Restaurant review: James Street Restaurant
James Street South, Belfast. Tel: 028 9043 4310
American business executive and author Jack Welch advocates change at all times. One of the most innovative business thinkers in the western world, Welch says: "Change before you have to."
Niall and Joanne McKenna must be Welch devotees because a few months back they threw out the perfectly good pair of restaurants in James Street South, the Bar & Grill and the posh one next door, closed down for five weeks and, as if straight out of the Magic Circle book of illusions, reopened as a single restaurant with an overflow room.
The transformation involved getting rid of the Bar & Grill kitchen. In its place is a beautifully modern and elegant cocktail bar and a new dining room which is a kind of extension to the original Bar & Grill.
The old posh restaurant's kitchen has been extended, another bar added and lo and behold, the James Street South we all knew and loved has become a kind of super-Scandi-austere, cross-over space more suited to quiet contemplation, deep thought as well as classy nourishment in sharp contrast to the relatively raucous rooms next door.
Let's be clear: the new James Street (the South has been dropped) restaurant, the one on the corner of Brunswick Street and James Street South, is a triumph. It is now a smooth operation where the hustle and bustle mix joy and anticipation, where the mood is bon-vivant, informal and quite fabulous in a low-key glamorous way. This is exactly the atmosphere you want from a brasserie - polite conversation, occasional explosions of laughter and very good food.
My personal map of restaurants in Belfast is extensive. Those included on my map are there because of particular quirks and attributes: comfort, service, quality of food, price, mood and even personalities. James Street is on this map because of all of these. It's not unlike showbusiness. When you see an act on stage you want to have full confidence in the actor or musician. Once you start feeling worried for them, the show is effectively over.
Restaurants are like this. You need to be completely confident that you are in good hands.
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The McKennas understand hospitality intimately and this appreciation of what customers want is felt through every detail from the unique Aidan McGrath design through to the style of service and the approach of staff.
And then there's head chef David Gillmore in the kitchen. Unusually calm and collected, chef Gillmore produces the goods every time. His knack with smoked eel and duck egg is as impressive as his talent for precision and balance with fish and game.
What has been achieved here is a renaissance after 16 years in business on this site. And that fresh start feel is distinct.
A lunch time confit of duck with foie gras de canard hits the spot perfectly. The French ham and accompanying vegetable stew add volume and depth to an already powerful yet not heavy dish. This is a high-protein lunch which will not leave you sleepy.
But the delights within, the country flavours and gaminess of it all transport you for a moment into some rural idyll.
The danger here is then to order a glass of German pinot noir (£8.25) to go with it. Or truffle chips. I resist both and instead fall at the dessert stage where treasures include a by now very famous apple tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream, caramelised white chocolate profiterole with poached rhubarb or even the ultimate McKenna classic: a baked Alaska.
I'm fond of the wine list in James Street. It's decent, occasionally imaginative and the prices aren't crazy. Some you won't see in many places include the Hungarian Pajzos dry furmint which even after two years since my first glass, still amazes and delights with its clear, mineral, tiniest hint of florals and chalk: it's the perfect one if there are two of you and you're fighting over sauv blanc or chardonnay.
That German pinot noir on the list is very on trend right now. Known as the spatburgunder, these German pinot noirs are smooth and easy with just the right tannins for eating with and available here by the glass.
James Street has come through some changes in the last 16 years. This is probably the most radical one of them all. Thankfully, it will propel the restaurant well into the future.
Duck confit £16.50
Tarte tatin £6
Bottle water £4.50