I had very high expectations for the Bar and Grill at James Street South, Belfast’s newest restaurant venture for several reasons. Not least because of Chef/Owner Niall McKenna’s sterling reputation, but in the space of a week of opening it had generated some rave reviews on Belfast’s foodie blogosphere. So, to say I was excited about this meaty venture was an understatement, and after all, who doesn’t love a steak?
From the pavement the Bar and Grill housed in an old red brick three storey Belfast linen mill evokes such a sense of place and once inside it is evident that no expense has been spared to kit out the interior. The restaurant feels bright and airy, with lots of natural light pouring in through large windows. White leather banquette seating, combined with Bentwood bistro chairs and a smart stone floor make it every inch the classy steakhouse, but yet relaxed and informal, with a sparkly new cocktail bar that looks like it could turn even the most hard line Presbyterian ‘tee totaller’ into a martini quaffing socialite. Chin, chin!
As I sat in this shiny new dining room, so new that there was still a whiff of fresh paint as we walked in the front door, I had to do a double take as I drifted into a lucid memory of the last time I was sitting in this very room, under very different circumstances. Approximately 11 years ago, it was very dark and sweaty, Marlena Shaw’s ‘California Soul’ was playing very loudly, I was wearing my favourite flared blue cords, hopelessly tattered round the heels, my feet encased in a pair of much loved suede Clarks ‘Wallabies’ that had seen better days, my hair was a bit longer and the only lighting was coming from candles which looked like they had organically sprouted out of the Mateus Rose bottles from which they had been so deftly fudged into, thick with melted wax. Ahh, those Halcyon student days!
Of course the fire hazard death trap that was Vicos will bring back a plethora of memories of varying levels of clarity, for many people of a certain age in Belfast. It was hard to believe we were sitting in the same building. Although it’s great to see a building changing with my needs as I’ve got a bit older, I’ve simply swapped binge drinking and other extra-curricular activities (ahem), for more civilised alcohol consumption and great food. Anyway, point is the Bar and Grill looks the business and is conducive to good times.
Chilled out friendly staff seated us at our table and we settled down to peruse the menu with a couple of local beers from Hilden Brewery, a Titanic Quarter pale ale and a Belfast blonde. The menu at the Bar and Grill is not about re-inventing the wheel, it’s straightforward, gutsy bistro grill dishes, with the focus on the main event of steak and other meaty offerings. Vegetarians be warned!
For starters we went retro with a prawn cocktail and crab on toast. Served in a tall cocktail glass, the prawns were deliciously fresh, sweet, plump, and juicy, with a fluffy texture and the creamy Marie rose sauce had just the right zip of cayenne pepper for warmth, served with a whole prawn on top, with some crunchy green Cos lettuce – this was a classic dish executed perfectly, I could have eaten two. The crab was served in quenelles on top of some super thin melba toast. The crab meat was beautifully sweet, delicate and seasoned well, with a few caper berries added for some tang. Top marks for two beautiful starters. Our plates were cleaned.
Now when it came to the main course, it really was no contest, I was here for one thing and one thing only, and that was the char-grilled flesh of a cow. Although I did waver for a split second on the rump of lamb, which was making my saliva glands rather excited, but decided that would keep until next time. I went for the rib-eye, cooked rare with Béarnaise sauce and my dining companion went for the fillet, cooked medium with the red wine butter, and it was imperative that we tried the truffle and parmesan fries – how could we not?
Both steaks were presented on rustic wooden chopping boards, lending an air of pomp and ceremony to these juicy morsels. The rib-eye may have been slightly closer to medium for my liking, but it didn’t matter, it was still beautifully pink, juicy and tender. The Pale Ale beer was an inspired choice as the piney hoppy character went really well with the beef. The steak had lots of nice charring from the charcoal grill and was well seasoned, giving the surface that sticky caramelised flavour injection. The steak tasted smoky and the knife simply slid through the meat as if it was a hot knife through butter.
