How this sumptuous Belfast restaurant turns cooking into a delicious spectacle
I am ashamed. Deeply ashamed. Today's review had been pre-planned. In fact, it was almost as good as written in my head before I sat down at Belfast's riverside Harbour View Japanese Teppanyaki bar to have my lunch.
I had been there some years earlier and had failed to be impressed. Today I was ready with the smart-arse sneering one-liners and nose-pinching insults, anticipating the pungent clouds of steam and smoke rising from the mackerel on the hot griddle as the teppanyaki chef flipped it over and over to cook it through.
(The problem is not the smell of sizzling oily fish itself, which is mouth-watering and appetising. No, the problem is how it penetrates every fibre of your clothes and turns you into a pariah back at the office. Unless you have a change of clothing, stay away, I thought.)
And, anyway, how could anyone charge almost £13 for a side of one of the cheapest fish on the market today, I was going to interrogate oh so cleverly?
But I hang my head because while the £13 mackerel is still on the menu (beside the lobster at £23), there is also something called a business lunch menu that is £9.95 and turns out to be one of the greatest bargains as well as one of the best quality meals available in all Belfast.
Honestly, if you are from out of town and don't know the Harbour View, you can't really come close to the quality/price ratio offered here anywhere else.
First things first. The sumptuous decor is five-star Chinese. Even an untrained numpty like me can tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese interiors and this is definitely not Tokyo.
The interior is luxurious in that far eastern manner that involves deep armchairs upholstered in gold and red and containerloads of dark polished wood.
Waitresses stand to attention like ocean liner crew members in starched white jackets and black trousers and the whole place is lit by ceiling-to-floor windows and a vast, ornate chandelier.
If you move in your armchair to reach for a phone in your pocket, a waitress will appear quietly and immediately beside you to ask you if you need assistance. This is not oppressive attention. Rather, it's an expression of zealousness and determination to be of use and help.
The armchairs surround tables on a half-acre area of the huge restaurant that overlooks the Lagan. It's a pleasant and relaxing place and if you squint your eyes, take a deep breath, drop a double vodka and concentrate very hard, you can convince yourself that you are in fact sitting on the banks of the Huangu River in Shanghai. Almost. And then the waitress comes over with the menus and you land back in Belfast with a bump.
The two-course business lunch offers a choice of three starters, including a salad, miso soup or maki rolls. Familiar with the first two, I went for the Maki rolls that are a poor man's sushi. We were guided to a semi-circular bar centred on the teppan, the iron griddle that is the altar on which all is cooked: meat, fish, vegetables, garlic, rice anything really punctuated with occasional outbursts of ceiling-licking, smoke-alarm-triggering and flames. The teppanyaki chef does his stuff right in front of you.
The maki rolls were ready and waiting when I sat down with my companion Chris, who was no more well versed in this style of cooking than I was. We could also see the raw steak and seabass fillet we had ordered looking fresh and ready on two dishes close to where the chef would be.
Lots of waitresses stood at a slight distance watching us largely because there was nothing else to do and nobody else to serve this Thursday lunchtime. But there was no sign of the chef.
The maki rolls were made up of courgettes wrapped in a roll of sticky vinegared rice with a little coating of salmon eggs. They came with dipping sauces including soya and wasabi. They were fine textured and, I always find this even with mediocre sushi, a very satisfying and chewy mouthful.
I was beginning to approach the end of the starter and was in a bit of a hurry to get back to the office when suddenly, genie-like, there was the chef standing before us politely saying hello and asking if everything was alright?
Within minutes the quiet, smiling and supremely agile chef had cooked mushrooms, courgettes, a small hillock of finely chopped garlic, a steak that was cut into perfectly symmetrical centimetre cubes, a seabass fillet, fried rice and a mix of fresh greens, all on the one piece of hot iron without so much as a whiff of burned oily fish. This was a jaw-dropping performance (which included a really cool trick involving a fresh egg and a fish slice — you'll have to go for yourself: just make sure you ask for the fried rice).
But then when it came to eating the fruits of this man's culinary gymnastics, it all turned out to be excellent food, too. I was frankly stunned by what should have been a well-rehearsed and hardly surprising and tired old teppanyaki routine, but I was like a five year old, all wide-eyed and admiring.
If you're tired of teppanyaki, you're tired of life. If you are feeling a bit low and depressed, believe me, deliver yourself into the hands of these Harbour View people. They'll creep up on you with smiles and kindly service and give you the kind of surprise which puts a spring in your step for days afterwards.
Teppanyaki business lunch X 2: £19.90
Tsingtao beers X 3: £9.60