In a narrow side street behind Belfast’s City Hall, Niall and Joanne McKenna’s bright and stylish Belfast restaurants tall arched windows overlook James Street South and, with its crisp white linen, fresh flowers, contemporary Irish artwork and smart mirrors, it conveys a welcoming sense of confidence. A recent revamp has widened its appeal, but the food remains the main focus.
Since opening in 2004 Niall McKenna has stamped his own authority on the Northern food scene, and his dedication to showcasing local foods - and establishing a network of trusted local producers - is influential. McKenna, who has worked for respected names like Gary Rhodes, Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis, heads a first-rate team, effortlessly combining natural charm with focus.
Three more restaurants and a cookery school have been added to the portfolio in the last decade, but Niall McKenna remains actively involved in running the restaurant with an excellent kitchen team led by Head Chef David Gillmore.
Locally sourced, seasonal produce is key to his classic cooking, which has innovative touches but never at the expense of superb ingredients that include the best Northern Ireland fish and seafood - Strangford Lough Bouillabaise is a signature dish - local beef, organic lamb, and more unusual foods especially game in season.
Utterly irresistible desserts include beautifully reworked classics, and the cheese selection is always very tempting. This is, in a sense, simple food; using only the best of fresh, mainly local ingredients, it is cooked with an assured elegance - and the flavours are superb.
The dining room has an exciting lively ambience, with friendly staff going about their business in a quietly efficient manner - and it is never difficult to catch their eye.
The wine list is one of the best in town and includes numerous regional varieties; although mainly under £30, there is also a short selection of fine wines.
Lunch and pre-theatre menus offer exceptional value, and gourmet wine evenings are sometimes held.
This gem of a restaurant has a loyal following for its unique combination of an easy ambience and refined cooking which can be truly memorable, and it is well earned.
Very different, but equally popular, sister restaurants are James Street South Bar & Grill, Hadskis and, most recently, the cheerful little Cast & Crew in the Titanic Quarter.
*The Cookery School is a purpose built facility with interactive TV ensuring a perfect view for everyone, where Niall McKenna offers practical classes for up to nine students and demonstration classes for up to 35. Also, in a move reminiscent of the great classical kitchens of old, the McKennas established an apprenticeship scheme in 2014; in the first year they employed and trained 8 young people (aged 16 to 24), and this number rose to12 in 2015. Working with the Belfast Met, they are trained by the restaurant's team of chefs and Niall McKenna at the Cookery School, to NVQ level 2 in Professional Cookery. When dining at James Street South, you will see some of their work highlighted on menus.