20 Bury Street, EC3A 5AX www.soseki.co.uk
Tel:020 7621 9211
Cost per person without wine: £40-£100
ZUMA, Roka, Aqua Kyoto, Sumosan, Umu. Expensive, famous, globally branded restaurants dominate London’s Japanese food scene. I say “scene” – think rich Russians, Sloanes in celebratory mood, wealthy Asian tourists. The interiors are minimalist and violet-lit, with long sweeping bars and pared-down banquettes. The sound-track often evokes that of a club.
Away from the “scene” are, of course, the real Japanese restaurants, where salarymen from Tokyo go to eat not just proper sushi and rice, but to drink the right sake served the right way.
Of these “real” Japanese, the best I’ve been to – apart from the guzzle ‘n’ leave Café Japan in Golders Green – is Soseki. Immediate pleasure derives from its hidden feeling – it’s right by the Gherkin, but you wouldn’t know unless you were looking for it. It is owned and operated by the Botticelli-esque Caroline Bennett, former banker in London and Tokyo and founder of the UK’s first conveyer belt sushi chain, Moshi Moshi.
Bennett has a good business sense but Soseki is about her love affair with Japan – not global domination.
Bennett calls Soseki the first kaiseki-kappo restaurant in the UK – kaiseki-kappo means “Japanese haute cuisine in the kitchen”, a dining style that originated in high-class restaurants catering to wealthy merchants in 19th century Osaka.
And so the restaurant has an authentic elegance to it – cherry wood, tapestries and tasteful lacquer. Bennett wanted an East meets West vibe – the most striking element of this being the contrast between the inside of Soseki and the rounded side of the Gherkin looming outside the windows. “But that mix of old and new is so Tokyo,” says Bennett.
Rather than chosen off a long and confusing menu, the food at Soseki is best had “omakase”, whereby the chef prepares a menu for you based on whatever is good that day. In our case, that included quite a lot of Cornish sashimi (Bennett is evangelistic about well-sourced fish). Everything was delicate, delicious and often fascinating. Our sakizuke appetisers shone with ikura salmon roe and grated daikon (white rsdish), seared duck with wafu dressing and silky marinated yellow fin.
Next came a really wonderful bowl of soup called wanmono: made thick and viscous with kuzu (a root), with a startlingly delicious prawn fish ball in the middle. Umami, the ”fifth” taste of savour-meets-succour that is so revered in Japanese cooking, wafts from everything. Sashimi was Cornish and fine; but we were more excited by the next few dishes. Yakimono was grilled Scottish beef in a red bean miso sauce; agemono was monkfish (lightly fried), on a mound of chilli white radish and citrussy ponzu (the ingredients speak for themselves), and mushimono – steamed spider crab from Cornwall with yuzu citrus steamed egg custard.
From this partial list, the freshness and intelligence of the dishes here should be clear – surgeon-like skill, so much a part of top Japanese cooking, is to be found here in every dish.
And the sake – served by one of Europe’s few sake sommeliers (like Bennett, about as non-Japanese as you can look) – was exquisite. I’d never experienced the layers of sweetness and aroma to this extent before – the incredible smoothness of the spirit knocked us sideways (almost literally), and allowed new dimensions to be experienced.
For a really special evening of eating and drinking in the City – without the stressful razzle dazzle – head to Soseki.