Friday, June 24, 2011

London's Finest New Addition: YASHIN

London's Best Sushi Can Be Found at Yashin...

Using a lacquered block of petrified wood as a platform, chef Hirai raises his butane torch and begins to sear the sushi until it smolders, the aroma of charred seafood filling the space around him, the roar and crackle of the flames faintly audible. Overhead, in green neon letters, the words "Without Soy Sauce" are spelled out with pride, and then, almost as a tongue-in-cheek afterthought, written underneath is the line: "...but if you want to."

Barely eight months old, Yashin is already leading the way in the competitive culinary scene in London. Aside from unimaginable freshness in its food, this notable newbie is probably most recognized for its anti-soy-sauce sentiment, the perfect pairings of nigiri with imaginative toppings, and the fact that the sake is served in test tubes.

Not everything is seared. For example, if you order the 11-piece nigiri set, you'll see that only about half of the fish ever get licked by flame; some pieces, like the crab, bear the slightest char marks, while the grouper and tuna shine with rawness.

Each piece of nigiri does, however, come with a topping—from Tosazu jelly on the salmon and ponzu jelly on the grouper to yellow petals of kiku (chrysanthemums) and black pepper on the yellowtail. The superb prawn, brushed with foie gras, dissolves into a salty, buttery mass on the tongue. Sea bream is dusted with crushed bits of rice cracker, scallop peers from beneath a small mound of tomato salsa, and wagyu beef is transformed with yuzu kosho (yuzu and pepper).

The nigiri set also comes with a roll of the day, which in my case was the negi-toro maki (one bite and I'm reminded why I love seaweed, although the nigiri here is so good that I could have almost gone without any nori. Almost.).

Even though Yashin is fairly new, it's already difficult to grab a reservation in this burgeoning business. An amalgamation of the names of top chefs Yasuhiro Mineno and Shinya Ikeda, Yashin was highly anticipated, as it is the collaborative force betwen the two sushi masters.

The glass display case houses all the wonderful garnishes for the nigiri, some of which don't even get used except by special request, or when one of the chefs follows a sudden caprice. One of the ingredients I didn't see on my nigiri platter was the kizami wasabi, which could be described as chopped and flavored wasabi. (On a separate day, I ordered prawn nigiri a la carte and the chef had presented it with tosazu jelly and fried leek, which was just as amazing as painting it with essence of foie gras as he had done the previous time.)

Other remarkable details at Yashin: their pickled ginger is served in thick, tan-colored chunks, as opposed to the thin pink slices that are normally found at other sushi bars (the ginger flavor is certainly better retained this way). The attention to detail even covers the uniforms: the female sushi chefs here don black ensembles while their male counterparts wear navy blue. As you wait for the main meal, a server brings you a platter filled with complimentary bite-size appetizers. Choose from the miniscule nibble of marinated sea bream with red miso, or the squarish, spongy-looking green omelet with jewel-like salmon eggs in its middle; numerous nameless others abound, and these change often. In your miso soup, Nameko baby mushrooms float daintily.

During one of my forays into the restaurant (my M.O. is always to try as hard as possible to tire of a good restaurant that I can't have back home by visiting it multiple times; this works insofar as ensuring I don't head home crying), I asked the chef what type of nigiri goes with the red miso, or with the pineapple onion salsa (as yet, neither had been used on the nigiri I'd seen here). He suggested whitefish, and so I ordered accordingly. I ended up favoring the one he had draped with kombu and added with miso, which I thought was more flavorful, although the other one was refreshing and exotic.

Considering that London is an expensive city anyway, the prices at Yashin are not unreasonable. For what you get, it's more than worth every pence. The "Omakase Eleven" costs £45 (about $80). There is also an "Omakase Eight" for £30 and a "Hajimeteno Omakase" with five pieces of nigiri for £20. "The Yashin," or 15 pieces of chef's choice nigiri, is available for £60. All of them come with a roll of the day except "The Yashin." The yellowtail carpaccio with garlic sauce (and wheels of fried lotus root) is £9.60.

The creed behind the "Without Soy Sauce" slogan at Yashin is that the chefs here season their sushi and sashimi so well, you do not need to follow the trite norm of drowning sushi in soy sauce suffused with wasabi. But only if you want to....

1A Argyll Road
London W8 7DB, United Kingdom
020 7938 1536

Sushi at Umu of London: Works of Art

Umu of London: Upper-Crust Sushi

At Yashin, a diner sitting next to me at the sushi bar had told me about an exquisite Japanese restaurant called Umu, admonishing of its high price of about £100 for a tasting menu, but extolling the very tastes of such a menu. Intrigued, I decided to make it one of my next sushi stops.

