Opening a restaurant in Belfast was a gamble for Niall McKenna, but now James Street South is one of the most celebrated restaurants in Northern Ireland. Tom Vaughan checks it out
When Niall McKenna returned to his home town of Belfast to set up James Street South in 2003 it took every penny he had to get the project off the ground. And it was these tight margins, he says, that most influenced his attitude as a restaurateur. "Maybe only four or five per cent of Belfasters go out to eat," he says. "If a customer comes in and wants a dish cooked a particular way we can't afford to lose him, so we happily oblige."
After training in Belfast with Paul Rankin at Roscoff (since rechristened Cayenne), McKenna moved to London to improve his skills - his CV shows stints at the Greenhouse, the Canteen, City Rhodes and Nico at Ninety - before eventually saving enough money to return to Belfast and set up James Street South as a smart fine-dining destination restaurant.
The restaurant opened to great acclaim from press and public, but the small pool of Belfast diners means the 65-seat restaurant retains a local feel that belies its smart, light interior with partly open kitchen. McKenna says his menu is "all over the place", but his modern European food is based on classic French and Italian cooking and brought up to date with a few contemporary touches - for example, saddle of rabbit with honeyed parsnip is served with truffled white bean jus and a pancetta crisp (£16.50).
The starters have a lightness which suits a modern dining palate - prawn and chive risotto (£9.25), assiette of salmon with potato salad and horseradish tartare (£6.25) and dressed crab with tomato tempura and watercress (£7.50) are typical. Even honey-roast quail with cured fig, chicory and blue cheese dressing (£8.95), isn't as heavy as it sounds. "I rarely eat anything but light, simple dishes myself," says McKenna.
Living and working on an island, McKenna admits, is a blessing for a chef. He uses four fish suppliers from around the Irish coast, which means menus can be changed daily depending on what's landed at the ports. When I visited in mid-February there were good hauls of red mullet along the Cork coast and McKenna matched the fish alongside a generous portion of Donegal-caught lobster with a garnish of saffron nage and vegetables parisienne (£18.50). The dish was easy-going, fresh and complemented by a side salad.
All meat is also sourced in Ireland. Typical of winter offerings is a roast sirloin of beef, cut lengthways, with wild mushrooms, braised baby gem and red wine jus (£18.50). Also popular is blackened duck (a whole half) with parisienne vegetables, miso jus, honey and onion flowers (£16.50).
Game is another Northern Irish favourite, but McKenna tones down traditional Celtic heartiness to woo female customers. Roast barbary duck breast with white bean purée, duck rillette and red wine jus (£16.50) and roast fillet of venison with braised red cabbage and Valrhona chocolate jus (£18.50) are among the dishes McKenna keeps on offer but adapts according to what's around for garnishing.
There's an air of modern comfort in James Street South's dessert menu, with crowd pleasers like crème caramel given contemporary currency by being infused with camomile and served with sticky fig compote and a pistachio biscotti (£6.25) while the noughties menu must-have panna cotta is orange-flavoured and accompanied by a chocolate mocha tart (£6.50).
McKenna's next step is to open a more brasserie style of restaurant in Belfast's Custom House area next year. But there will be no changes to James Street South, which McKenna insists will retain its honesty of approach to its food and pricing policy.
"More than anyone, people in Belfast know when they're being ripped off," he says. "They want value for money."
What's on the menu
Shellfish bisque, £5.50
Carrot and sweet potato soup with toasted cumin, £5.50
Seared foie gras with duck rillettes and brulée apples, £9.50
Roast halibut with Champagne beurre blanc, £16.95
Roast brill with wild mushroom linguine and cèpe foam, £16.50
Roast loin of lamb with crispy lamb cutlet, parisienne of vegetables and red wine jus, £15.95
Chocolate and praline cake with candied hazelnuts, £7.25
Spiced apple and blueberry en papillotte with vanilla bean ice-cream, £6.95
James Street South, 21 James Street South, Belfast BT2 7GA
Tel: 028 9043 4310