New restaurants have been opening in Belfast in the face of appalling economic and social conditions imposed by the pandemic. Stove on the Ormeau Road, Yugo in Ballyhackamore and now Ginza Kitchen on the Lisburn Road are signs of defiance by the restaurant trade and a mark of confidence in the future. There is nothing more reassuring than to see sensible people invest in something perceived as risky at the best of times, never mind during Covid.
And even more reassuring is the presence of Ben Tsang, one of the city's most polished and able restaurant managers, who has popped up in Ginza a few doors down from French Village where he established it as one of the Lisburn Road's best lunch houses.
Ben has form so for Ginza to appoint him to front of house and chef Chee Keong Lau formerly of Dublin's Zakura in the kitchen shows they mean business.
Ginza Kitchen is a sushi, ramen, teriyaki and fried noodle restaurant in what was formerly the Porterhouse steak joint. Intimate and sensitively (and effectively) sectioned with screens, the restaurant's basement is particularly atmospheric housing two large eight-seater booths done up in full modern, minimalist Japanese style. Large, dramatic murals add to the charm and sense of excitement.
Today, two of us are by the front window overlooking the street on the ground floor. It's cosy and staff are quick to bring the vitals. The menu could be daunting for older folk. Younger ones who will go to Ginza with a firm idea of what they want, will head straight to the relevant sections of the menu. Struck by my usual inability to decide, I've asked Ben to bring us his headliners. And there soon begins a sequence of dishes, most of them topflight, which prompts a desire to stay the rest of the afternoon with a couple of bottles of chilled Viognier. But we are responsible adults and there are meetings to attend later so we dive in quickly.
Pork gyoza open the proceedings and their crispy, slippery shells reveal a little umami festival of flavours within. The tempura sushi roll sounds innovative and featuring tuna and salmon; when you dip these in tempura and deep fry for a few seconds you end up with a Japanese version of the controversial cronut. The cronut caused as much sensation as derision about four years ago because it was a cross between a croissant and a doughnut and the purists took huge offence and said it was Frankenstein food. Well, the tempura sushi roll may cause similar outrage only that it is too good not to love. The consistency of the rice is maintained, the delicate flavours of the tuna and salmon are heightened by contact with the heat and the delicate crunch of the tempura provides that third texture.
And the dishes keep coming, including a "stairway to heaven" - a tiny little wooden staircase on which each step bears a selection of sushi nigiri including raw salmon, tuna, octopus, eel, shrimp and others. Some might find the staircase thing a bit naff but I love the tiny display and the sense of occasion and delight it generates.
There follows more, bigger food in the form of a vast bowl of seafood ramen and a plate of teriyaki soba. By now we are both floored by the volume of in-take but the show must go on and I dip an elegant wooden spoon into the broth and uncover the perfect antidote to a full stomach. Like a chicken noodle soup to a cold, the ramen broth immediately reignites the appetite. It is rich in flavour and light in textures with the wholesome appearance of bright green pok choi leaves artfully tucked into one side of the bowl while a generous count of marinated shrimp and tempura hake fillets add bite.
It's fair to say that Ginza Kitchen makes the best sushi in Belfast. It's freshly made for each order. It's also well managed and with a front of house team to match the best there is.
Tempura sushi roll £9.90
Sushi selection £22.80
Seafood Ramen £14.80
Yaki soba £13.80
Glass Saladini white wine £6