The Japanese are the Germans of the east. Everything they touch turns to technological and cultural brilliance.
Their manufacturing techniques are copied around the world (we will return to the Japanese invention of just-in-time supply chains); their immense belief in the importance of music and the arts has helped shape the economic and social success of both nations; and their collective sense of identity remains unbowed by turbulent histories.
So it’s no wonder that the pursuit of excellence in all fields of activity should influence Japan’s culinary sector (this is where we part company with Germany).
Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than London, Paris and New York put together. This extraordinary tally surely tells us a thing or two about how seriously the Japanese take their food, so it was with some anticipation that I entered the Sakura sushi bar in Belfast’s Botanic Avenue, said by some to be as good as anywhere in London which, I’m afraid, is my starting point as it’s in the Big Smoke that I have enjoyed sushi.
However, as the main attraction is the raw fish, I have brought enlightened and informed reinforcement in the form of John Mulholland the fishmonger.
At first glance, Sakura looks very like the Chinese restaurant that once stood here on the corner of Botanic Avenue and Ireton Street. Even at second glance, it looks and feels like a Chinese and once inside you can see that it is, er, still a bit like a Chinese, except for the low bar in the middle that accommodates the 18ft-long sushi train. It’s dark, that’s why, and not at all like Japanese sushi restaurants, which tend to be eye-loweringly bright and clinical.
John and I sit at the sushi train and start lifting dishes according to the pictogram menu. But the pictures are such poor quality we can’t make out what are the corresponding dishes. Whatever. We lift away and tuck into things we recognise, like shrimp, smoked salmon and octopus. The rice is nicely solid but light, the wasabe just the right side of crazy-hot and the Sapporo beers icy chilled.
But the fish and seafood are neither chilled enough or tasty. The octopus is bland, and the shrimp no better.
We are hungry and keep going nonetheless. A marvellous feature of sushi is its size. For big gobs like mine, one portion is just the right-sized, satisfying mouthful. So we keep lifting from the little train until the server asks us if we’d like something else. I’ve noticed yellow tail and tuna, seabream and salmon roe in the menu but no sign of any of this among the little dishes going up and down the bar on their endless little conveyor belt journey. She explains these are more expensive and are therefore not on the train, which is for cheap bites at £1.80 a hit.
Anxious for fishy flavours and raw textures we immediately order these and soon we are transported to a slightly higher plane. They arrive moments later, having been created on the spot, just in time. The seabream and tuna remain unchilled but have a bit more flavour. The cheaper yellow tail and the salmon roe, however, are the clear winners. Both are full-bodied, salty and briney, as generous in size as they are in taste.
We marvel at these and kick ourselves that we actually went through nearly a dozen of the cheapies before discovering these golden nuggets.
The restaurant itself is unusually full this weekday lunchtime. There are many young couples who are mostly Chinese. I take a peek upstairs and enter a world of Sixties Tokyo. Sliding doors reveal mysteriously serene yet angular spaces; sparse but beautifully proportioned furniture adorns the divided floor and the mood is distinctly temple-like. But I’m only here for the toilets (spotless) and make my way back down the graceful spiral staircase.
I have mixed feelings about Sakura. They do some things well — the service is impeccable and some of the food is really very good. But the mismatching menu and its low-grade pictures, the electric pink crab sticks that haunted me again and again throughout the entire lunchtime by re-appearing every couple of minutes to gouge my eyes out as I checked the sushi train, and the room-temperature rather than chilled fish and seafood are not features that endear the restaurant to me. Nonetheless, I will be back en famille, spending my own money because apart from anything, my kids will just love that wee train.
Sushi plates from train x 10 £18
Tuna sushi £3.80
Yellow tail sushi £3.80
Salmon roe sushi £3.80
Seabream sushi £3.50
Sapporo beers x 4 £11.60