Restaurant review: We take a big bite from 3 Levels
31 University Road. Belfast. Tel: 02890 914267
A former bank branch then a Thai restaurant, 31 University Road is now occupied by a Chinese restaurant. And a Japanese one. Soon there will be a European one too. This is why the owners call the place Three Levels. They are the owners of nearby popular China China and everyone was pleased to see the site of the former Bo Tree Thai, shut down for three years, re-open as a restaurant.
But if this experience is anything to go by they should have called it the Three Levels of Purgatory.
Problems began at the beginning before I had even finished making the phone booking. Having requested a table for three I was asked if I wanted to eat Japanese or Chinese. It’s like being asked if you’d like beef or salmon three months before you’re due to eat. I hadn’t realised that it was not like Zen in Adelaide Street where Korean, Japanese, Chinese all appear on the same menu; you don’t have to go to an allocated part of the restaurant for geographical or cultural distinction. So I booked Japanese.
In through the familiar front door the three of us noticed the layout was the same as before. We walked through soon-to-be Europe on the ground floor up the stairs to the next level, China, and on to the top floor where there were two teppanyaki stations each surrounded by eight chairs.
Teppanyaki is the vaudeville act of the food world. It is Sunday Night at the London Palladium with your host Hughie Green. It is crash bang Norman Wisdom. It can be brilliantly entertaining or, more usually, poor, tasteless and a bit embarrassing, the concept of some moth-eaten culinary impresario who still thinks it’s a good idea to microwave the red wine to room temperature, have tight-rope walking monkeys and singing chefs with flour on their noses.
But the greatest crime committed by teppanyaki is its locked down inescapability. Once you’re in the chair there is no avoiding the strangers who sit with you, or the chef who is inches away conducting his pyrotechnics.
There is no degree of drunkenness, drug-induced hunger, or any low or high point in your life in which teppanyaki is a good idea. It is the bonfire of pretend exotic fanciness where perfectly good food is sacrificed to make way for a moment of heat, light and then nothing.
And so it was with 3 Levels. A series of flaming juggling acts by chef Gene Ursal eventually resulted in a mound of fried rice in which the chopped onions had been slightly burnt, enough to send an acrid flavour throughout, followed by chicken, Canadian scallops (yep) and shelled tiger prawns which were put through the torture of the griddle. They all tasted the same, ie, of nothing.
Nothing had been marinated, no visible seasoning had been used and the only attempt at creating some flavour involved a custardy looking liquid squeezed from a plastic bottle over the griddling chicken breast, scallops and prawns. Chef Ursal said this was garlic cream but I detected no such flavour.
Which is a dreadful shame because the same chef’s preceding maki rolls and sashimi were excellent. Simple use of good quality salmon and tuna, seabass and crab roe on beds of firm, sticky rice which had taste and texture aplenty provided us with something memorable. The maki roll is a splendid thing if you order enough for three as it comes in one long, elegantly crescented loaf.
Service is pretty good too with fast action from servers nervously keen to please.
The problem here is not that I loathe teppanyaki — I know what a good one tastes like — it’s the fact that the entire experience is down to the visuals.
There is a restaurateur in this city who once hosted a banquet which featured ice sculptures of swans, tomatoes van dyke and great platters of poached salmon with cucumber ring scales. He said to me: “See. That’s what matters. It’s all in the visuals.” I nodded in disbelief but I can see that that same belief is what keeps this version of the teppanyaki alive and well.
By all means go to the 3 Levels and order the maki roll and the dumplings. But under no circumstances must you approach those teppanyaki stations.
Mali roll £11.95
Tiger prawn teppanyaki £16.95
Scallop teppanyaki £18.95
Chicken teppanyaki £15.95