This article was also published in the Financial Times.
'My first wife was second cook in a third-rate restaurant on Fourth Street' has been my favourite line from the movies since I first heard it spoken by the actor William Bendix in the film The Glass Key
made in 1942. I thought of it again after an unusual invitation led to an exceptional dinner.
It came from a Chinese friend in Hong Kong. Would I like to join her for a Japanese 'kaiseki' dinner, the multi-course meal that has to conform to certain fixed rules, at Shiori restaurant in Moscow Road in Bayswater, West London? The elements seemed so incongruous, I readily accepted.
The first surprise is Shiori's location. Mansion blocks, shops (the Athenian Grocery is somewhat incongruously opposite the Byzantium café) and pubs occupy most of Moscow Road, so the uncluttered window of number 45 does seem out of place.
The trough of grey stones and a small tree on the inside are the closest the owners, Takashi and Hitomi Takagi, can get to establishing a view of a garden that is a key part of the kaizeki experience. In the bottom-left-hand corner, the small sign 'Advance Bookings Only' is a testament to the owners' commitment to maintaining the stringent demands of a kaiseiki service so far from Japan.
This approach is reinforced once inside. Shiori is tiny, a mere 500 sq ft, and seats only 16. To ensure that Takashi can maintain the same standards all evening (particularly the crucial timing of the rice cooking), half the reservations are taken for 6.30/7 pm, the other half for 8/8.30 pm.
As I waited for my guest, I watched Takashi in action, puffing out his cheeks in silent exertion, reaching for the trays of dishes he had prepared during the day and, once complete, handing them over for his wife to serve. Then I peeped into the small envelope in front of me that contained that night's menu.
On the outside was the symbol for sakura, the cherry blossom that is about to flower across Japan, and inside was a list of the dishes that followed the ritual of the kaizeki meal. The rules dictate that the sashimi must follow a soup course; that the meal must draw to a close with another soup; that great emphasis is put not just on the seasonality of the ingredients but also on the style and elegance of every dish's presentation. All the food at Shiori is served, Hitomi proudly told me, on elegant Imari pottery made in Atari, Japan.
The eight dishes on the £75 menu were exemplary for very different reasons. I enjoyed the contrast of the herring roe with eel alongside my first taste of very small Japanese mountain potatoes. The thick, white miso soup with taro was nourishing. The hotpot of cod and vegetables and a bowl of comforting crab with rice and pickles really brought out the flavours of the sea. And the clear soup with mushrooms and seaweed was a wonderfully refreshing prelude to a scoop of precisely churned green-tea ice cream.
But two dishes in particular highlighted the Takagis' expertise, their collective experience, and explained their arrival in Moscow Road.
Salmon and sea bass Hakata were layers of these two fish interlaced with seaweed whose flavours were accentuated by being pressed in a wooden box for a day alongside the thinnest slice of sudachi, a citrus fruit that is a close relative of the better known yuzu. This was preceded by a plate of the finest sashimi I have eaten outside Japan that comprised Spanish tuna, Cornish mackerel, yellowtail and scallop from Japan and Canadian snow crab. Added to the pleasure of all of this was the knowledgeable, friendly service from Hitomi, who, having undertaken a sake course in Japan, is also highly knowledgeable in this field.
When I returned during the day the following week, Takagi was preparing a large pollock for that night's hot pot. With his father a renowned chef, he had undergone several years of the rigorous training required to reach the kaiseki uplands in Japan before moving to London in 1999, where he met Hitomi, then an English student.
They returned to Japan but the demands there on a chef, she came to appreciate, left no time for them to be together. 'He was exhausted and I was fed up', she explained. So they came back to London where he spent six years cooking at Umu, Mayfair. They then opened Sushi of Shiori, a takeaway with eight counter seats near Euston station, which confirmed their belief that the appreciation of top-quality Japanese cooking has developed so widely that they could aim for the very highest.
In establishing their new professional home, Hitomi has played a critical role. She found the site that, as it most unusually came without a premium, was within their limited budget. She designed the simple, elegant interior (pictured above on their website) and she imbues their restaurant with her warmth.
As we talked, I became aware of one very distinctive aspect of this husband-and-wife team and the professional way of life they have chosen to follow. It is obviously highly demanding to be married to a kaiseki chef who is driven every day to excel at a style of cooking whose rules of engagement were set down centuries ago in a country thousands of miles from Shiori's tiny kitchen. Having spoken to a customer reconfirming their booking for that night and checking that there were no dietary requirements, Hitomi sat down and confessed, 'I am happy now because I know my husband is happy.'
45 Moscow Road, London W2 4AH; tel +44 (0)207221 9790