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. 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 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 an early summer starter of English asparagus, with pork belly and quails egg that is choc-a-bloc with flavour.
Fish and seafood are skilfully handled - a flavoursome main dish of monkfish, asparagus, clams and red wine shallot is a triumph, for example, strikingly presented and perfectly executed - what a delight. Vegetarians are thoughtfully catered for too - gnocchi wuth cauliflower cream, Parmesan and white truffle, for example, that is long on flavour yet fresh and lively.
Utterly irresistible desserts include reworked classics such as lemon meringue & raspberry sorbet and warm pear tarte tatin with vanilla bean ice cream, and the cheese selection is also very tempting - Bleu D'Avergne and Ardrahan make a pleasing pair, for example, served with chutney and biscuits. This is, in a sense, simple food; using only the best of fresh, mainly 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.
*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.