Belfast has come a long way in the hospitality stakes, anyone who has visited the city recently would find it unrecognizable from 15 years ago. Now Belfast is home to a buzzing, vibrant cultural scene. Restaurants in particular are popping up all around the city to feed the appetite for unique dining experiences. Belfast has also been a breeding ground for many talented young chefs and Niall McKenna owner of the acclaimed James Street South restaurant has been at the heart of this. A passionate advocate of pushing the boundaries in the food scene, McKenna, along with his wife Joanne, now own four restaurants within the city and also run and an ever popular cookery school.
Having just won Best Local Restaurant in Northern Ireland, we popped up to see what had changed in the year since we last visited. One of the things that you have to admire is the huge push organisations like Visit Belfast are giving to businesses all over the city by encouraging more and more people to choose the city as their next destination, no surprise then that Niall McKenna was named a Tourism Hero by the Northern Ireland Tourist board.
James St South is located in the heart of the city and a stone’s throw from all the top hotels such as The Fitzwilliam, which we were lucky enough to be staying in, thus making it a very popular spot so booking ahead is strongly advised. The venue itself has undergone a subtle make over recently retaining its upmarket feel without any pretentiousness. Clean lines, comfortable seating and an open kitchen and pass which we loved. Nothing better than having a peek at the skill in plating up and the precision and concentration that goes into every plate.
The team has just launched a new menu with some exciting additions which we were eager to try out. When you have the chance to pop up to James St South make sure you order the Champ Bread and the Guinness Wheaten (£4) with Abernethy Butter. This is how bread should be baked and a signal of Head Chef David Gilmore’s commitment to high quality local produce. We had seen a tempting photo of the new Chilled Portavogie Crab Lasagne (£9) before heading up and knew this was a creative dish that deserved to be tasted. True to the photo a perfectly plated little tower of crab arrived, topped with charred lemongrass and surrounded by a frothed sea of crab bisque which was one of the best we have ever tasted.
Melon and ham are hardly revolutionary in terms of creative dishes but knowing what James St South are all about we knew Charentais Melon (£9.50)would be no ordinary dish. Thinly sliced Serrano ham with equally thin slices of melon were brought to a different level with the addition of truffle seasoning. Simple, elegant and delicious. Our Domaine Saint Denis 2013 (£38.00) white Burgundy was a perfect match for the ham.
Choice is not something you will be short of here with over seven very different mains on offer from Breast of Chicken, Lobster Butter, Peas & Pickled Girolles to Roast Hake, Bone Marrow Crust, Salsify & Lemon. The Wild Turbot (£19.50) sounded quite intriguing so that was an easy choice, with shavings of green tomato adding some striking colour to the fragile kelp linguine; another well executed and graceful plate. Turbot is now firmly top of our seafood list after this.
Lamb being such a versatile ingredient we were interested to see what wonders the kitchen would produce with the Carrickbrack Organic Lamb (£21.00). Two plates of lamb arrived served in two very different ways; one a melt in the mouth, slow braised shoulder with cucumber and mint salsa verde and the other a tender pink loin served with a heavenly potato fondant, rich jus and creamy yoghurt. Oh and did we mention the champ, which is quite legenadary in this part of the woods and we now know why, not easy on the arteries but by God it tastes amazing.
Now this is where we got a little greedy, as the promise of the tastiest Fillet of Beef (£26.00) with foie gras as described by our server Dearbhla proved too hard to resist. It always impresses us how a simple looking plate of food when tasted can really challenge your perceptions. This is a perfect case in point, as the addition of the foie gras dusted with magical summer truffle herbs delivered a resounding silence to the table until every morsel was cleared from the plate.
Coming up from Dublin to sample James Street South there was never a question of passing on dessert, as Petit Fours (£7.50) are something done exceptionally well here. A miniature madeline, eclair, raspberry macaroon, caramel fudge, buttery shorty and a sour strawberry jam jelly made up a sugar loaded feast to satisfy the biggest of cravings.
Twelve years on, James Street South is still continuing to create outstanding flavours that have people from far and wide travelling to sample the exceptional expertise and creative flair on show here. What makes it even more special is how McKenna is supporting so many young and budding chefs in their passionate desire to follow in his footsteps.
This is a Taste of Belfast we cannot recommend enough.