My dreams of sushi..
London has, in recent years, witnessed a few redemptive openings of independent sushi bars, from the elaborate Kyoto-style craftsmanship at Sushi of Shiori to the swanky flame-grill fusion at Yashin Sushi. Sushi Tetsu, tucked away in a narrow Clerkenwell alley, seems humbler and more firmly grounded in the tradition. But, from my experience, this intimate sushi bar, owned and run by the team of husband chef and wife front of house, will very soon become the tour de force of Japanese restaurants in London. Toru Takahashi – the sushi master – is the name to remember. He comes from the north of Japan, via Kobe (as an apprentice) and ended up as a sushi chef at Nobu. Luckily (as I am not a fan) I see nothing of Nobu at Sushi Tetsu. The menu here focuses only on sushi and sashimi. Premium quality. Sourced mainly from Billingsgate Market. There is no compromise for hot food, according to the chatty husband and wife (who provided us with a lively “9-year-marriage” banter throughout our meal), and the only item that meets half-way with the English demand is California Roll. No miso soup. This is exactly the place I have been dreaming of.
The menu promises some affordable “omakase” options with the price finishing at around £37. I went, instead, for individually priced sushi nigiri options (between £2.60-£5.80 per piece). (Admittedly I lost clue of pricing and my meal below came to £80 with unlimited tea).
The meal commenced with a hopeful sign of fresh bamboo leaf soaked, wiped and laid in front of me. This was to become the natural platform on which my sushi was to be presented one by one and in an order selected by the chef. The first was “Sea Bream” acutely brushed with soy sauce (made by the chef himself!). I noted the very fresh firmness from the bream that, as I was chewing, bounced and sprang in my mouth. The rice – a concoction of three kinds of rice grains – was lightly vinegar-ed, pleasantly and tightly formed. The shiso leaf hidden between the bream and the rice released an explosive minty aroma. “Turbot” had a more stringy texture compared to the bream and was vertically scorched. No soy sauce but a tangy dressing of yuzu-ponzu and finely sliced spring onion, enhancing the pure mildness of the turbot well. “Razor Clam” was rocking my world. Very minimally bruised with knife, the plump and snappy razor clam glistened with a light touch of soy sauce and a “secret” pale green dressing which tasted of diluted lime infusion, bringing out the sweetness in the clam. Also noteworthy was that the clam was not only ridiculously fresh and of premium quality but masterly prep-ed and stored. Toru-san talked of an effortless process of blanching the clams quickly before removing them from the shells, washing and rewashing with salt, draining them. “Not complicated”, according to him. This resulted in no clammy slime or irksome aroma. “Shu-Toro/Medium Fatty Tuna Belly” – again a very good quality piece – was not visibly laced with fat but noted, instead, for its moreish softness and served simply with a brushing of soy sauce. “Scallop” was bruised throughout with the knife for contrasting roughness against its natural velvety crunch. The piece ruptured wonderfully at the tip of my tongue. The dusting of sea salt and (if I did not mistake this) a touch of fresh lime juice deepened its natural sweetness.
This was followed by “Snow Crab”. Carefully poached and with salted watery sweetness, it would have fared better with slightly more crab ratio. Personally, I felt the limelight stolen by “O-Toro”. This dainty piece of fat-lined tuna belly was slashed, vehemently brushed with soy sauce and torched (aburi). Toru-san added some finishing touches – a flash brushing of soy sauce and a restrained smearing of another Japanese chilli paste – and ordered me not to take my time with photography (!!). Sensational. The flame-blasted belly was mother-f**kingly smoky at first bite; then came umami intensity from the soy glazing; the oily tuna itself dissolved pleasingly in my mouth, with a background hint of wasabi. Just. To. Die. For. The serving of pickle-y “Mackerel” – traditionally salt-cured and rinsed with rice vinegar – seemed brilliantly timed as it washed off the remaining lip-licking good grease from the aburi toro. The wowsers did not stop. I sighted “Botan Ebi” – massive and boasting some very superior translucence – being butterflied, torched and painted with soy sauce. The prawn remained half cooked and delicately fumed. The topside muscle skillfully contracted by the flame burst at first bite, leading way to a raw but firm, silky sweetness underneath. “Sea Urchin” was different. Traditionally it is served gunkun-style with a wrapping of toasted nori. Here the nori was replaced with a fragile sheet of lightly chilled cucumber flesh (no thicker than 2mm). The fresh cucumber was, astonishingly, a befitting partner to the unctuous sea urchin. The latter oozed custard-y sea saltiness and with nori it would have been too rich. The cucumber lightened it all up, so to speak, and provided a distinct texture contrast. I finished (sort of) with “Tamago”. At Sushi Tetsu, there were two options of “rolled” (typical to Japanese restaurants in England as easier to prepare) or “thick” (cake-like and very rare here/Yashin Sushi also does it) on the menu, depending on the “mood” of the chef. The “thick” option today was intriguing and thoroughly enjoyable. There was a beautifully brown and rough skin. The egg-y flesh was not chunky and claimed a distilled sweetness. (Very few times I came across this “thick” version it was very sugary and served at the end as a dessert). It reminded me of a Kasutera cake but with savoury firmness. The taste became complete with the puffy rice.
“Enough!?” Toru-san asked us. Maybe he spotted me (us) reaching a euphoric state and wanted to tease. Maybe he was serious. We nodded for “5 more. Choose for us. And maybe with another of O-Toro?”. There it was, a piece of “Horse Mackerel” like no other, marked for its silvery glow on the skin and an alluringly faded shade of pink in the flesh. It was presented with a touch of soy sauce, ginger and spring onions. There was a marvellous contrast of gelatin springy-ness and tenderness in the fish and a clarity of oily-ness. One of the best of horse mackerel I’d ever come across. “Red Bream” did not come from Billingsgate like others but flown directly from Japan by Toru-san’s supplier. The preparation was interesting. The fish was slashed throughout (most violently compared to any other that preceded) and blazed, starting from the skin (long time) to the meat (briefly). The result was not just the eye-pleasingly charred effect but the texture of the fish that disintegrated into flakes on the tongue (juxtaposing, of course, with the more gelatinous, cooked skin). The citric acidity from the yuzu-ponzu jostled well with the smoky aroma. “Boiled Prawn” was equally a stunner. The prawn itself was butterflied (from the bottom), washed and torched (also from the bottom). As its shell was removed minutes after my order, the prawn retained briny moisture but was, at the same time, quite crispy. The coy warmth from the flame triggered a change in temperature of the meat and aggrandised the sweetness of the prawn. The second coming of “O-Toro” (no more photo) was A LOT more lascivious and taken from a different strip of belly (with a very dazzlingly marbled effect). It proved far more delicious as the fat broke down with flame and the flesh was lubricated more thoroughly. The meal concluded with a warm temaki of “Eel” to counter the English weather. Both elegant and comforting.
“Would you like some more?” Now it was Mrs Toru’s turn to ask.
I looked with a smile in my eyes..
“Maybe some more tamago. Sashimi, please”.
That’s it. (SO bl**dy going back next week).
Tel. 020 3217 0090