John McKenna enjoys the shifting plates as Belfast's James Street South changes livery and style.
Niall McKenna could sit back. But he won't. Over the last decade he has become the most successful and visible of modern Norn Iron restaurateurs, but the cooking in the new, ultra-lean James Street South shows someone still pushing at the envelope, still hungry to try something new. The envelope he is pushing now is one where he moves an up-market, established restaurant into Third Plate territory, a place where animal proteins play second fiddle to gnocchi, or carrots, or beetroot or beans.
Whilst it's true that there are still classic repertoire ingredients here - lobster, halibut, foie gras, guinea fowl, sole, fillet of beef - McKenna has moved the focus away from them and turned it in the direction of the rest of the elements of the plate- the broccoli with the stuffed sole; the golden beets with the gnocchi; the lasagne with Portavogie crab meat. He is following an international trend towards democratising a dinner plate - no one element dominates, and harmony, in terms of tastes, textures and colours is what he is after. He will serve a plate of madeleines, all on their own, with a good shake of sugar and not a damn thing else.
So, does he manage to do a Renoir, and give us colourful, sympathetic colour fields of food that are light and invigorating? Yes, he does, and he uses clever bullet points of colour and contrast to get himself there - a tarragon vinegar caramel with coffee-roasted Comber carrots; a bright green pool of oyster and cucumber sauce with stuffed sole; a lovely brown crab bisque with the crab lasagne.
James Street South offers cooking that is as clean as the design of the room: light, precise and defined. And yet, it's firmly in the tradition extending back of Roscoff in the early 1990s in its conscious desire to lighten and refocus restaurant food. Mr McKenna is learning from his international contemporaries, but he's also gone back into his own pages from the past.