james street south

Opened by Niall and Joanne McKenna in an old linen mill close to ten years ago, James Street South Restaurant was at the forefront of marrying the best of Irish ingredients with classical French cooking methods and seasonal menus. My return found smartly renovated interiors and a menu which reminded me of just how far ahead of the curve the McKennas really were. Local smoked eel? Pork cheeks? Razor clams? It’s good to discover the city has caught up – and that a restaurant like this can not only thrive, but set the agenda, too.

 

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boom times

Look up: the city center is chokablok with one impeccable turn-of-the-century building next to another. It’s a testament to the early 20th century, when Belfast was enjoying boom times altogether different from those for which the city would later became, shall we say, infamous.

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st. george’s market

Stop me if I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but I can’t get over how things have changed. Today it’s St. George’s in central Belfast, where a Friday market has stood in one guise or another since 1604. I last wandered the late 19th-century red-brick structure maybe seven or eight years ago and was underwhelmed. The farm-to-table movement had yet to take firm root in Northern Ireland, so while the steel and glass interiors stood out as a well-preserved reminder of the great Age of Empire, the handful of sorry vegetable stalls and assorted tat sellers inside seemed remarkably out of time and place. What a difference a decade makes. Following a £4.5m refurbishment the market has become one of the most vibrant and colorful destinations this city has to offer. A raft of local producers trade in everything from Armagh beef, award-winning farmhouse cheeses, free range eggs from Limavady, venison, pheasant in season and organic vegetables from Culdrum and Millbrook Farms. The fish section alone contains 23 stalls and holds the reputation for being the leading retail fish market in Ireland. Plus, there’s live jazz and dozens of lunch options from freshly filled baps – the Belfast Bap is a floury sandwich roll and a source of local pride – and traditional French crepes to vegan Chana Masala and classic panini-style Cubans of roast pork, ham, and gherkins – dripping with swiss cheese. Dare I say this famously hermetic city seems to currently enjoy being just a bit worldly-wise?

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