Tag Archives: Restaurant review

An ode to St John…

For every food lover there are restaurants that are the serious ones. The ones on the list. At the top of these lists are the establishments that occupy the hallowed ground territory. St John Restaurant in Smithfield is my hallowed ground. Continue reading

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Into the West…

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This year’s holiday was a week in the West of Ireland, during the first week of October. I love Autumn in Galway, but coming back here always stirs up a lot of emotions in me. When I was 23 I was persuaded by my now wife to move to Galway. I was lucky enough to meet Seamus Sheridan and blag a job in his cheese shop. So began my love affair with good food.I feel very privileged to have spent time within the Galway foodie circle that emanated from Sheridan’s Cheesemongers.

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Neill’s Hill…

Who’d have thought that the East Belfast suburbs of Belmont and Ballyhackamore would ever be in a position to claim rights as the new up and coming foodie spot on the outskirts of the city? I can say that because I grew up in this part of town, and fond memories of eating out in the east are few.  Although as a 10-year-old it was hard to say no to a special fried rice, with an egg on top, followed by a bowl of jelly and ice-cream at the Eda Inn Chinese on the Belmont Road. A cheeseburger from Nibblers came a close second.

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East Belfast goes ‘East side’ with Il Pirata

When pirates hoisted the Jolly Roger colours it was meant to frighten their victims into surrendering without a fight, since it conveyed the message that the attackers were outlaws who would not consider themselves bound by the usual rules of engagement!  Well the Jolly Roger has been brazenly hoisted in East Belfast, by a new restaurant which has broken the mould of the usual Italian offering and is flying the flag for quality rustic Italian food served up with a splash of style and a twist of tapas!

All the talk of  Tony O’Neil’s (Merchant Hotel + Littlewing) latest venture Il Pirata in Ballyhackamore has been lighting up Belfast’s foodie blogosphere like a pinball machine, so we finally paid a visit during a Saturday lunchtime.  It was somewhat of a homecoming for me, as I grew up in this part of Belfast, but back then the food offering was a little less cosmopolitan.  I remember Nibblers Burgers, which was the precursor to Arnolds and there was the obligatory handful of anglicised Chinese restaurants, serving up chicken balls and fried rice, and Capers pizza was the zenith of food offerings at the time.  A Hawaiian pizza seemed so foreign and exotic back then!  I was extremely excited to head back to my old stomping grounds, to the new ‘talk of the town’ restaurant which used to be a KFC!

Of late, Colonel Sanders has been causing quite a stir in the Ballyhackamore community, due to the monstrosity of a new KFC drive-through that has opened just down the road.  So it seems fitting that Il Pirata, the antithesis of said fast food chain, has taken up residence in the shell of the old KFC premises, but you wouldn’t have a clue, as the interior is like something that would seem more at home in Sydney or Lower East Side Manhattan!

The outside of Il Pirata is modest and other than the small wooden sign hanging beside the door, you could quite easily miss it, but that is the charm, as there is the feel of Doctor Who’s tardis to Il Pirata.  You step off the grey pavement, in through the ramshackle wooden stained glass front door and once inside, you are magically transported to somewhere unexpected.  It’s hard not to enter Il Pirata without a big smile on your face and we watched a few customers do the same thing as they entered, a kind of wow effect takes hold, as the exterior of Il Pirata could in no way prepare you for how the inside looks.

Il Pirata exudes cool in an area of Belfast that possibly is quite starved of coolness, no offence to Ballyhackamore, but Il Pirata definitely brings some much-needed über trend to East Belfast.  The interior has that unfinished feel to it, with exposed ceilings, reams of light bulbs hanging down from long cables, some of the concrete and brick have missed a few licks of paint and the floor is made from beautiful old stained wood.  That stylish distressed look is everywhere and the furniture is a mismatch of old chairs and tables, of which I’m sure I spotted my old P3 chair from Gilnahirk Primary! The space is light and airy, with sharp white tiled walls, a long wooden bar in the middle of the room for easy propping and pints, and a shiny drinks bar with beer taps, providing a glimpse into the busy kitchen.

It really is like something out of the meat-packing district in New York, I was half expecting to see outlaw TV Chef, Tony Bourdain walk through the door at any minute, sucking on a cigarette, whilst ordering a cold pint of Coppperhead from the barman with his camera crew in tow!  But as I sat looking out of the window, I couldn’t quite believe we were down the ‘Hack!  Il Pirata is like a breath of fresh air.  I did feel like I had been spirited away on holiday for my lunch!

Very friendly staff were quick to enquire if we were Il Pirata virgins, after which they duly explained the menu, which takes it’s lead from simple Italian fare, mixing small tapas style plates to share with bruschetta, salads, pasta, risotto and a selection of larger dishes.  Now some Philistines out there might be confused as to the menu, and they might whine ‘you can’t have Italian tapas!’  Balls, why should you try to put everything into a neat little box with a neat little label on it?  Hats off to Il Pirata for not following the usual rules of engagement to bring something new and fresh to Belfast.

For too long Belfast has been crying out for a good Italian restaurant that does something other than pizza, there are too many faux Italian restaurants in Belfast, Villa this or Villa that, with fake plastic vines creeping up the walls and shiny pvc gingham table cloths, claiming to serve up real Italian food, which is about as close to authentic Italian food as a tin of ready spaghetti!  Thank the Restaurant Gods for Il Pirata, serving up authentic Italian grub in surroundings that don’t make me want to vomit!

