Kikuchi, so good for the skin

A version of this article about a long-standing sushi restaurant in central London is published by the Financial Times.

I believe that over the years I have worked out most of the criteria that are essential for the ideal sushi restaurant.

The location has to be down a dark alley or at least somewhere that is not overly lit. It has to be quite small. The welcome has to be friendly with most of the staff attuned to shouting the traditional Japanese welcome of Irasshaimase as customers walk in.

Ideally, this sushi restaurant will belong to a husband and wife and most of their dialogue will be in Japanese. And, of course, the quality of the fish that will be proudly displayed and served, in addition to the cooked dishes, will be excellent.

Several of these requirements must have been already in place in 1998 when Masayuki Kikuchi first walked down Hanway Street, just north of Tottenham Court Road station in London, although then the location was not quite as prestigious as it is today. 

There was no Primark close by; the Boots on the corner was a pub; and, most crucially, this was a year before Alan Yau was to open Hakkasan round the corner on Hanway Place, an opening that appears to have brought this whole area into the consciousness of London taxi drivers and their customers.

Kikuchi had arrived in London a few years earlier to work as a chef, having trained at the prestigious Azuma-Sushi restaurant on Hokkaido island where he was born. The site, which in Japanese tradition was to take his name, had already been a Japanese restaurant in a couple of different incarnations.

Kikuchi, now 57, has been standing, bowing, and smiling behind his sushi counter ever since. Only a few things have changed. A young waitress called Maiko joined the team. She became his wife and continues to act as the restaurant’s efficient maîtresse d’ as well as his interpreter.  The somewhat lugubrious Naomi Yuzawa joined six years ago and stands alongside the smiling Kikuchi as they read the orders that have been taken for sushi and sashimi before setting to to fulfil them.

These, other than the changes brought about by a modest redesign when it closed for three months in 2010, remain the biggest changes. The restaurant retains its rather serious approach. There is a minimum spend of £40 per head, a sum not too difficult to breach given the increasing price of top-quality fish.

The menu ignores some of the more modern Japanese sushi dishes such as California rolls. And Kikuchi opens only in the evenings, at 6 pm when the waiters and waitresses have finished washing down the large front window and the front door.

With nothing on the walls other than two collections of extremely sharp knives, the customer has little option but to focus on the thick, black rather tatty padded menu that doubles as the sake list. Here is where Kikuchi shines.

On my first visit with two friends extremely knowledgeable about Japan, tucked away at Table 6 with no view of Kikuchi or Yuzawa, we began with a sushi platter that was full of delicious prawn, turbot, sea bass and sea urchin. This was balanced by an earthy rendition of monkfish liver with a sharp ponzu dressing: a very fresh combination of diced squid on top of natto, soybeans that have been allowed to ferment overnight to develop a certain sweet stickiness; some tart pickled vegetables and a mixed seaweed salad.

Equally impressive were the dishes from the basement that is responsible for all the cooked dishes. First came a moreish half an aubergine covered in a sweet miso paste; then a thick piece cut from the shoulder of a salmon given even extra heft by the addition of salt crystals; and, most impressive and most unusual of all, a dish described as sea urchin tempura. 

This dish involves placing the sea urchin between two pieces of chiso leaf, coating it in tempura batter and then deep frying the whole. It must require considerable dexterity. But the end result, for any lover of sea urchin of course, is exquisite. With this, a couple of beers, a couple of ice creams and half a bottle of Seitoku sake, my bill for four came to £240.

On my return, I requested a seat at the counter, directly opposite where Kikcuhi and Yuzawa stand, as much for the opportunity to watch them in action as for the visual enjoyment of everything this talented duo prepare.

Sashimi at Kikuchi restaurant in London

We began with four slices each of two types of very fine sashimi, the fatty underbelly of tuna and yellow tail (above). We followed this with another order of the seductive aubergine and miso with a dish of mixed tempura. But best of all was a plate of grilled eel with a lip-smackingly rich teriyaki sauce (below). My bill again came to £60 per head including 100 cl of Hakkaisan sake.

Teriyaki eel at Kikuchi restaurant in London

As we left, I discovered another aspect of a life spent as a sushi chef.

Whereas chefs in western kitchens are considered to have remarkably young features as a result of spending their working days in steam-filled kitchens, Kikuchi’s hands are extremely soft. Years spent cleaning oily fish, kneading the sushi rice, before constantly washing his knives and then his hands have left him with the hands of a baby.

Kikuchi 14 Hanway Street, London W1T 1UD; tel 020 7637 7720

Exterior of Kikuchi sushi restaurant in London