Restaurant review: We take a bite out of Cast & Crew
Queen's Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9045 1400
If ever you wanted to see entrepreneurialism at its most raw with all the risks, chutzpah, spirit and conviction of one's own beliefs on full display, look no further than Niall and Joanne McKenna.
After establishing James Street South 12 years ago, they opened son-of-the-restaurant, the Bar and Grill. Then there was the Cookery School, which shows no signs of slowing down either.
Closely following these was Hadskis, which the pair opened in a former sandwich shop shaped like a railway freight carriage.
Now they've headed east into the bleak post and current industrial landscapes of Queen's Island. Harland & Wolff Heavy Industries, 500 yards away, are working at full tilt, but the vastness of the operation, the permanent gale coming in off the Irish Sea and the sheer scale of its operations, make it barely visible.
The land surrounding the shipyard's old main entrance is now a car-park, to the side of which is a 1970s brick bunker. This used to be a branch of the First Trust Bank. Nobody noticed it lying there for years, squat and ugly, mean and empty.
Except the McKennas noticed it and now it houses their latest venture, Cast & Crew. How this cold old one-storey structure could be turned into a charming, modern cafe/bar/restaurant is a miracle or, as we like to call it, the work of architect Aidan McGrath.
A little deck along two sides of the building with tables and chairs suggest a maritime feel. Inside, it's all battleship grey and shipyard yellow.
There is warm lighting and a lot of movement within the open kitchen behind the bar. It's like a cross between a busy little engineering workshop and an art installation.
After three visits within the first four days, I detect no teething problems. Staff know where everything is and queues at the door are quickly managed.
It may be small, but there's plenty of room, service is quick like a diner, but the food is a notch above. Breakfast starts at 8am and goes on until 12. After that it's lunch for the rest of the day until six, when it closes.
It's a good Sunday brunch alternative to the more events-led versions available around Belfast. In spite of its proximity to the Belfast Met and Titanic Centre, it feels isolated and this is a good thing. Because when you reach it, if you've come by car, bike, or bus, there is a sense of occasion when you walk up those steps (or roll up the ramp) into the place.
Breakfast choices include scones, croissants, porridge and granola with Clandeboye yoghurt, to the healthy bacon and egg bap, full Ulster (with black and white pudding and all the breads), or scrambled eggs with smoked salmon on toasted sour dough.
They're all good (although for the life of me I can't think why I'd go to the trouble of getting there to ask for porridge) especially the pancakes and those scrambled eggs, which are soft and the consistency of cottage cheese with no sign of rubberiness.
The fry is among the best. This is a tall claim in the north as it's up against offerings from Cafe Conor, Bright's, Guillemot, Harlem, Truffles, Brian McMillan's house, Harrison's, Strikes, Barista and a load more. (I had to list all of those for personal security reasons.)
Chowder here is as good as James Street South. Served in a large, shallow bowl accompanied by a hunk of wheaten which appears to have been hewn from a quarry rather than sliced from a loaf, the composite dish is a tiny recreation of the Co Down coastline.
There is an abundance of hake, salmon, cod and other bits and bobs in a velvety smooth and creamy soup. The bread is salty, earthy, crumbling and smells like a freshly filled granary on a hot day.
Chicken wings, chilli dogs, veggie things and salads, bacon and cheese chips, salt and vinegar onion rings and homemade coleslaw will appeal to Belfast, while the Irish Stew and, among the many burger options, the Titanic Burger (how could you, Niall?), will draw in visitors from afar. It's the kind of food I find as irresistible as box sets.
Thanks to the McKennas' collective courage, I am now addicted.
Double espresso £2.20