Umu is one of those exclusive, tucked-away sushi gems lost in the labyrinth of the big city. Its dimly lit, understated entrance can be found at the end of a small alleyway, which hardly seems congruous to the elegantly dressed, suit-and-tie crowd found inside; its interior reminds me of the plushy lounge of a mansion, its members belonging to an overprivileged secret sushi society.

Thankfully, for those unwilling to fork over a fortune for a feast, the restaurant serves their nigiri a la carte, and the styles are divided into two categories: Modern and Classic Sushi.

Ranging from £4.50 to £12 per piece, Umu's unusual "modern" nigiri was delicate yet daring—there was the one with "brown crab, courgette, pine nuts, garlic, red ichimi pepper"; the one featuring "prawn, mango, egg sauce in harumaki cup"; the smoked eel sushi with Oscietra caviar (this was the priciest one because of the roe).

It was fancy, enchanting nigiri that was simultaneously scrumptious. And so I ordered more, more! The second plate showcased eel with garlic and parsley twist, Homard ebi with shiso sauce and plum sauce, seared tuna with Maitake mushroom and kinome (tiny leaves of the ash tree which have a subtle mint flavor), langoustine with kanimiso and little purple leaves known as shiso cress.

These were followed by another harumaki cup-based delight, this one with foie gras, cauliflower puree and winter mushrooms; razor clam sushi with salted butter and endive; and red mullet nigiri with pesto and dried grey mullet eggs.

I chose my final pieces of nigiri from the Classic Sushi category, just to sample some basic fresh fish free of wild flavor fusions. The Salmon Aburi with with grated Daikon radish and Hiramasa (described as flat amberjack) with lime zest and ume were simple yet still satisfying in savoriness.

14-16 Bruton Place
London W1J 6LX, United Kingdom
020 7499 8881

Tuna, Salmon & Botan Ebi at Zuma of London

Zuma of London: Too Trendy?

London's Zuma is reminiscent of Sydney's "Sushi e," in the sense that it is pretentious, over-the-top, and trying very hard to imitate a trendy social scene. Don't even bother trying to walk in on a weekend night; the atmosphere is hectic and loud as a nightclub, and you have to shout over the din just to get seated...or not! Having made the mistake of trying to check it out on a Saturday night, I actually turned around and walked right out, after getting anxiety from dealing with the crowds and chaos. I returned on a Tuesday night, and it was slightly better, though not by much. I stayed long enough to order "what that guy is having" (that guy was a regular patron at the sushi bar who was accustomed to the chef's knowledge of his preferencestorched tuna, salmon and botan ebi nigiri dressed in flower bits, momiji radish, caviar, lotus root chips...).

Sitting at the sushi bar certainly has its advantages; you can be a copycat orderer and then watch your order being made, asking the chef to customize this and that. The nigiri here was pretty splendid, but having eaten lots of good sushi by this point, I was so overindulged and jaded that I was hard to please. Was there such a thing as too much good sushi?

Considering the hip ambience and level of sophistication of the nightclub-restaurant, I was utterly flummoxed when the waiter came to tell me that no photography of the food was allowed (by then I had already taken the verboten shot, but it was to be understood that there would be no more, it was "company rules"). And then it was his turn to look perplexed when I asked for the check. He seemed contrite: was I sure? Wasn't there something else I wanted to order? "Well there's no point if I can't take pictures," I said matter-of-factly. He apologized and assured that he doesn't make the rules. But there were other reasons I wanted to get out of there: I was already full even before the three pieces of nigiri, having just come out of another restaurant (and going to Zuma to try again for a taste), and the place was just too damn loud.

But considering its popularity and the high quality of its fish, I felt Zuma did nonetheless deserve a spot in this segment featuring London's finest.

5 Raphael Street
London SW7 1DL, United Kingdom
020 7584 1010

YO! Sushi of London: Shrimp Tempura Roll with Wasabi Masago, Softshell Crab Hand Roll

YO! Sushi of London

While fancy sushi is obviously plentiful in London, fast sushi can be found as well. Offering a speedy, casual and cheap alternative to the traditional and costly sit-down feast in fine dining establishments, Yo! Sushi, with multiple locations in London, is a colorful and fun conveyor belt-style restaurant. Need service? Simply press the button that reads "Help!" in front of you on the bar, and the light-up bubble tube that marks your spot changes color to flag a waiter to your seat. Want fresh sushi that hasn't been sitting there making many a loop around on the sushi train? Hint: Don't grab it from the conveyor belt! Order it from the waiter instead. And there's no need to ask for more water—you have two taps right in front of you, marked "fizzy" or "still." On Mondays, all items off the sushi train are £2.50 a plate.