As I was the designated driver I opted for some Pellegrino sparkling water but my dining companion fancied a lunchtime pint of Copperhead, a local pale ale nonetheless, brewed by Whitewater Brewery!  Great to see local Northern Irish beers being championed by local chefs, the craft beer revolution is alive and well in Northern Ireland! Forget about generic tasteless fizz like Carlsberg or Heineken, this is the beer you want to drink!

We ordered two small plates of deep-fried Whitebait and Cazilli Croquettes, which came with roasted red pepper mayo for dipping. We also went for two large plates of Italian spiced sausage in a red wine and tomato ragu, with some gnocchi on the side and a plate of the slow braised beef brisket with Pappardelle.  We just asked for everything to come out when it was ready.

Copperhead Pale Ale

The Whitebait were crisp and fresh, I could have eaten a whole plate of these, whole little fish with the lightest, crispiest batter, dunked into the red pepper mayo was a winning combination.  The croquettes were also delicious, soft fluffy creamy potato, flecked with scallions and ham, perfectly seasoned, covered in a crispy golden exterior dusted with what must have been Panko bread crumbs to give the croquettes that extra crunch.

Deep fried whitebait, Cazzilli Croquettes and red pepper mayo

Next up were the larger plates.  The slowy braised beef brisket was falling apart, beautifully tender and the plate was dusted with some flat leaf parsley and orange zest which really lifted the flavour of the beef and tomato sauce.  The thick ribbons of fresh egg pappardelle added just the right amount of carbs to mop up the sauce.  My only criticism on this dish was that there wasn’t enough of the sauce to go with the meat, which meant the dish was a bit dry and I could also have done with a generous portion of freshly grated Parmigianno over the top just to lift the seasoning.

My dining companion had the spiced Italian sausage in a red wine and tomato ragu, with a side of gnocchi.  This dish smelt and tasted like Tuscany!  The sausages were some of the best I’ve ever eaten, the pork meat had been coarsely minced and was packed full of garlic and fennel seeds giving the sausage that beautiful hit of aniseed that goes so well with pork.  The ragu sauce was rich, deep red, full of flavour with a good pinch of chilli, and there was plenty of it, I think I even used my finger to dab up the rest of the sauce when all the sausage had been devoured!

The waiter had recommended the side of gnocchi to go with the sausage and indeed the man knew what he was talking about, as the combination of juicy pork sausage, dripping in rich tomato ragu, with a chunk of pillowy gnocchi, all in one mouthful was heaven on the end of a fork – I will return for this dish alone!

And even the gnocchi are worth a mention all of their own.  Usually you get gnocchi and they are small little bland balls of what taste like ‘Smash’, but Il Pirata’s gnocchi were are at once light, but doughy and springy in the mouth, and there is added texture as they are lightly fried just before serving which gives the exterior a light golden crunch.  These dumplings of goodness were a good size, perfectly seasoned and a pleasure to eat.

Italian spiced sausage, red wine and tomato ragu

Beautiful potato gnocchi

Slow braised beef brisket ragu with Pappardelle

Our plates were clean, but there was still room for dessert and coffee.  I had heard rave reports of the Il Pirata Tiramisu so that’s what I went for and my dining companion couldn’t say no to the warm chocolate and hazelnut cake served with vanilla ice cream.  Served in a little ceramic dish, the Tiramisu was creamy, sweet, chocolatey, and right at the bottom held a prize of alcohol soaked spongey soft chocolatey goodness.  At one point I was inhaling a spoonful of this Tiramisu with such vigour that I took a big deep breath in and a cloud of the cocoa powder was sucked right into my lungs, nearly coughed up a lung, but my coughs had a nice ‘chocolatey’ note to them – try not to eat the Tiramisu with too much enthusiasm, but it’s so hard not to!

The chocolate hazelnut cake was warm, moist, deep and rich, with a good balance of sugar without being too sweet, with lots of bitter tones of good quality dark chocolate coming through with a nice nutty texture added from the hazelnuts.  Two delicious coffees to finish a lunch that has set a very high bar for the rest of the year.

Tiramisu

Chocolate and hazelnut cake

Our bill came to £48, which is excellent value, considering we had two small plates, two large plates, one side, two desserts, our drinks and coffee.

This is relaxed casual dining as it should be – fun, down to earth with no formalities.  I think Il Pirata have really nailed the current mood for dining out and I can see them gaining a loyal following very quickly.  It’s an extremely good indicator of the blossoming condition of Belfast’s dining scene when a restaurant of Il Pirata’s pedigree opens up in the burbs.  Belfast has never had it so good!

Man the rigs, hoist the main sail!  Move you lubbers and get down to Il Pirata! Yo ho mee heartys! Yo ho!

Il Pirata

279-281 Upper Newtownards Road – no reservations

Follow on twitter @ilpirata


Bar and grill means steak!

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!

Local Hilden brews

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.

Prawn cocktail

Crab on toast

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!

Rib eye with Bearnaise sauce

Fillet with red wine butter

Rare and bloody

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.

Bread and butter pudding

Sticky toffee pudding

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

BT2 7GA

T: 028 95600700