Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Shiori, 1st November

Three or four years ago, I was invited to lunch by a recruitment consultant whose services we had used a lot in the past at work. I didn't want to have lunch with her and spend an hour making small-talk and asking her about her holidays, but am hopelessly unassertive and couldn't think of a polite way to get out of it. To make matters worse, it was left up to me to decide where we should go, but I had no idea what would be reasonable, so decided that the Drummond Street enclave of vegetarian Indian restaurants would probably have something that would do and we ended up walking along Drummond Street looking for somewhere. Drummond Street is quite grotty, and that end of it wasn't familiar to me - I know the Euston end better - so I was very surprised to see a tiny restaurant with the most beautiful-looking sushi visible from the entrance. I pointed it out to the recruitment consultant but she wasn't interested in sushi so we went to one of the Indian places instead.

The sushi place I saw that day was called Sushi of Shiori and I didn't forget about it - soon afterwards, I went there with a colleague for lunch and although I know nothing about sushi, I could tell this was amazing, and beautifully presented. I found out that the chef, Takashi Takagi, had previously worked at Umu, which is a highly regarded Japanese restaurant in Mayfair. The only worry was that, although they only had 8 covers, they didn't seem to have any other customers and I was worried that it wouldn't last long.

I embarked on a campaign to go there at every opportunity and on one memorable occasion went with M, who speaks Japanese, and we ordered a whole load of wonderful sushi, ate it all, and ordered the same again. "You do realise that will be quite expensive?" asked the woman. Damn right and we didn't care! Then there was the first time I went there with G, and we sat at the counter watching the chef doing his thing. G's head was making small movements like a cat watching you open the tin of cat food. After a favourable review by Jay Rayner, I no longer had to worry about it being empty, but had the opposite problem, trouble getting in. Then it closed down completely!

But all is well. Sushi of Shiori has moved to Bayswater where it has reopened as The Shiori. It has doubled in size and they offer just two set menus, with or without sake tasting. G and I decided to treat ourselves and went there on Friday for the works. It wasn't cheap, but it was one of the best meals either of us has ever had.

When we arrived, it was gratifying to be greeted by Hitomi, the chef's wife, who remembered me from the Drummond Street days. I don't think I ever really spoke to her that much back there, as I mainly went for lunch and it wasn't an occasion for chit-chat, but here at the Shiori there was far more interaction, as she explained each course and each sake to us, and by the end of the evening it was just us and one other couple still there, and conversation was very lively. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We went for the 12 course menu with sake tasting. This is what we got.

En aperitif, this was a slightly fizzy sake with wild strawberries floating in it. Hitomi seemed rather shocked when I started using my chopsticks to fish them out at the end, but there was no way I was letting them go to waste!

A slice of tofu floating in some soy sauce. I gather they make their own soy sauce. G observed that the tofu had the consistency of a panna cotta - wobbly.

Another sake. I didn't make notes on these, but gather that some are "high grade" i.e. the rice has been polished very finely (if I've understood correctly) and some are not. This was low-grade but rustic enough to go with the food. Apparently matching sake with food isn't something that happens much, the Japanese just drink it.

This was sock-eye salmon with little pearls of roe. Eating the roe with chopsticks was practically impossible and would make a good party game. I ended up using my slice of lime as an additional piece of cutlery.

Sweet shrimp in a sauce made out of sea urchin. Absolutely delicious. Here we really needed spoons to finish off the sauce. I may have to smuggle some in next time.

This was a sort of savoury custard, with delicious things suspended in it - a gingko nut, some mushrooms, some fishy things. Lovely.

A plate of sashimi, complete with edible flowers. We particularly enjoyed the squid which was in the little pot, in a sauce made from bonito guts. (I didn't hear the "guts" bit when she was explaining this to us, but I trust G not to wind me up.) The mackerel was from Cornwall and arrives the same day, which is one day earlier than the fish they used to get when they were at Drummond Street. The flowers were very tasty too. How very Cereal magazine.

More sake. I'm not sure I'd ever really drunk sake before - several of these reminded us of fino sherry, and some of them had a faint smell of apples on the nose. They were mainly very clean-tasting and did seem to go really well with the food.

Out of so many delicious items, it's hard to pick one and say it was the best, but for me this was it: red mullet rolled up with plum sauce, covered in a sort of crispy rice, and deep-fried. It was like the best fish and chips ever, but without the chips. I could quite easily have scoffed another five portions of this.

This was a snow-crab cake. After the heights of the red mullet, we thought it was good but not a highlight.

Wild sea bass with ponzu sauce.

Sake served in a cedar box. Hitomi deliberately over-filled G's glass so that some of it went in the box - apparently that's how they used to drink it back in the days before glasses.

Pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce to accompany...

... the first round of sushi! Complete with little brush to apply soy sauce, since we cack-handed Western types can't dunk the sushi without it disintegrating and making a dreadful mess (in my case, at any rate).

I got so carried away eating the second round of sushi that I'd got half way through before I realised I hadn't taken a photo. The one I'd already eaten was scallop.

Enticing-looking bowl of miso soup ("good for your tummy" said Hitomi)...

... with a fuck-off great big piece of lobster floating in it!

Sake being warmed in a little pot.

Yuzu sorbet. We shared our puddings; G went for this and I went for chestnut ice cream. The best thing about the puddings in my opinion was the candied yuzu peel. That would make a wicked marmalade.

All gone!

Last sake of the evening.

And we finished off with a nice cup of tea.

We'd been there for four hours - the pacing of the meal was relatively slow in such a way that encouraged you to savour everything. The couple at the other table were talking to Hitomi at this point and she said that some customers hate the place - and possibly hate her informal style of service - and never come back, but fortunately quite a few people do love it and are repeat customers. I can see that if you're not up for weird raw fishy things, it wouldn't be your place. As for Michelin stars, the food definitely deserves them (at least two, we thought) but the decor isn't starchy - it reminded us of being in a spa! - and Hitomi and her colleague's service is friendly and charming rather than stuffy.

We asked for the bill and when it was given to G, he told Hitomi that I was paying. I said we'd agreed he would pay next time and, quick as a flash, she said "Oh, we must make sure we put up the price in that case." Ha ha! They seem to change the menu quite often, possibly every month, as the seasonal aspect is quite important. I think next time we'll skip the sake tasting which, while very interesting and enjoyable, was something you probably only need to do once. Already looking forward to it!

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