"YO! To go! Takeaway here!" reads the sign on top of the refrigerated case near the exit. A box marked "Coriander Seared Tuna Sashimi" for £4.50 is one example of the ready-to-go packs, their labels reading "Pick me up!" and "Take me away!" Another box contains edamame, while a third box holds salmon and sushi rolls and nigiri, priced at £5.

Service here is friendly and expedient, and the quality of the food (for the price) is passable enough. I can see patrons being happy with items they grab off the train such as salads, fruits and desserts, but dishes like fried tofu, shrimp tempura rolls, and fried gyozas are bound to be cold and gooey if they've been revolving a while.

Yo! Sushi, London

London's Sushi & Bento Stops: Wasabi & Samurai

Fast Sushi in London

Whether it's from their kiosk at the train station or at their street locations, Wasabi Sushi & Bento serves fast sushi with flair. There are other offerings like chicken curry and tofu yakisoba, but boxed sets of sushi and cellophane-wrapped hand rolls are the specialty here. These temaki, which are packaged in such a way that the seaweed is separated from the rice (to maintain the crispness of the nori), are easy to handle. You undo the plastic wrap around the seaweed and then apply it to the conical blob of filler—sushi rice with spicy tuna, for instance. The £2.50 tag for one of these hand rolls is reasonably inexpensive.

Meanwhile, Samurai Sushi & Bento gives Londoners the opportunity to mix and match their own individually wrapped nigiri, which is reminiscent of the style found in Taipei's supermarkets. There's the "Crayfish & Mango Maki" for 80 pence per piece (there must be something to this combination; a crayfish and mango salad is available at the deli inside Harrods); the inari nigiri is unusual, since normally these bean curd are shaped like little pillows and stuffed wth sushi rice, or, as seen in Australia, sliced up and used as a component in a vegetable hand roll.

I sampled the beetroot salmon nigiri, so named because beetroot juice is apparently used to redden the salmon and give it a nuance of the herbaceous plant's flavor (although it just tasted like regular fresh salmon to me). This piece cost a mere 65 pence.

Wasabi Sushi & Bento, London


Samurai Sushi & Bento, London

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Bay Area's "Blowfish Sushi to Die For"

To Die For...

I was exultant when Blowfish Sushi to Die For opened a location in West Hollywood, devastated when it closed down. Was it a lack of business? It didn't seem probable, as the place was always full of roistering, with its loud music, nightclub feel and multiple screens that played naughty anime scenes. Blowfish was cool; it was hip; it was the hot spot to see and be seen, and it had a creative and approachable menu that also delivered as far as taste.

However, Blowfish did have an odd location on Sunset Boulevard which rendered it almost invisible. It sat at the tail end of the Strip, hidden from the epicenter of urban über-cool; and from its exterior, it was so formidable and dismal-looking that it might as well have been a bank building. I surmise that this had at least somewhat contributed to its demise.

Fortunately for those in the Bay area, two Blowfish restaurants still remain. The locations in San Jose and San Francisco feature menus reminiscent of the one in the late WeHo branch, with slight variations (i.e., both Bay area restaurants offer the exotic Ostrich Portobello entree and Ritzu Roll; whereas L.A. had the Animal Style roll, and the Spider Roll with the experimental sweet honey tartar sauce).

Fugu, which is the Japanese word for blowfish, is notorious for its poisonous parts, especially the liver. Only chefs who have been through extensive training are permitted to handle these pufferfish, so that the toxic portions are removed. It's no surprise that the preparation of fugu is heavily regulated by the law. With such a legend, it's ironic that this restaurant was named after the lethal creature of the seadouble entendre and cutesy caricature of a blowfish notwithstanding.

According to the staff at Blowfish of San Francisco, it is illegal to fish for fugu in the Bay area; however, during the winter months, the blowfish that accidentally get caught in te nets can be served. It's no cheap affair: it costs $300 for the six-part fugu-tasting dinner set, complete with blowfish skin with monkfish liver, blowfish stock soup with lotus root cake, blowfish sashimi with with Chidori ponzu sauce, deep-fried blowfish collar and center bone with shishito peppers, blowfish nigiri, and green tea ice cream.

