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Slow & Steady wins the race

Itamae Sky shows his stuff in Myers Park

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Naming a restaurant is an important consideration for restaurateurs. The name is the first step in brand positioning and, if done correctly, will determine the market -- and the competition. For Asian entrepreneurs, a restaurant name goes a step further, since naming imbues a personality. So it was when restaurateurs and co-owners John Chen and Patricia Pang named Ginbu 401 Chinese Sushi Bar, which opened in August 2006.

In Chinese, Japanese, and Korean mythology and stellar cartography, Ginbu (also Genbu) is a black tortoise and the celestial animal of the North (winter), representing wisdom and longevity. In fact, Ginbu's shell is supposed to be the vault of the universe. Universal wisdom and longevity are fairly lofty ideas for one small restaurant to achieve.

Ginbu is only a 47-seat establishment in a building that most recently housed a bagel shop. The interior is bare bones; in fact, when they first opened, the utensils and plates were plastic and the cups were Styrofoam. Pang noted that many customers complained about being served on plastic since Ginbu is, after all, located in Myers Park -- the quintessential high-rent district of Charlotte. The owners' original idea had been to open an express Japanese shop, but Pang said, "We realized that people expected more than an express. This is a nice neighborhood with the old money."

Pang, a native of Hong Kong with a degree in restaurant and hotel management from Penn State, put her knowledge to work and slowly Ginbu is morphing into a small neighborhood restaurant with china and service. But for now, the room still feels like you're dining in a convenience store.

What is the most notable aspect of Ginbu is the talent of the sushi chef, Itamae Sky. Sushi "chefs" are becoming as common about town as brick houses. Not many, though, have gone through the rigorous eight-year training offered in Japan. Here in the states, sushi chefs, like bartenders, often learn on the job. But once the skill set is mastered, the difference lies in creativity. Sky, who is a native Chinese, came to Charlotte from Manhattan where he worked as a sushi chef for 10 years.

Sushi comes in a great range. The high end is master chef Masayoshi Takayama's Masa in New York's Time Warner center, which will cost you about $1,000 for two but will get you the most pristine, brilliantly paired morsels. The low end is the pickup pack at the grocery store. Most sushi falls somewhat nearer the low end than the high end mainly because most Americans are not willing to fork over a lot of money for Nicole Ritchie-sized specks of food -- no matter how pure and spectacular the ingredients.

To that end Ginbu has not positioned itself to be on the high end of the sushi spectrum. On the menu you'll find the usual suspects: maguro, unagi, hamachi, crab stick. The rolls have that same-old same-old feeling: California, firecracker, spider. So the surprise comes when the rolls are delivered and you notice how stylized they are. Then you taste them and the freshness blows you away. You won't find the whisper of wasabi on the nigiri rice pillow, but you will find cream cheese among the maki selection. Ginbu offers America-friendly sushi with the added touch of quail eggs.

This kind of sushi works well if you just want to grab some sushi to go or sit with a mate. You also don't need to worry about kids submerging themselves in the dining well of a tatami room. Ginbu is all about bare table tops and young, inexperienced servers -- kept mindful under Pang's watchful eye.

Sky's signature roll is shrimp, salmon, and tuna flecked with seaweed, which snakes along the plate. For height, Sky adds a spider roll with the smart contrast of cucumber and lettuce against the flayed legs and body of a fried soft shell crab. The nigiri radiates the sweet salty taste of the ocean so effectively that you find yourself looking back at the sushi menu to order more. Then you find you can't finish the eel hand roll, surprisingly simple, but delicious.

Ginbu's dining room doesn't have the fizzes and pops of a raucous sushi house or the shoji screens of a more tranquil Japanese restaurant. Nor can you belly up to the sushi bar and sit there. But beyond the uncushioned, no-nonsense seating and the take-out accouterments is savvy economical food.

Ginbu also has a collection of Asian entrees: teriyaki, kung po, sweet and sour, Mongolian and Szechuan. Pad Thai and Singapore noodles are also offered at both lunch and dinner. Entrées range from $8 to $10. Lunch prices range from lo mein chicken ($5.50) to a two-meat teriyaki combo ($8).

Ginbu 401 is not co-owner's Chen only restaurant in town. He has quite a few under his belt. But this is Pang's first restaurant and she said they will continue to create a better environment for Myers Parkers and others who live around MP to appreciate and want to be seen in. Ginbu's quality and the creativity with sushi are already there at affordable prices. We're just waiting for the glassware.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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