I've never been massively fond of Belfast as a city.
I think it stems back from going there shopping with family as a young teenager, seeing soldiers everywhere, walking around with a sense of unease, and on one occasion hearing bombs going off in the distance.
More recently, though, I've made the annual pilgrimage to the queue outside the Apple store for the latest phone at 4am on cold wet mornings. Add in multiple trips in the last two years to visit very sick relatives in hospital, and it's safe to say that I seldom step into this city with much of a pep in my step.
But always willing to be proven wrong, and as part of my new mission to find you one incredible place to eat in every Irish city (like I did for Galway), I ventured up to James Street South – right in the very heart of Belfast.
That's not just because it feels like it's in a different country (and I suppose it is – but let's not go down that route!). It's also because its fraught past means it's only really catching up with the rest of the world now, as it's had some other shit to deal with over the past couple of decades.
And while little gems like Established Coffee, Boojum and Deane's are starting to challenge that perception, by being as good at what they do as anywhere in the world, it's definitely fair to say the food scene up there lacks quite a bit of depth.
Amid that expectation, stepping into James Street South is like entering another world. It's one of those dining rooms that has a serious buzz, energy and vigour about it despite being a fine-dining restaurant – and that sort of buzz can only come from people having an extremely good time, drinking fine wines and eating great food.
I didn't waste much time flicking through the menu because as soon as I saw the tasting selection it ticked every single box I could ever have wished for. FOMO banished, and you know you're just getting the best of the best.
My Iberico ham, melon and truffle was a wonderful dish.
I did worry that the truffle would overpower the light melon but it worked a treat. I could have eaten the whole thing with one spoonful it was that good, but I pretended to be civilised and dragged it out licking my lips with every forkful. Being an adult sucks sometimes.
Next up was turbot with kelp linguine.
Now, ask most chefs and they'll tell you turbot is the king of fish. The one they like cooking most and the one they respect most as an ingredient.
On the flipside it's incredibly easy to overcook, and can quickly turn from tender meaty flesh into a dry bag of withered up shite if you're not careful. Luckily, though, the chefs in here are as good as they get and they cooked it to absolute perfection. The cooked it so well that it probably left the kitchen about 20% undercooked, because when it arrived to the table it was 5% under (stuff keeps cooking even after you remove it from the heat).
That sort of stuff doesn't happen by accident and it is cooking technique of the very highest order.
To be honest I knew the food would be amazing in here as soon as I walked in the door for the first time. Looking into the kitchen seeing chefs in pristine whites, working on equipment that was beautifully looked after, tells you all you need to know.
Talking to the chef afterwards, he explained they'd started a cooking school and were even bringing on their own apprentices through for four years at a time to train up the next generation. This dedication to quality and focusing on the long term screams out of every square inch of this restaurant – in a world of pop-ups, franchises and quick bucks, these guys are here for the long run. And it shows.
So it was no surprise that my lamb dish – served up on a couple of plates – was as pretty as a Monet painting, cooked with the same sort of precision as the rest of the meal, and fucking delicious.
Instead of the cheese board I was offered a small warm cheese plate, and although typically served as a starter it worked as a cheese course. That said, I was starting to fill up at this stage and struggle with the portion sizes.
Indeed, coming from the countryside in the North I know what locals can be like with demanding huge portions – and that's reflected in the sizes here, which are bigger than your average fine-dining restaurant but not too big to put you off.
I did, however, notice ample side dishes of the famous local champ going out to tables; a nice compromise, extra earner and nod to the local roots right there.
As I sat there eating my strawberries (they could have been sweeter but the rest of dish was top notch) I marvelled at how far Belfast has come along – and listened in to the Italians at a table beside me, in town to see the Titanic Museum, marvel about how surprised they were at the food.
Unfortunately for them it was their first night in the North, and little did they know things would probably be all downhill from there on. After all, the simple reality is that there's still a lot of shite food up here, but it is getting so much better.
Places like James Street South are raising the bar and setting expectations way higher than they used to be.
You could slot this place into any city in the world and it would be a rip roaring success. The fact that it is in Belfast, they are supporting local chefs and kicking the food scene on will make it all the sweeter for them. If you do visit Belfast this is the one place you should be eating.
The View From Others
I'm only one person eating here on one particular night. As we all know restaurants can be good and bad depending on the day so to add a little balance here are some reviews from others who have eaten here..