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William Sitwell reviews James St, Belfast: 'The third member of staff is as welcome as a glass of water in a desert'

James St, Belfast
A stranger walks into a Belfast bar and grill, and enjoys a mighty fine meal… eventually Credit: Donal McCann

Imagine the scene. A man is a stranger to a city. Nothing is familiar to him. Every avenue, road and brick is alien. But he seeks refuge in a hostelry that comes recommended. It’s called James St and is in the centre of Belfast. Thirsty and hungry from travelling he walks into the bar and grill; red brick walls and a splash of blowsy modern art here and there.

A girl, possibly early 20s, ascertains that he has a booking, but can’t bring herself to operate the muscles in her neck so that she can make eye contact. The stranger has a table for two (he had discovered that the father of a friend is a local), and he’s the first to arrive. There’s a bustling bar at one side of the restaurant, but the girl doesn’t offer this as an option, and takes him to a table.

‘Would you like some water?’ she asks as he sits. The stranger replies in the affirmative and the girl leaves.

Ten minutes later and there is no water and no further offer of a drink. The stranger sees the girl chatting with a colleague by the till and waves to attract their attention. The girl spots this and appears to suggest to her colleague that he deal with this irritation. So he comes to the table. ‘Can I order some wine?’ asks the stranger.

‘You don’t have a wine list?’ the waiter asks in response.

‘I don’t,’ the stranger replies. ‘And may I please have some water?’

Water comes. And, having ordered some French chardonnay, he gulps down a glass in an exhausted haze. Sensing that it’s a little un-French and metallic he examines the bottle, and sees it’s Chilean. He beckons the waiter, explains his dilemma, and then says that having looked at the list again he would now please like to try the French viognier.

The waiter repairs to the till where the girl is, and says something like, ‘The pillock at table six wants a different wine.’

She then – and this is a first for her – manages to cast an eye over to the stranger and says: ‘Honestly, some days I wonder why I even bother to leave the house.’ (OK, so the man has no idea what she is saying, but he’s not feeling the love.) With a shrug of her shoulders she acquiesces to his unbelievably tiresome demand and he gets the viognier.

At which point the stranger’s dining companion arrives and, now no longer alone, his evening begins to improve. And yes, dearest reader, that stranger is me. A Brit in the city of ships and sectarianism, of walls and now, one prays, of enduring peace and progress.

When we come to order there is a transformation in that we have the third member of waiting staff for the evening. And thank God for this one. For he is as welcome as a tall glass of chilled water in a desert.

‘May I guess, from your accents, that you gents are not from our fine city, but may I say how welcome you are to it,’ he says with a flourish. And I sincerely believe his sentiment. He guesses right about me of course, although my new pal has confused him because, in spite of his posh English voice, he and his family are about as ancient in these parts as Belfast’s Cave Hill.

Our waiter describes dishes on the menu with grace and originality. The pork dish is, he says, ‘a pig version of myself’. He is ginger in appearance and is referring to the rare Oxford Sandy.

As the food arrives, the start of the night recedes into a distant memory. My Dundrum crab and chilli linguine is silky, comforting and creamy. If the dish were a soft, warm duvet, the chilli is a breath of invigorating night air; perfectly balanced.

Dundrum crab and chilli linguine at James St Credit: Donal McCann

Then comes our nice waiter in pork form. There are three different cuts, each of which is chunky, and the flesh is more steak pink than porcine white; the sign of a proper rare breed. It is fantastic meat. The sort that threatens to turn you into a pork snob. ‘Do you have any Oxford Sandy?’ I should ask when next at the butcher’s, gazing at the chops.

The pork comes with deliciously rich kale and it all sits on a bed of blended carrot, which I don’t like in principle, but on the example of this – sweet and tangy – am having to reassess.

Braised beef with bone marrow Credit: Donal McCann

Meanwhile opposite me a dish of crab on toast (which is actually under melba toast) and then braised beef on artichokes next to a piece of bone marrow is going down with reassuringly positive noises, the beef as rich and tasty as it looks simple.

The night ends happily. But, sigh, what a terrible beginning.