Archive | December, 2011

Ichi Sushi: turning Japanese on London’s South Bank

20 Dec

Ichi Sushi & Sashimi Bar interior

Hotel restaurants were, back in the day, the place to eat. Led by those great dining rooms of the Savoy and the Ritz, they radiated the opulence and grandeur of the Edwardian era and you could gorge yourself silly on some ludicrously over the top Escoffier nosh. Sadly, it wouldn’t last.

As Michelin came to London and chefs started doing fancy things in their own-name restaurants, hotel dining fell out of favour. The trend turned towards seeking out the small, exclusive joint where the chef/patron’s name would be above the door, and their reputation and livelihood at stake if they screwed up. Now though, hotel dining has come full circle. There was Marco Pierre White’s fabled Oak Room in Piccadilly, where I ate my first ever three starred dinner in the late 90s, then Ramsay reinvented Claridge’s a decade later and now they’re all at it, the latest being Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental.

Sadly though, the norm for most hotel dining is still overpriced, confused and usually reminiscent of eating in an airport departure lounge. Ichi Sushi in the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge had two things in its favour from the outset however; a beautiful view across said bridge to the Houses of Parliament, and super friendly waiting staff.

The menu is as unintimidating as a sushi/sashimi joint could be, with all the staple nigiri and maki, California rolls and sashimi plus one or two interesting quasi-Nobu style treats on the specials selection. Behind the 80s style shiny black counter, head chef Sadayuki Okamoto worked with stereotypically quiet, taught efficiency to bring us a special starter of seared tuna with yuzu-dressed mizuna and jalapeno sauce. The fresh tuna, although it had been pre-seared, was not overpowered by the sauce despite the huge pools of jalapeno green sludge we got on the plate. Decent opener and hat tip to Nobu on a decent blending of South American and Japanese flavours.

The star, as it should always be in a sushi bar, was the fish. A user-friendly selection of sushi and sashimi saw two pieces of salmon, tuna and yellowtail plus spicy tuna maki roll and what was labelled as California roll but arrived as avocado filled maki. Also on there were one nigiri each of tuna, salmon, yellowtail, prawn and salmon roe. All pretty sparklingly fresh fish and served with some dynamite fresh wasabi that puts the powdered or tube based stuff we usually get to shame. There were also other specials of prawn tempura roll – amazingly still crisp inside, and spicy tuna rolls – lacking a bit of spice but serving up a nice umami punch nonetheless.

My only criticisms would be the selection was a little on the mean side for £40, but then again, this is a hotel restaurant, as attested to by the incongruous lounge bar crooning from the adjoining area. We also felt the sashimi could have benefitted from being sliced a little thinner and the rice lacked that slight sweet, vinegary punch you expect from sushi rice.

There’s a shortish list of wine, but a separate sake section and plenty of choice from the food menu for the odd vegetarian who might wander in here from time to time. This included my old Japanese nemesis mozuku, a gloopy bowl of gelatinous seaweed sometimes served with a raw egg yolk, which will test the resolve of even the hardiest culinary daredevil.

As hotel restaurants go this is not a bad little shout, and represents a welcome new choice if you’re on the South Bank and hungry. So have some respect, please don’t go to Yo Sushi.

Ichi Sushi & Sashimi Bar, Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, London

+44 (0)20 7620 7373

North Road restaurant – London

11 Dec

north road restaurant

There are good meals, there are great meals, then there are meals to forget. Then there’s an altogether different class of meal where the dining experience is fondly remembered in a fit of wistful daydreaming months or even years after the event. Thems are the rare ones, when boundary pushing chef combines with impeccable sourcing and razor sharp cooking. North Road has come closer than many in recent experience to achieving the latter.

First let’s get the boring stuff out of the way. You may have heard of Noma, the Copenhagen joint famous for being the ‘best restaurant in the universe’ and popularising a renaissance in modern Scandinavian cooking? Good. Well, North Road chef and proud Dane Christoffer Hruskova had been doing similar things for a goodly while at his north London restaurant Fig, before reaching for the (Michelin) stars with the opening of this place on a non-descript stretch of St John street.

The cooking is modern, inventive and very much out of the comfort zone of most of us Brits who have grown used to the flavours of the Mediterranean, France and even the Orient as if they were our own. What this means in practice is lots of smoking and pickling of ingredients and thinly sliced, raw veg alongside foraged herbs and the odd Scandinavian curiosity such as milk skin. Yes, milk skin. If you want rich creamy sauces or drizzles of olive oil, head elsewhere because this ain’t the place, don’t you know there’s a recession on?

Well, Hruskova clearly doesn’t given the prices (around £9 for starters, £17-24 for mains), although this is cooking of a very high standard, one Michelin star to be exact. As such, a trio of things to munch on arrive at our table while we choose between dishes such pickled and raw vegetable salad and Dorset brown crab with sea buckthorn, carrot and wild watercress. There’s sublime pork scratchings which immediately fill the somewhat sterile, hushed dining room with a cacophony of crackling; bland little fried dumplings filled with pearl barley; and a giant egg (fake) filled with hay, smoke and two perfectly soft yolked quails eggs (real).

All of which set the tone for the evening: modern, inventive and sublime in parts, slightly ill-judged in others. Ditto the starters. A hare dish came as little towers of loin, seared almost as briefly as good tuna, with comice pear and a small mound of pulled hare leg cooked in what I think was billed as some kind of liquorice sauce, and covered with a thin sheen of pear aquavit jelly. Yup, it’s pretty intricate stuff, looking great and mostly hitting the right notes, except at this level of cooking you don’t really want the hare leg over seasoned as it was.

Mains fared better. Mallard and caramelised cabbage with Scottish girolles and thyme came as very rare breast – maybe a tad too rare – alongside a crispy confit leg and super thin shavings of what tasted like pickled daikon; autumn on a plate. The cabbage in question appeared to have been pureed and cooked down to within an inch of its life to resemble butterscotch and delivered a bloody brilliant rich umami hit. Herdwick mutton loin with Jerusalem artichokes and wild herbs was similarly well received. Huge flavour punch from the nice pink mutton, rich jus and crispy fried artichoke skins poked in between, along with a strange ball of what could have been poached artichoke rolled in parsley. It added nothing apart from ramping up the quirk factor. Sadly there was no one to explain the main course and in a place like this you really need that kind of help. Oh, and the wild herbs were inedibly bitter. Maybe they were foraged for in the dark.

Dessert more than any other course takes the happy western diner out of their comfort zone and slaps them round the chops with a gloved Danish fist. Beetroot and blackberries with tarragon or carrot and sweet cicely anyone? No, we chose sheep milk yoghurt and swede ice cream actually. A spectacular dome of almost foamy yoghurt surrounded the ice cream, which, yup, tasted of nothing but swede.

North Road is of those rareities that seems to be enjoyed more by the dirty pedants that hang around the user review sites than the collective cultured palates of the food critics, but its treatment by the latter has been rather unfair at times. Yes, the austere, hushed white-on-white-on-white dining room may make it feel a little like eating in a particularly swanky private hospital and yes, the cooking can be a tad on the unusual side, but there is much to recommend this place. A glimpse of the future? Maybe not, but if you’re curious as to what all this modern Nordic nonsense is about, there are few better places to try in the capital than North Road.

North Road – 69 St John St, London