A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
The tip off came from a restaurateur friend. Did I know about Lisa at Yoshino restaurant just off Piccadilly?
To his amazement, and my subsequent surprise, Lisa works ‘six doubles’ a week, behind and in front of the 10 seater sushi counter on the ground floor of this long-established restaurant as well as patrolling the three tables of four that surround it. This is, in layman’s terms, quite a Herculean feat. It means that, most unusually in the restaurant business, this woman works from 9 am until 11 pm, Monday to Saturday and, on top of that, she will choose the menu for any customer who asks her to.
I knew of the restaurant. Located at the end of a small cul-de-sac, it takes its name from its founder, Katsu Yoshino, and it has been a stalwart of the Japanese restaurant scene in London since 1996. From the outside, it looks almost nondescript. There are several outside tables, laid up even on a cold winter’s day. It is only as one faces the glass frontage that the smiling Japanese faces behind beckon one in.
Although formerly a pub, the interior seems to fit a Japanese restaurant perfectly. Behind the counter there is space for Lisa and a chef and a couple of gas rings at which on my second visit a young male chef was busy rolling thin layers of eggs for tamagoyaki, Japanese rolled omelettes, which here they use for decorating the sushi plates. To the right is the lift that links the ground floor to the basement kitchen. And to the left are the stairs that lead up to the first floor, where there are 10 tables and waitress service.
My first visit was a relatively quiet Monday lunch. A man had just finished eating at the sushi counter and was speaking to a young lady who I assumed was Lisa. She helped him with his coat, explained what a pleasure it had been to serve him, and said that she looked forward to cooking for him later that night. I took a seat at the opposite end of the sushi counter.
Two gyoza, Japanese dumplings filled with minced meat and vegetables stuffed inside the thinnest wrapping, were immediately offered as I perused a well-worn menu. There is nigiri and sushi; tempura; Japanese barbecue; wagyu beef; and several special dishes including my favourite, nasu dengaku, miso-glazed aubergine.
Somebody entered, having been told to ask for Lisa by a man who was apparently waiting for him upstairs. As the woman behind the sushi counter answered to this name, I knew I had found the right person. I asked her what I should order and her response was comforting, 'Leave it to me'.
Two regular customers joined the sushi counter. Lisa knew them well, even the Sapporo beer they would order. They talked about what they had done the day before, Lisa adding that as the previous week had been so busy, she had spent it in bed. Her customers laughed. Lisa added, 'Even here, I only get as far as the front door. But I never get bored here. The customers entertain me and then at the end of the week I get paid.'
My lunch arrived, a double bento box that contained rice and slices of very fresh, very well prepared, different fish: eel, prawns, salmon, ordinary tuna, and the prized toro, or fatty tuna. As she handed it to me I appreciated Lisa’s two other charms: she can switch readily between English and Japanese and her arms are just long enough to stretch over the width of the sushi counter to reach her customer.
Her immediate warmth is so unusual that I immediately booked again for three, later in the week. We sat in the same places and again left the choice of what we would eat to Lisa. What followed was even more surprising. We began with a broad, thin plate filled with cubes of raw salmon, which Lisa told us not to touch with the soy sauce. There then followed more fatty toro; warm eel with lemon and rice; three cubes of tenderloin beef and finally two scoops of a clementine sorbet together with a chocolate ice cream that Lisa had made that morning.
I paid my bill of £30 per person and waited until all her lunchtime customers had left before discovering more about our remarkably modest hostess.
Her name is Lisa Maitland, she is 31, and she was born to an English father and a Japanese mother on the mountainous island of Tsushima, close to Korea. After a brief sojourn in Fukuoka, she moved to London 11 years ago where she found her role at Yoshino, a role that she has been fashioning to her own image of what service in a restaurant should be.
Having expressed her gratitude to Mr Yoshino for giving her this opportunity, Maitland continued. 'Our philosophy here is "Come in, sit down and let us feed you." Nobody is more important than anyone else in the set up of this restaurant. We are all equal.'
This fits in with her approach to service, which, in the true Japanese style, has to be ‘invisible’. Although Lisa claims to be fascinated by the Italian approach, which she describes as 'a lot of kissing of the customers’, she realises that this is alien to her, at least. 'I work hard to give back to the company and to society'.
Yoshino 3 Piccadilly Place, London W1J 0DB; tel +44 (0)20 7287 6622