Set in an old Belfast linen mill, Niall McKenna's restaurant concentrates on simple food, served well. Joe Warwick reports
Niall McKenna's James Street South restaurant has occupied half of a handsome Victorian red brick building in central Belfast since 2003. The other half of the building, which was once a linen mill, continued to lie derelict, bar a spell as an illegal nightclub, while James Street South established itself as one of Belfast's best dining rooms and former BBC Great British Menu finalist McKenna as one of its leading chefs.
Then in November last year, after an extensive refurbishment, McKenna opened it up as the Bar + Grill at James Street South, the upper floors of the building given over to a new private dining room and cookery school.
McKenna's decision to expand was pragmatic. "We were being realistic. About 2% of the population probably eat in James Street South, I'm trying to reach the other 98% with the Bar + Grill," he explains. "We needed to grow the business, needed a private dining room, and I just felt that there was a market in Belfast for a cookery school and for more casual dining."
Open seven days a week from noon to 9pm, the Bar + Grill's ground floor dining room seats 60, with another six seats at the bar. With its exposed brickwork, bare wooden tables, utilitarian black wooden chairs and cool Irish sea-blue wood panelling and leather banquettes, its interior is deliberately different to its sibling next door - as is the menu.
"The people of Belfast are simple eaters, so we're not trying to reinvent the wheel here," says McKenna. "I was thinking local produce and what I could get my hands on, plus I was thinking about classics that we hadn't seen in Belfast for a while, but dishes that I knew people would recognise.
"In general Belfast people don't want to think too much about food; they want a piece of meat or fish - and that's it. They're thinking: ‘Give me it and let me get on with having a bit of craic with the people I'm with.'"
The menu was also built around a new £14,000 Josper grill, the first in Northern Ireland, about which McKenna sounds close to evangelical. The big sellers on the menu - various steaks of which they sell 40 to 50 a day (from £18.50 for a 300g sirloin to £21 for a 400g T-bone), lamb rump (£15.50) and smoked bacon chop (£14.50) - are all cooked on it and served with a choice of eight different sauces.
"The Josper is just flying for us. As long as whatever you put on it suits that smokiness and the real charcoal flavour, it's brilliant. We've even put peat on it and chipped 16-year-old Bushmills whiskey barrels and then smoked stuff on it - aubergine, garlic and chicken. It's a seriously versatile piece of kit," says McKenna.
The main menu, which is divided into Starters, Salads, Pasta & Risotto, From The Grill and The Rest, is supplemented by a series of daily specials, which are often seafood.
"We simply ring our suppliers, see what they've got in that day and put it on the menu," explains McKenna. "We had buttered clams on the other day - butter, parsley, lemon juice; that's as simple as its gets."
At the moment the restaurant is doing about 700 covers in an average week, with a spend-per-head of around £15 at lunch and upwards of £25 for dinner.
"We're using a lot of the similar methods to what we're using at James Street South but we try and stop things going too cheffy," says McKenna. "It's simple food put on the plate that's all about the quality of the produce and the flavours."
The Bar + Grill at James Street South 21 James Street South Belfast BT2 7GA
Tel 028 95600700
Sample dishes from the menu
Seafood chowder £4.50
Crab on toast £6
From The Grill
JSS beefburger andfries £10.50
Half a chicken £13.50
pasta & risotto
Parmesan and chive risotto £5.50/£11
Macaroni cheese with truffle £6.50/£13
Calves' liver with bacon & mash £15.50