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 Steet South and, with its crisp white linen, fresh flowers, contemporary Irish artwork and smart mirrors, it conveys a welcoming sense of confidence.
Since opening in 2004 Niall McKenna has stamped his own authority on the Northern food scene, and this gem of a restaurant has earned a loyal following for refined cooking which can be truly memorable. 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.
His exuberant modern cooking is innovative, yet takes care to maintain harmony and balance; menus make interesting reading, with seasonal and local produce very prevalent and a good balance of fresh flavours – seen, perhaps in a tomato terrine with wild rocket vinaigrette that is choc-a-bloc with summery Mediterranean flavours - and full on dishes with richer flavours, such as crispy pork belly with calamari, asparagus and red pepper dressing.
Fish and seafood are skilfully handled and, on a recent visit by the guide, a main dish of roast turbot with razor clam and lobster bouillabaisse was a triumph; strikingly presented, perfectly executed, and full of flavour - what a delight. Vegetarians are thoughtfully catered for too - you may find a seasonal white onion and asparagus galette with fig and red wine reduction, for example, packed with flavour yet fresh and lively.
Utterly irresistible desserts include reworked classics such as, strawberry Melba and warm pear tarte tatin with vanilla bean ice cream. This is, in a sense, simple food; using only the best of fresh, local ingredients it is cooked with an assured elegance - and a merciful absence of fusion influences.
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.