33 Dean St, W1D 4PWS | Tel: 020 7734 0408
Cost for two with beer and cocktails: £170
There’s no easy way to make a million in the restaurant business. It’s a Sisyphean struggle, an endless, mostly thankless, battle against astonishing odds. Every year is the year it could all come tumbling down around your ears, whether you own a chain of fine-dining restaurants or a greasy spoon in Slough.
Restaurants are a bell-weather for the economy, tied mercilessly to the whims of you and I; they have to navigate volatile chefs, food safety boards, trends, cliques, obnoxious critics and spiralling rents. In the five years or so I’ve been reviewing restaurants, hundreds have opened and dozens have closed again, the latest being the ill conceived UK outpost of Hotel Chantelle, which pulled down the shutters for final time after only six months; my abiding memory of it was being asked to eat a starter out of an ash tray. Own a restaurant over a long-enough time period and its chance of going under rises to one.
If I were trying to make a million in the restaurant business, though, I’d sell sushi. Somewhere down the line, sushi went from a simple way of preserving fish to sell to peasants in feudal Japan to the food of choice for blowing your load in front of clients. Nothing says “I’m ready to do business” like a plate of nigiri (it’s popular for dates for the same reason).
"the least blingy sushi restaurant in the world"
In Moscow – the undisputed capital of gauche – every second restaurant sells sushi. If chicken tikka masala is the UK’s national dish, then maki rolls are the Russian equivalent (although the top three cities for sushi restaurants per capita are Tokyo, New York and Tel Aviv).
So when I heard Oliver Maki, a sushi group with restaurants in Bahrain and Kuwait, was opening its first London branch, I expected a glittering, opulent palace, decked out in mahogany and gold, with nightclub lighting and show-girl front of house staff.
It’s not like that at all: it’s tiny, split over two floors of a Dean Street building the width of a deck of playing cards. You have to breath in just to get through the door. The décor is ostentatiously understated, lavishly grey, magnificently muted. If Oliver Maki’s designers set out to create the least blingy sushi restaurant in the world, they can consider the exercise a roaring success.
"like a head-on collision between food delivery trucks"
The most profligate thing about it is the way it substitutes menus for iPads, which is annoying in theory and infuriating in practice. When space is at a premium, the last thing you need is a pair of iPads cluttering up your table. You can’t even order directly from it, like you can in nearby Inamo.
Its head chef, Louis Kenji Huang, used to be a sushi chef at Nobu Las Vegas (Nobu is a conveyor-belt for sushi chefs – name any high-end sushi joint and chances are they’ll have a smattering of Nobu alumni), and like Nobu, Oliver Maki is not adverse to taking liberties with its cuisine. I’ve never, for instance, seen spicy shrimp tacos in a Tokyo sushi bar, but they do go nicely with beer on a Thursday evening in Soho.
The signature Oliver Maki selection features eight rolls made up of more than 30 ingredients, including foie gras, truffle and quinoa, and while that sounds like a head-on collision between food delivery trucks, it all left the table without complaint. A transparent perspex box of “sushi jewels” – made using brown rice, which is anathema to purists – is blow-torched at the table, leaving a mist of cedar apple smoke. It’s all perfectly nice.
But despite all that, I can’t imagine the set of circumstances that would conspire to bring me back. It’s not flashy enough for showing off, authentic enough for the gourmand crowd or cheap enough to make it a regular post-work destination. I fear that in London’s bustling Japanese restaurant scene, Oliver Maki may be destined to fall between the cracks.
64 Turnmill St, EC1M 5RR | Tel: 020 3805 2304
Cost for two with loads of booze: £220
Of course, if anyone is going to make a million in the restaurant game this year, it’s Jason Atherton. The owner of the Social eating empire has more than a dozen restaurants spanning London, New York, Dubai, Hong Kong and Shanghai. His latest, Sosharu, serves cuisine from the Japanese izakaya tradition (they’re supposed to be like our gastro-pubs, but they’re not really – like many Japanese things, they tend to defy comparison).
The dining room looks like I expected Oliver Maki to look, with lots of dark wood and artfully diffused lighting. It’s cool. It’s achingly cool, in fact. And what’s more, it’s achingly cool without being unbearable, and I’m not quite sure how it does it.
Case in point: the waiters wear Evisu aprons and tweed jackets, and somehow that doesn’t bother me. It has those toilets that blow hot air up your bum, which could come across as gimmicky – because it is – but it’s also a rather lovely touch.
"No more than six"
It has a bar downstairs that – for the love of god – serves a type of cocktail that comes with a token that you have to take to a vending machine and retrieve a plastic egg, from which you extract some of the ingredients and add them to your cocktail yourself and I should hate it but I bloody love this place.
The food’s not bad, either. The menu, which is supposed to be inspired by the changing of the British seasons, is complicated, split into eleven sections including “chilled”, “open tamaki”, “yaki grill”, “hibachi grill”, “inspired by the classics” and “rice pot”. We were advised to order “no more than six” dishes. The waiter was very certain about this. “No more than six.”
I started with an open temaki (battered nori) with cobia (a terribly in-vogue white fish that’s only reared in one farm in North Queensland; exactly the kind of thing I expect to find in a Jason Atherton restaurant), served with a tiny, squeezy bottle of spicy mayonnaise. It was delicious.
"Drink sake, stay soba"
Avocado tempura is exactly as good as battered avocado sounds. Chilled bream sashimi with shichimi (Japanese spice mix) potato, on the other hand, far exceeded expectations – a delicate little mound as lovingly constructed as an ornamental garden.
So did the beautifully tender smoked octopus with seaweed, and the big clay pot of sukiyaki (wagyu beef, glass noodles, leeks and shiitake mushrooms). The hibachi grill (barbecued) scallops with sweet potato and white ponzu was a bit overcooked. Nobody’s perfect. And the waiter was right: six dishes is plenty. Seven would have been too much. No more than six.
And dessert: we probably had dessert too. I can’t remember. We went to the downstairs bar, where the walls are covered in manga drawings and there’s a neon sign saying “drink sake stay soba”, and drank cocktails that required us to operate a vending machine, and cocktails that didn’t, and possibly some sake. I’m pretty sure there was sake.
Sosharu is all about the little details, an aggregation of tiny factors that lifts it from a decent Japanese restaurant to a place that you really shouldn’t miss. That Jason Atherton is going to make a million, I tell you.