But to be honest, once past the smokiness and the tenderness of the meat, the flavour of the beef was actually a bit flat. There was no real depth of flavour, which was disappointing. The meat tasted like it hadn’t been hung for long enough. I wanted the wow flavour to come through in this steak and it just slightly missed the mark. The steak just didn’t deliver on the last and most important point, as I chewed the tender flesh, I was waiting for my mouth to be flooded with flavourful beef juices, but it just didn’t happen.
The fillet was the same deal. Beautiful char marks criss-crossed on the outside, cooked to medium as asked, extremely tender and juicy, but after a few chews, the beef lacked that slightly gamey tang you get from well hung beef. It didn’t have that wallop of beefy flavour that we were expecting. I’m not saying the steaks were bad, far from it they were very good, they were just a hairs breadth shy of sensational, and that’s what I was expecting from a Chef of Niall McKenna’s talents. These could have been the best steaks we had ever eaten, and we so badly wanted them to be.
The fries cooked with parmesan and truffles were absolutely divine, served in little individual buckets. They carried a heady, heady aroma from the truffle and combined with the sharp tang of the parmesan cheese I think this might have been the best treatment of the humble potato I’ve ever tasted. I was already considering asking our waiter if I might have a portion in a paper bag to eat on the bus on the way home!
Dessert was an easy choice. Whenever I see a sticky toffee pudding I can’t pass it up and this was a shining example of why this pudding is such a favourite – warm moist sponge, chunked with sticky dates, topped with a deep buttery toffee sauce, a scoop of vanilla ice cream heavily flecked with vanilla seeds that was starting to melt slightly at the edges, and if that wasn’t enough a dollop of thick cream to finish everything off – I was very happy as I ate this plate of goodness!
The bread and butter pudding did not disappoint either. Sweet and custardy with lots of vanilla, presented in a tall cup, with the top layer slightly burnt and hard, like a brulee so you had to crack into the delicious baked bread and custard beneath. The glazed over eyes, broad smile and zero chat from my dining companion was evidence of how good this pudding was.
I wonder if supermarket beef has meant Northern Irish people have forgotten what good beef should taste like, maybe diners don’t want that well hung tang? I would implore Niall McKenna to get down to the Angus Farm shop in Greyabbey and try one of their rib-eye steaks, because for a very long time this has been my benchmark for a steak and no one has beaten it yet. I’m a nerd about these things, but I’m not the only one, we are many. We want to read about the breed of cattle, the farm where our beef comes from and how long it has been hung for and the butcher that hangs it. These days you can walk into a supermarket and buy beef that has been hung for three weeks. When I go to a restaurant for a steak, I want to eat beef that has been hung for longer, something that is pushing the boundaries of taste to create the steak of my dreams; I want the steak to be elevated to an experience I will talk about for years. We have the best beef in the world and it seems a shame if we are not giving the beef the time it deserves to allow the flavours to develop in the hanging process, to lift the beef from good to something unforgettable.
The bill came to £85 for two beers, a bottle of sparkling water, three courses each and two coffees. This was money well spent, even if the steaks slightly missed the mark (at such an early stage in this restaurants life I’ve no doubt this is a detail that will be ironed out), as a whole experience the food was delicious and we sat at our table for two hours on a Saturday afternoon and enjoyed a lazy long lunch – it felt like we had been on our holidays.
Belfast is crying out for an upmarket bar and grill it can believe in, a steak house to be proud of. Somewhere that is known province wide for its delicious char-grilled meat, the kind of place that gets whispered about around the water-cooler in hushed wistful adoration. Niall McKenna’s Bar and Grill is almost there, it has the potential to be that place. It is all in his hands to showcase the quality of Northern Irish meat and become the standard bearer by which all others follow.
I will definitely be back, that rump of lamb is calling me!
The Bar and Grill at James Street South
21 James Street
T: 028 95600700