It’s not just me who writes for Business Life every month (see Red, white and definitely green), Nick writes for this BA inflight magazine at even greater length, Here’s his article for November.
London’s restaurants, perhaps more than those in any in other European capital, are distinguished by their ethnic diversity. As waves of immigrants have arrived over the past 50 years their indigenous restaurants have emerged in their wake: from across the Indian sub-continent; from China, Malaysia and Vietnam and, more recently, from Lebanon, Africa and Australia.
One other country has however contributed an enormous amount to the changing face of gastronomic London for over 25 years but tends to get overlooked perhaps because of their innate, native modesty. This is the highly creative, healthy and particular cooking style of Japan.
While the more headline-grabbing operations such as Yo! Sushi, Itsu and Mosho Moshi have converted so many younger eaters to the pleasure of eating sushi, raw fish with rice, because their conveyer-belt operations are simply such fun to sit at, the origins of their predecessors, the more conservative and expensive Japanese restaurants, are more deeply-rooted. These began to emerge at the end of the early 1970’s and early 1980’s as Japanese banks and financial institutions began to open branches in London.
One of the distinguishing features of these openings – other than the fact these restaurants used to be the highly discreet places so favoured by Japanese businessmen of that era – was their geographical footprint. While a number were, and some such as Miyama in Clarges Street off Piccadilly still are, in the plush St James’s neighbourhood, the initial Japanese restaurants used to hug the Northern Line, from north London where most Japanese first settled with their families to the City where most of the men then worked. Two long term survivors from this period include Sushi-Say in Willesden, still one of the very best places for sushi in my opinion, and Jin Kichi on Heath Street, Hampstead, both in north London.
Over the past decade Japanese restaurants have not only spread across the whole of London but also across the entire price spectrum. The best, freshest sushi and sashimi will always be expensive and will certainly become increasingly so as world-wide demand increases for increasingly rare top quality fish such as tuna, turbot, sea bass and prawns - although I enjoy just as much what top sushi chefs can do with less expensive mackerel, eel and octopus. But not only has the conveyor belt technology kept prices down but so too has the exceptional compactness of the Japanese kitchen.
In contrast to European restaurants the kitchen in a Japanese restaurant takes up very little space. There is no need for massive storage space for bulky boxes of tomatoes, onions and vegetables because there are very few stocks or sauces to be prepared every morning. Nor is there any need for a vast cooking area as there are no main course dishes as such. The sushi counter cleverly even shares the same space as the kitchen’s main preparation area.
I find it particularly exciting to sit at the sushi counter at either branch of Nobu (the original in the Metropolitan Hotel or the newer, more glamorous outpost on Berkeley Street), Zuma in Knightsbridge or its less expensive sibling Roka in Charlotte Street or, my particular favourite for a working lunch, Sakana-Tei on Maddox Street near Oxford Circus. This is because they allow me the opportunity to combine eating and talking with learning how to prepare fish better by watching a sushi chef work his magic. This clever method of bringing the customer face to face with the chefs has not been lost on top French chef Joel Robuchon who uses the equivalent of a sushi counter in his Atelier du Robuchon restaurants now flourishing in Paris, London, New York and Las Vegas.
One new restaurant that has managed to encompass all of these characteristics is Sushi Hiroba which opened just south of High Holborn tube station last summer. The centre of the restaurant is taken up with a large conveyor belt as instigated by Yo! Sushi but the presence of only Japanese chefs and waiting staff reinforced the authenticity of this particular restaurant. So too did the table of five Japanese businessmen sitting in the corner who, after they had finished their meal, bowed to all the waiting staff and one or two Japanese businessmen they recognised before heading downstairs for some more drinks.
Lunch here highlighted many of the qualities of Japanese food. The food was very fresh, light and, because you help yourself to most of the dishes, immediate - with even the numerous dishes that are better served hot, such as the tempura, dumplings and chicken curry taking no more than five minutes. And at £15 per person it’s very good value, too.
My final and perhaps most memorable recommendation for exceptional Japanese food is not surprisingly also the most expensive. In Bruton Place, a quiet mews just off Bond Street, Mayfair, restaurateur Marlon Abela and his hugely talented chef, Ichiro Kubota, have created Umu to replicate the cooking style of Kyoto, the Japanese city considered to have the highest culinary standards. The evening ‘kaiseki’ or set menus range from £60 upwards (most of the lunch set menus are between £22-£35) but as in so much of eating Japanese food there is far more to experience than just the food on the plate.
CHEF OF THE MONTH. Marc Haeberlin, Auberge de l’Ill, 2 rue de Collognes, Illhaeusern, Alsace, France, 03.89.71.89.00. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Marc Haeberlin is not so much the chef/proprietor of this highly-revered Alsace restaurant as the keeper of a tradition of cooking that goes back to his great grand-mother in the late 19th century. Many still flock here for its traditional dishes, most notably the terrine of foie gras with truffles, a mousse of frogs’ legs and the ultra-rich salmon soufflé although Haeberlin is continually creating new dishes. In winter the game dishes are unmissable, as is the restaurant’s renowned wine cellar any time of the year, supervised with aplomb by Serge Dubs, one of the world’s most respected sommeliers.