Sushi Atelier, 114 Great Portland Street, London W1W 6PH (020 7636 4455). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £70-£110
Good restaurants make us think better of ourselves. They create a mood and then, by granting us a seat, co-opt us into it. Sushi Atelier, on London’s Great Portland Street, makes me feel like a better person. It makes me feel refined and precise, organised and knowing. In reality, perched on one of their stools at their blond-wood counter, I am still the shambolic bundle of appetites and desires I have always been. I am still all sag and so much muffin top I’m practically the whole cake counter of a branch of Costa. But here, I feel taut and focussed. It’s an achievement for a restaurant flogging raw fish and rice.
I was optimistic about Sushi Atelier from the start. It’s run by the people behind Chisou in Mayfair and Knightsbridge. For years the two branches have been my answer to requests for a reliable Japanese place covering all the bases. Are they the very best in London? No, not quite. Umu is better, but it’s also three times more expensive. At Umu you also have to sit next to people who have self-tanned themselves orange; the sort of people who buy Swarovski Crystal-encrusted iPhone cases to go with their elective enemas because they’ve run out of things to spend money on. At Umu they play mellow beats on the sound system, which makes me want to kill people.
At Sushi Atelier there are no mellow beats, just something lyrical involving pianos that sounds like the sea coming in and going out again. It’s full of people who happen to like quality Japanese food and reckon this is it. They are right. There’s a curious thing that occurs more with Japanese food than almost any other culture’s cooking: at the top end, discerning the ethereal from the brilliant from the merely great becomes harder and harder. We all know what truly crap sushi is. We know about chilled pucks of sushi rice from the bottom of a motorway service station counter which are a Heimlich manoeuvre just waiting to happen. We all know about dead lozenges of fish which are about as fresh as the socks of a reality TV star two weeks into their stint on I’m a Celebrity…
The further up the graph of quality you go, however, the shallower the curve becomes. It’s the culinary equivalent of listening for the very highest of frequencies, until you get to the kind of restaurant where there’s space for only four of you at the sushi master’s counter and the only way you can tell it’s better than the other place is because dinner costs £300 a head. Spending the stupid money makes schmucks feel better about themselves.
Sushi Atelier takes all the anxiety out of the search for quality Japanese cooking. It’s impressive without being neurotic. The menu is slightly more diverse than that at a hardcore sushi shop, but only just: there are pork gyoza, in silken dumpling cases that are practically translucent, served warm enough to steam gently. They sear slices of sweet scallop until the sugars just catch, but they are still pearly inside. Then they lie them on a bed of green sauce punched up with ponzu alongside some asparagus (which I want to pretend aren’t there, because they shouldn’t have been at this time of year). The kitchen enjoys sparking up the blow torch now and then.
But their interests lie more with the raw than the cooked. There are three fish tartares, piled up along a sturdy piece of Japanese ceramic. Tuna has been dressed with soy-marinated wasabi, so that a kick of horseradish heat comes in right at the end. A mixture of diced sea bass and butterfish, the bright white of new piano keys, bursts with crisp, green chilli; there is salmon, splashed with yuzu, soy and sesame oil. A salad of various dressed seaweeds, which tastes like you imagine Ben Ainslie smells after three laps around a choppy bay, comes with ribbons of pickled cucumber, to lift it from the salty depths.
An oblong of tuna is seared on all surfaces, then sliced and served under a sweet-sour chilli ponzu jelly, the colour of polished amber. If anybody ever tells you jelly is for babies, bring them here and feed them this. It is strident and grown up. If life were fair you’d be able to get in a bath of this with a friend.
And then on to the sushi. Pay attention to the rice. It is still just warm. It is only very lightly vinagered. You can pick out individual grains with the tip of a chopstick. It’s not what I’d call a great spectator sport, but at least it’s a mark that everything is as it should be. In any case there are other things to watch. There is the dip and weave and furrowed brow of the men behind the counter. We have a spicy salmon roll, made by a broad-shouldered Japanese chap who looks like he could help give your car a bump start, but who does extraordinarily delicate things with his fingertips. The roll is marked by the freshness of the toasted seaweed, which cracks beneath our teeth, as we bite through the layers.
When it comes to the nigiri there are bursts of that blow torch, which makes the fish oils run. There are brushes with different soy-based sauces. Tiny dollops of seaweed paste are dropped into place. Crevices are dribbled with chilli oil. It is all beautiful: the sea bass and the salmon, the sweet prawn and the sticky glazed eel with its seaweed life belt to keep it in place. Best of all there is sea urchin, the colour of caramel, and the taste of the carnal. That’s not a clever piece of imagery. It’s a literal use of language. If it doesn’t mean anything to you I’m just so sorry. For you.
We drink a soft, warming sake. In the traditional style, it is poured until it overflows from the glass into the “masu”, the square wooden box it sits in, as a mark of the restaurant’s generosity. And while I wouldn’t suggest they are giving it away, I would argue there is value here.
This time last year, I reviewed the Italian restaurant Veneta which I tried to like but couldn’t quite. As we reported recently it closed two days ago. I suspect Sushi Atelier will be here for a long time to come, which is great. I’m always in need of a restaurant that makes me feel like a better person than I really am.
Jay’s news bites
Jason Atherton startled many when he opened Sosharu in London’s Clerkenwell last year. There had always been Japanese elements to his cooking, but this was the whole deal. And very good it is, too, if a little spendy. There’s a brilliant tartare of scallops, stuffed, glazed and grilled chicken wings, and pork belly in a tonkotsu stock. Beguiling (sosharulondon.com).
For those concerned that the biggest challenge to the restaurant industry comes from diners ordering restaurant food to be eaten at home, there’s new evidence. Online food delivery business Just Eat, has announced that Saturday 2 December was their first ever 500,000 order day in the UK. It was the day of the X Factor live final.
A wise and insightful restaurant critic suggested earlier this year that there should be a branch of the Indian street food and craft beer restaurant Bundobust in every northern town. And here they come: Liverpool for 2018 with two more in the north for 2019 (bundobust.com).