James Neilly is the chef with nine lives. I first met him in Armagh years ago when he was setting up a new restaurant, the Rokeby, beside the old court house. He had just completed an eight-year run with Paul Rankin's Cayenne and was very excited about using fresh produce from the restaurant owners' farm just a few miles up the Portadown Road. But a few weeks later when I went to review it, the whole thing was gone.
A short while later, up pops James in Belfast's Potted Hen, the first restaurant to open in the new St Anne's Square but after a couple of years it crashed too. Not to be discouraged, James did a career body swerve, dropped the toque and whites and opened a funky new pizza parlour in Castle Street.
Pizza Boutique would quickly establish an enviable reputation, and the offer of keto-diet friendly pizzas and pizzas with middle eastern leanings served in a restaurant with some of the wildest wall art in Belfast worked wonders. Until Primark across the street went on fire. This caused the closure of restaurants, including Pizza Boutique, caught within the hastily mounted safety no-go fencing in the city centre choking all retail activity for 18 months.
And now, scarred and bruised but still smiling, the man who created two other successful Pizza Boutique takeaways in the meantime (one in Hillsborough and the other on the Saintfield Road), is back again and making middle eastern flatbread meals, Dexter burgers, chips and Korean chicken wings in a Carryduff carpark.
To be more precise he's doing this in a fitted-out freight container in the car park of Let's Go Hydro, the adventure-water-park-cum-drive-thru-cinema, created by jewellery king Peter Boyle. There are a couple of pizzas on the menu but that's it: he doesn't want to compete with his Pizza Boutique a mile down the road. Hence the slow cooked lamb, turkey and Dexter burgers, chicken wings and the like.
It's pricey for streetfood but it comes with the Neilly seal of excellence and the 90 meals he served up on the opening evening last Friday (the operation works from 5pm to 9pm Fridays and Saturdays) is a tribute to his reputation.
Teething problems surrounding the texted orders and timings will have been resolved by now. You text your order and collect from the man himself, except that last week, texts were not being received so James found himself appeasing dozens of callers. And that's the thing about Chef Neilly, he has the charm and manners to make you forgive anything which may not quite work out as he wanted it to.
But when the food finally arrived, it was clearly worth the wait. Chicken wings in gochujang sauce are sweet and sour, Korean style, dark, sticky and meat flaking off the bone at first contact. The lamb flatbread with yoghurt, cucumber, mint and pomegranate could do with more harissa but nonetheless was a belter and came in great volume. The side of lamb had slow cooked all day and was beautifully moist, tender and packed with flavour.
The Dexter burger is equally beefy in flavour although a bit too dense and may have been overcooked but again, the support services of the bacon jam, cheddar, lettuce and tomato and that home made brioche bun are a mighty consolation.
The chips are surprisingly intact. Rarely will a chip survive any transit beyond the journey from kitchen to dining room. On this occasion, a quick blast in the oven, McCain style, and they were revived, all crispy and hot.
James Neilly says he's updating the menu aiming towards more homey dishes with stews and bao buns to warm us through the latest wintry lockdown.
Dexter burger & chips £10
Harissa lamb flatbread £10
Margarita pizza £10
Peperoni pizza £10
Korean chicken wings x 3 £15
Chips x 2 £6
Total = £61