Monday, 20 January 2014

Sushi Tetsu: No Place I'd Rather Be

Many things have to come together to make a meal truly memorable. Environment, attitude, company, perception, taste, timing, skill, even prior experience. Only a few of these are in the full control of a chef and the staff and even if the parts that can be, are, sometimes the smallest things that ruin a meal. Be it a diner talking that bit too crassly and inevitably loudly, a baby crying in a restaurant just not meant for babies, or where the service simply leaves you cold. Consultants go to great lengths, and charge far too much, to make restaurants as unoffensive to as wide an audience as possible. Slickly dressed servers, non-imaginative interior design, techno-ordering systems - too many places now fit into neat buckets that pre-describe the clientele before anyone has even walked inside. Funny then that every great restauranteur already knows the actual answer - genuine friendliness, passion and an unashamed lack of compromise is what makes great atmosphere. Sushi Tetsu knows this too.

Akami - Perfection

Sushi Tetsu has now been open for over a year and a half which by London food standards is old hat with the majority of restaurants closing within their first year. The fan fare has gone, the latest review months old. But ask any sushi-crazed Japanophile where the best place in town is and they'll (reluctantly) point you here. Run by a husband and wife team Toru and Harumi from an impossibly small 7-seater bolthole in the heart of Clerkenwell, it is as known for its scarcity of reservations as it is for the overwhelming quality of its product. The food, limited to basically nigiri and sashimi only, is so good and the bookings so oversubscribed, this review serves as a personal thank you of sorts.

Toru creating the Toro-temaki

Having been more times than my wallet appreciates, the sheer quality never becomes ordinary. Tetsu is many things but one it is not, is cheap. The omakase, or set menu, starts at £50 before rising to 90. Less obsessive people gasp at extravagance but it is my opinion that sushi is not like other cuisine. It is the search for perfection through simplicity, it is the search for zen through food. Great sushi is about making infinitesimally small improvements to what is essentially a simple task. It is the antithesis of most gourmet burgers or hotdogs; it is about creating perfect harmony between the ingredients. If that all sounds like pretentious nonsense go and try it and you'll understand. You'll see why Tetsu is paradoxically a gloriously expensive bargain.

The restaurant itself is the size of some people's living rooms and seats only 7 with two sittings a night. Personal space is at a premium but it feels just right, and having just come back from a trip to Japan, you are transported right back as soon as you duck through the noren. The interior is as plain as it comes and bright - a welcome change from distressed furniture and bulbs with filaments apparently on the verge of a stroke. The lack of distractions leaves you only with your guest, Toru and the food. Fast food it is not, three hours is standard for dinner here. While Harumi charms you with that impossibly polite conversation only Japanese people can do, Toru painstakingly creates each plate. He doesn't look up much but hears and sees everything. The smallest compliment of his food to a fellow diner and you can spot him sneaking a smile. During gaps in courses I find myself moving from Asashi to Toru's favourite sake without the slightest hint of upselling. Sipping the cloudy liquor I watch Toru form the su-meshi with immeasurable precision. I am Jack's inner sense of smugness.

Sashimi plate - One of the prettiest in London

Like other great itamae, Toru sacrifices for his art: he has been known to fall asleep downstairs before managing to make it to bed. With the smallest of differences making the difference, the effort goes a long way. The rice is served slightly warm to the touch with slightly less mirin used than at other quality sushi bars. Sushi rice must match the fish it is paired with and as Tetsu serves less punchier fish such as horse mackerel, it suits it perfectly and allows the rich tuna to really shine. The fish is of the highest quality I've had in London and Toru has spent years cultivating his own list of suppliers. You can end up talking to him about sourcing for far longer than you thought possible.

Toru and I discussing cuts of Toro

The easiest way to enjoy Tetsu is to order omakase. Japanese for "I'll leave it to you", it is their version of a set menu. At Tetsu, you chose between two price points (£60/80) and everything is taken care of. Beginning with a sashimi selection you indulge in a myriad of beautiful creamy fresh water shrimp, scallop, sea bass, salmon and always finishing with the intensely creamy chutoro. A following plate of mackerel which has been cured in citrus and blow torched is stunning and wakes up the taste buds for the real stars to follow.

Citric-cured blow-torched mackerel

After another sashimi plate the real fun starts. One after another, individual pieces of nigiri are placed on a bamboo leaf in front of you. You quickly study the glistening fish, carefully brushed with soy sauce and pop it whole into your drooling face-hole. The sequence begins with the lighter less powerfully flavoured fish, rising to a crescendo of akami, chutoro and finally otoro. Otoro is an odd cut, containing the highest fat content of any fish you are likely to eat which, although giving it an otherworldly butter-like texture, actually masks some of the true taste of the tuna itself. Real aficionados prefer akami (lean tuna) so they can taste the tuna to its fullest. Personally I am more in their camp than the former, however as a treat otoro is the king of Japanese excess baring wagyu beef. Toru's knowledge comes through again as sometimes he blow torches the flesh to caramelise the fat, sometimes he doesn't. It all depends on the age the tuna was when it was caught, the fat content and the amount of aging it has had. Yes, that's right. Like steak, fish is aged which leads to greater sweetness or maturing of texture.

Blow-torched Otoro

The final pas-de-deux is an element of genius and one of tradition. The last fish piece is is a clever usage of tuna scraps. Toru scraps spare chunks of akami, chutoro and otoro and chops them into a paste and rolls it into a temaki cone alongside pickled daikon and spicy torogashi powder. The mix of lean and fatty is lip-smackingly delicious. Once devoured sadly the last course arrives, a bouncy, sweet tamago. Every great itamae takes pride in their personal recipe for tamago and Toru is just the same. I often dread the tamago - taking away the salty richness of the toro just for an overly sweet custardy egg. Toru's, like everything you eat, is nigh on perfect. A delicate end to a rather delicate evening.

The Last Hurrah

There are few places in London I'd rather eat at. Goodman's is a contender and simple streetfood from certain vendors another. But to sit here, sipping my sake, chatting to Toru, with the first bite of the last otoro nirigi. In the paraphrased words of Churchill; "Somewhere else? Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."

12 Jerusalem Passage, London, EC1V 4JP. Phone 020 3217 0090. Closest tube: Farringdon

How good?
Food: 10/10
Drinks: 8/10 - standard Japanese beer but a great sake list
Service: 10/10 - if I was an idiot and gave things 11/10 I would
Value: 10/10 - for the UK, in Japan we had similar quality for much less

Some other pictures from several visits:

Sushi Tetsu
The room
Another sashimi plate
Sushi tetsu Sashimi
Sashimi using cucumber instead of nori

Salmon roe

Sea water shrimp
Akami (lean tuna)
Blowtorched otoro
Hirame (If i recall)

No comments:

Post a Comment