sushi (chirashi) in london – part 1
A popular complaint from those living in London (especially expats), is that the British capital lacks decent sushi. Sure, there’s at least one of the major sushi chains (Itsu, Yo!, Feng etc.) on every high street but those hardly constitute as good sushi, and it’s nowhere near the standard of what can be found in say, Los Angeles or Singapore, never mind Japan itself. However, if you know where to look there are actually a number of solid options for fresh, well turned out sushi (albeit often at a price).
In my quest to uncover some of the best, I am slowly trawling through the city, sampling a string of Chirashi-zushi (raw fish laid over a bed of vinegared sushi rice) lunches at the most talked about sushi-dedicated joints, plus some lesser-known gems. So why chirashi? Besides being one of my favourite complete meals in one bowl, the assortment of sashimi and plentiful sushi rice is a good gauge of both the quality (and variety) of fish served at an establishment, as well as the skill of the chef in preparing and seasoning rice. To make my posts digestible I will be writing them in parts, each covering five restaurants at a time. This first installment features Dinings, Defune, Ikeda, Chisou and Sushi of Shiori.
The Chirashi lunch set at this tiny Marylebone restaurant specialising in modern sushi and Japanese tapas, came with a handful of edamame, miso soup, and a choice of a tempura or sashimi salad side (I opted for the former). Although not the most inspired selection of the lot, the salmon, maguro (tuna), mackerel, yellowtail and ika (squid) were all spanking fresh. The moist unagi (eel) was a welcome addition, but the other cooked item of boiled prawn was disappointingly bland. A vinegary chilli and onion sauce came alongside, and I mistakenly used it for my tempura (which incidentally was a touch oily, but very crisp) – turns out it was provided for the sashimi; as a modern alternative to the soy sauce that was also served. The spicy dip complemented the fish surprisingly well, and I particularly enjoyed it with the salmon. The glossy, well-vinegared rice grains had a nice bite to them, and the sesame sprinkled over lent a pleasing nuttiness. Good value at £15, and the extras are a nice touch – a good option if you’re looking for a little variety.
Dinings, 22 Harcourt Street, London W1H 4HH (020 7723 0666)
Another restaurant offering a little more than just a bowlful of chirashi-zushi was nearby Defune. Their chirashi set was served with a simple salad (not pictured) drizzled with house dressing, agedashi tofu and miso soup. The deep-fried tofu was light and not at all greasy, but the delicate broth would have been much improved with more seasoning. The generously-cut sashimi were of excellent quality, but the rather large slices meant they were a bit awkward to eat. A slightly more adventurous selection which included turbot, tai (bream), chutoro (tuna belly), salmon, omelette and cooked prawns (sweeter and meatier than the ones at Dinings). The rice was perfect – tender, subtly vinegared and topped with a mix of sesame and toasted nori (seaweed). Punchier at £21.50, yet somewhat justified considering the higher grade fish on offer.
Defune, 34 George Street, London W1U 7DT (020 7935 8311)
If price was no object, then the £35 Chirashi Set A (a cheaper £28 Set B is also available) at this tempura and sushi restaurant would be my top choice. The soft, unadorned rice was expertly made and there was no faulting the impeccably fresh sashimi that almost overflowed from the bowl. Apart from the usual suspects of maguro, salmon, yellowtail, there was also turbot, scallops, snapper, amaebi (sweet prawns), otoro (the prized, fattiest cut of tuna belly), unagi, salmon roe, omelette, and my absolute favourite – gloriously creamy uni (sea urchin). The set came with miso soup and premium condiments of freshly grated wasabi (notice the difference in appearance to what was served with the Defune chirashi) and aged soy sauce. A decadent choice, which while not exactly value-for-money, is a worthy treat for a special occasion.
Ikeda, 30 Brook Street, London W1K 5DJ (0871 332 7403)
Equally packed with fish is the chirashi served at one of my regular haunts just off Regent Street – Chisou. It is priced at a more reasonable £24.50, and although this specific one does not boast sea urchin, the chosen fish changes according to market availability (and to an extent, the chef’s mood), so on certain days some uni may just find it’s way into your chirashi! No matter what the selection, the sashimi resting on the tasty sushi rice (it is scattered with marinated shiitake mushrooms and nori) is always abundant, and of great quality. This particular bowl was brimming with maguro, chutoro, salmon, yellowtail, swordfish, tai, mackerel, surf clam, crab leg meat, turbot, amaebi, salmon roe and wedges of omelette. The only drawback is that it isn’t part of a set, so if it’s chirashi you ordered, that is exactly (and all) you’ll get.
Chisou, 4 Princes Street, London W1B 2LE (020 7629 5255)
#5: Sushi of Shiori
By far the daintiest chirashi I tried was the one served at this equally dinky 8-seater sushi bar in Euston. Run by an ex-Umu chef and his wife, this place does most of its business through orders to-go, but this is no mass market operation, like other run-of-the-mill sushi takeaways – the chef takes time and care when crafting his sushi creations – as apparent with my prettily presented chirashi. The sashimi was exceedingly fresh (they get their fish from the same suppliers as Umu) – a small piece each of mackerel, salmon, scallop, swordfish, tuna, horse mackerel, yellowtail, turbot, amaebi and sardine, as well as some salmon roe and artistically placed slivers of miyoga (a type of ginger), shredded shiso and nira (garlic chives). The nori and mushroom specked rice was still warm (as sushi rice should be) and well-seasoned but on the small side portion-wise. The serving size is the major gripe and could be easily remedied, but as it was I left not only £15 poorer but sadly, still hungry.
Sushi of Shiori, 144 Drummond Street, London NW1 2PA (020 7388 9962)
A good showing for Round 1, with Chisou and Defune fighting it out for pole position in terms of quality, value and quantity. But Dinings can’t be discounted either, with its £15 set being pretty fantastic value (despite there being less sashimi).