But you don't need to order blowfish to have dishes to die for: the Halibut Crudo is a perfect sashimi special drizzled with truffle oil and mango salsa with colorful flying fish roe on top; the Hawaiian Wulu nigiri is a buttery white tuna that pairs well with a tomato ginger garnish. If you're a fan of salmon, the Sakezanmai is a great choice, with its crown of salmon eggs and center of salmon, salmon skin, shiso leaves and sprouts.

Occasionally you'll find things for more twisted tastes such as the seasonal Mother's Day Roll, an almost too-sweet treat with tangerine, avocado and oboro encased in a strawberry-flavored wrap not unlike a fruit roll-up. And then there's the Ostrich Portobello, which is quite amazing albeit a bit tough to chew; the avian meat sits on a bed of tempura-fried Portobello mushrooms soaking in purple beet vinaigrette and sweet ponzu reduction.

Blowfish Sushi to Die For makes you feel happy to be alive.

Blowfish Sushi to Die For
355 Santana Row, San Jose

2170 Bryant St., San Francisco

OTAKU of Arizona: An Oasis in the Desert

OTAKU: An Oasis in the Desert

Who says you can't find fabulous sushi in the middle of the desert?

Barely a few months old, Otaku of Chandler, Arizona brings it on with a vast array of fresh fish, top-tier service, and uncanny attention to detail.

Executive chef Jay Chung introduced me to the magic of combining succulent Australian Wagyu ribeye with macadamian nuts; the refreshing and cool aftertaste that can be discovered by adding shiso leaf and avocado to a simple salmon skin hand roll; and the rich, heady aroma of properly smoked salmon nigiri.

I'm indoctrinated in all matters of sushi, from the fact that the little green bits atop the toro gunkan-style is the unprecedented pickled wasabi, to the principle of taking a torch to a sheet of nori in order to add a little crisp.

The "Otaku special salsa" atop the Salmon Tataki Special, I'm told, is comprised of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, yuzu and Japanese dressing. For an unconventional roll, there's the Cajun Otaku Tempura, which comes with Ahi tuna, big eye tuna, avocado and asparagus. The entire roll is panko-breaded and then fried and served with cajun sauce.

It's the little touches that matter, from the marble sushi bar to the savvy of the sushi master. And unlike many other resetaurants, Otaku as a business is confident and experienced, and therefore unafraid of recommending other local restaurants that the staff holds in high regard.

With its swaying palm trees and welcoming ambience, Otaku truly is an oasis in the desert.

2430 S. Gilbert Rd., Chandler, AZ

Flair Abounds But Flavors Are Amiss at Shoya in Melbourne, Australia

Shoya: Mostly Bland

There is supposed to be at least one in every major city: a hoity-toity Japanese dining establishment known for its fancy decor, pampering staff, and unforgettable food that is tantamount to its high price and standards. Unfortunately for Melbourne, its star restaurant doesn't quite hold down the forefront on fine dining.

Shoya, despite all of its glamorous flourishes and perfect presentation, lacks inspiration in the taste department. That an upscale restaurant could excel in every way except taste is not an unheard-of occurence; many is the time I have marveled at beautiful food festively arranged on a platter in an enchanting setting, only to have the taste of the food turn out to be bland. It is the polar opposite of discovering spellbinding flavors at a hole-in-the-wall, and perhaps the ultimate disappointmentespecially if the bill is decidedly high.

"When it comes to good food, money is no object," a friend of mine recently stated. Touché. But then what to do when the food isn't up to par? At a place like Shoya, which charges A$150 for a 12-part meal, unless you plan to execute a D n' D (Dine n' Dash), you'd probably hang in there and hope it gets better.

I was seduced by Shoya based on photos of immaculate food on its website, which displayed good-looking fish embellished with gold flakes and multicolored roe. And it certainly looked to be a fine-dining restaurant, which was exactly what I was searching for after days of casual sushi-chomping alternatives. There, in a mysterious-looking alleyway known as Market Lane, aglow with eldritch lighting, sat Shoyaa refuge from the crowded sidewalks teeming with Melbournites, a place that didn't look as pretentious on the outside as it acted on the inside.

I reckon it was because I was a single female diner, or because I dressed too casually (I had just concluded my all-day tour at The Great Ocean Road), but the waiter at first did not believe I would be willing or able to pay for the A$150 meal. "It's a hundred-fifty," he said before seating me, as if I had not read that on the menu myself. I nodded, "I know." Still unsure I had heard, he reiterated, "One-hundred-and-fifty-dollars." (I reasoned that they must have dealt with a lot of D n' D experiences in the past.) "Yes, I know," I repeated. He wasn't being haughty; he really appeared fearful that I would be unable to pay at the end. I wasn't properly accessorized with a man or a better wardrobe. But looking around, I saw casually dressed men; only the women were better-attired. Choosing to overlook this silly double standard, I continued to affirm my credibility by telling the waiter I knew my food, even mentioning names of other sushi restaurants I had been to since going down under. He seemed to relax after that.

