courses kicked off with a dish of roast duck with fennel and gooseberry. The adviser wrote down her thoughts on the provided note paper. I was reluctant to do this in the same way as miserabilist professional singers will refuse to sing unless they’re getting paid for it. But I can reveal now that the duck was a dual affair of finely shredding confit and succulent magret cut through by the tangy gooseberries.

Lobster and watermelon gaspacho was exciting because I hadn’t had grilled watermelon before (people laugh when I tell them this as it’s ‘Oh so last year’, apparently). The visual impact of an austere plate bearing a piece of white and pink lobster meat and dark red and apparently burnt watermelon cannot be overestimated.

Turbot and oyster was memorable because the oyster retained all its light, briney flavours despite having been cooked and a lemon and chocolate dessert by Caitlin Wilson was as pleasant as a June afternoon in Menton.

The Critic’s Table is very recommended particularly for those who aren’t sure about posh dining. This is good because all the decisions are made for you. All you have to do is eat and drink, and, if you feel like it, write down your thoughts.

On another day I’ll review the regular James Street South experience. It’s too good to just mention it in the last sentence of this review. Watch this space.

Twitter: @jorisminne

The bill

Critics' Table x 2 including wine pairing £110

Total £110

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