Belfast has its own tiny Chinatown in the western end of Donegall Pass. It has been home to some great Chinese restaurants, including the legendary and much-missed Sun Kee.
Paul Rankin famously and frequently went there to let his hair down after an exhausting all-day Saturday shift in Roscoff, thereby starting a tradition of work-hard-play-harder after hours fun for chefs from all corners of the city. The Sun Kee would oblige, often until dawn.
That was 30 years ago. Things have got a little less rock ’n’ roll and more neat ’n’ tidy in Donegall Pass since then. Now we have bright modern shops like Lee Foods Supermarket and E Kou Xian, small boutiques such as Spicy World and Kam Yuan Chinese Bakery, and restaurants including the Steamboat, Same Happy, and Kamakura.
Kamakura is Japanese and serves sushi and ramen (and pages and pages of other Japanese dishes — the menu is a magazine) and boasts one of the most colourful and pop-arty modern interiors in Belfast.
It may present an informal environment, but nothing is left to chance. Service is disciplined and there is an unexpected sense of order in this approach to hospitality. We’re barely at our seats and offers of drinks are immediately made. This is what we want. What we don’t want is to wait a long time on menus and an age before drinks orders are taken. Nor do we want the first course arriving just after you’ve received your cocktails.
The list of sakis, the finer points of which are well explained in the menu oriental beers and wines by the carafe, are acted upon quickly. The soothing impact of a glass in your hand softens the other job of reading the menu pages.
The sakes are a wonder. You can order these as shots or in a carafe. A shot of Dassai 45 arrives in a cute stoneware cup. It is scented, aromatic and musky on the nose and honey-like with an almost gin-kick in the mouth. You should try it.
The adviser and I soon get to grips with the choices of sushi, negiri, bento boxes, skewers, dumplings, bowls of ramen and other temptations. I really want the chicken katsu, but ever since I had a chicken katsu pastie in Greggs, I can’t get past its schnitzel-like features. Instead, I order seabass which is much more grown up, but something I will come to regret.
First, there are prawns in tempura, yaki platters of skewered chicken, tuna, asparagus and prawns and some pork gyoza.The gyoza are rich and intense, chewy and accompanied by a warm soy broth for dipping. The skewers are dainty and the marinated contents are all pleasantly flavoursome, if a bit similar. The prawns in their crispy golden tempura are grand, if lacking much flavour at all.
The adviser’s yaki soba, a classic egg noodle dish with stirfried eggs, chicken, prawns, Japanese pickled vegetables, shallots and sesame seeds, is bursting with flavours, lush and perfectly balanced with crunch and bite in all the right places.
My Suzuki amiyaki gohan — grilled seabass on pakchoi, red onions, beansprouts, mangetout and chillies, further boosted by a teriyaki sauce and accompanied by a bowl of steamed rice, is both disappointing and elevating.
The paradox lies in the seabass which has been grilled to become a solid and unflexing sliver. It’s seriously overdone, but thankfully there’s not much of it. But coming to the rescue is the rest of the dish — its flavours and textures are so layered and varied as to stand up for themselves with no need for the fish at all. A couple of days later, we order a takeaway as we want to see how the ramen with kimchi works out. It’s not Bia Rebel (RIP) or Madame Pho standard, but it’s not far off with huge volumes of freshly-cooked chicken, kimchi, vegetables, noodles and an accompanying pint or more of broth.
We’ll be back for more.
Kimchi chicken ramen £15.80
Grilled seabass £15.80
Yaki Soba £15.60
Yaki platters 4pc £8.00
Dassai 45 shot £11.50