One of the reasons I had even been enticed by the multi-part course for that high of a price was because the kitchen was exposed; up front and center, right next to the main entrance, was the open-walled kitchen which had a counter across which slid scintillating salmon and tempting tempura-crusted king crab legs. Because the food was gorgeous, and brilliantly accented, I caved inI wanted it now.

The salmon I had been eyeing turned out to be the Salmon Carpaccio, salt-cured and strewn with sprouts, salmon eggs, truffles, sour plum sauce and wasabi mousse. While it was in fact a visual feast, it was hardly a feast for my other sensesagain, that strange blandness that doesn't match an exotic appearance. I hoped that was the end of the blandness; unfortunately it wasn't until the eighth plate that I finally began to taste something, and that was only because I had asked for ponzu sauce to go with it (the king crab tempura leg had only come with a side of green tea salt to accompany it). The last two dishes also tasted goodbut one of them was dessert, featuring chocolate pudding, uni cheesecake (although not very uni-flavored) and black sesame panna cotta. The other was the Wagyu Beef Steak with mixed steamed rice and foie gras. The Wagyu was rich and pungent; its sauce was dark and smoky, and the ever-slinky enoki mushrooms had been thrown in for good measure.

The rest of the meal, however, was seriously, well, bland. Even the horseradish from Tasmania, which the waiter smeared on my plate with a delicate flourish, didn't have much of a kick. The sashimi, which arrived in the utmost of unique fashionsinside a glass fish-bowl type of containereven featured a rare fish called dory. "That's the Finding Nemo fish," the waiter pointed out. Adding ponzu sauce didn't help the fish flavors one bit; the sashimi was still bland. Then there was the Shochu Sorbet with caviar on top; the sake-infused oyster with pink peppercorn and miso sauce, served in a champagne glass; the quail thigh in a green tea scented bamboo leaf crust. They sounded delicious, but they were bland, bland....

Strangely, there was an item called Hatching Ocean Egg, which was somewhat reminiscent of what Yoshii of Sydney did with his Sea Urchin Egg Cupexcept this one had all the flourishes and no flavor. A white-gloved waiter delivered the egg in a wooden crate to my table. After sliding the crate lid open, he assembled everything on the plate before me, setting the egg upon heaps of wet salt that enabled the egg to stand upright. According to the menu, this is steamed egg custard with black truffle, spinach puree and topped with tempura scampi tail--all floating in a laser-cut egg shell. I thought it would've been more appropriate if the thing had arrived in a coffin-shaped wooden crate; it was dead on arrival as far as taste goes.

All in all, the place deserves about a C rating.

25 Market Lane, Melbourne

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sushi Burger of Melbourne, Australia

All the Rawness of a Sushi Burger...

At the other end of the spectrum, there is the super-casual Sushi Burger, which is fun and gimmicky, although the idea was not totally new to me (I once dined at a sushi bar that served what they called a "Sushi Sandwich"sushi rice shaped into bread slices with a filling of imitation crab, avocado and smelt fish eggs).

Sushi Burger, however, has apparently expanded that idea into a restaurant. The menu is easy to read, with pictures that show what you're getting; the prices are either A$5.50 or A$6.50, with an extra dollar charged if you prefer the "dine in" option as opposed to "take away." And except for their fillingschoose from deep-fried fish, teriyaki chicken, crab croquette, ebi mayo and even softshell crab, to name a feweach "burger" looks exactly the same, with two slabs of sushi rice and a sheet of seaweed wrapped around it all as if it were a pita-pocket. Most of these come with leafy green lettuce, which add to the "burger" effect. But thankfully, no tomato is usedthat probably wouldn't go very well with any of their ingredients.

I ordered a spicy raw salmon sushi burger, partly because it was late by Melbourne's standards (most places close early in this backwards city that has the strangest trading hours) and that was one of the few that were still available. It was decent enough for only a few dollars. The fish was fresh but I thought the sushi rice could have been better seasoned. The cold, spicy fish chunks were actually well-matched with the glob of Japanese mayonnaise smeared inside, and the bed of lettuce that was tucked between the rice buns.

The atmosphere does indeed have a fast-food feel. Through the front window, plastic models of various sushi burgers can even be seen on a display shelf, adding to the kitschy fun of this off-the-wall joint.

Sushi Burger
167 Exhibition St., Melbourne