Chrysan: lost in translation?

Kasmira Jefford
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1 Snowden Street, EC2A 2DQ Tel: 020 3657 4777
FOOD ****
Cost for two people with drinks: £160

A FRIEND of mine has recently taken up learning Japanese. So, last month, I found myself spending a surreal afternoon watching a Japanese detective drama series, Deka Kurokawa Suzuki, which really can’t be compared to any of its Western counterparts (it has none of the blood and gore of The Killing, for instance). It is more like a pantomime or a skit that unintentionally makes fun of its own genre.

The episode opened at a wedding ceremony in a Japanese pavilion, at which one of the guests suddenly keeled over, flailed his arms about, choked, and died. The guests, including the famous detective Kurokawa Suzuki, gasped and his wife – who always pops out of nowhere to help solve the crimes – discovered an enormous jar of peanut butter in one of the guests’ handbags.

“It’s a murder!” The detective declared in Japanese and the whole episode became a kind of spoof Agatha Christie whodunit, with the owner of the handbag professing innocence. It’s gripping stuff.

I am telling my colleague this long-winded story when we sit down for lunch at Chrysan, The Hakassan Group’s newly opened Japanese restaurant near Broadgate in the City. We were led down a long corridor with the kitchen visible to our right and a wooden panelled wall to our left screening off a spacious – but empty – dining area. It is lunch time, after all, and it is still early days.

The room’s stiff and composed atmosphere reminds me of the detective series and I found myself wishing someone – maybe a waiter – would break the silence and shout something silly for comic relief (I’m allergic to peanuts, too, so a repeat of the whole scenario isn’t beyond the realms of possibility).

Despite the lack of dynamism, the restaurant’s minimalist décor and design is rather beautiful. Chrysan’s Kyoto-based architect Yoshiaki Nakamura has stayed faithful to traditional and contemporary Japanese design and the drab City office block’s interior has been sculpted with the features of a traditional Japanese house.

Across the windows are Shoji-style screens – wooden lattices holding thin rice paper squares – that diffuse the flat London light. Stepping in, I’m not sure whether I will be kneeling to eat but, with some relief, find the room is fully equipped with contemporary Scandinavian furniture.

Chrysan is a tie-up with Yoshihiro Murata, one of Japan’s top chefs, whose two Michelin-starred restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo are shrines to the ultra-refined art of Kaiseki cuisine. It is Murata’s maiden overseas partnership and his first attempt to take what has, until now, been a local and unexportable style of eating 6,000 miles away from home.

Kaiseki, which has its roots in the elaborate 16th-century rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony, is a highly formalised multi-course meal that requires painstaking preparation and celebrates using fresh and seasonal ingredients. It’s Japan’s answer to Western haute cuisine.

We opt for the Crystal Box lunch set, which starts off with a Britain-meets-Japan miso soup made with a strong hint of mustard and a morsel of Berkshire pork lurking in the depths of the bowl (in keeping with Murata’s philosophy of using local ingredients).

And then came the Crystal (plastic) box – two in fact – one with slow-cooked duck, Devon crab, grilled lobster, octopus rolled in egg powder, sea bream with Parma ham and kimizu sauce, and shitake mushrooms decked with a toothpick holding a marinated cherry tomato and ball of miso-soaked avocado on top.

The second is a pick ‘n’ mix of sushi displayed like trinkets in a jewellery box – my favourite was a roll of mackerel and bitter lemon rind and a roll of grilled eel and beetroot. The sushi came with a 22-day dry-aged Angus beef fillet steak served separately.

The puddings look good and they don’t disappoint – unlike a lot of desserts in Japanese restaurants, which are frankly inedible. I go for the soy caramel apple tatin with cinnamon milk ice cream and yatsuhashi biscuit. ­­All this is washed down with two different sakes from a choice of 20 on the menu and a glass of 2010 Jurançon Moelleux, Domaine Bellegarde.

Chrysan is an innovative and contemporary take on a conservative and traditional style of Japanese cuisine – and it is one of the best Japanese restaurants in London. But there is a danger the thought-process and tradition behind this elaborate cuisine remains lost in translation and the effort is under-appreciated.