Real Japanese Sushi: From Novice to Connoisseur
One of my favourite articles will always be “I Ate At The World’s Best Sushi Restaurant” aka the time I almost puked in front of Jiro by Luis Prada, where he details his nerve-wracking experience of eating at Jiro’s, the three Michelin star sushi legend of Jiro Dreams of Sushi Netflix documentary fame. I love it because it’s so hilarious and relatable. I have not had the honour of eating at Jiro’s or anything close, but I too have struggled with an endless, chewy, gag-inducing bite of sushi at one of the best sushi counters in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market and lived to tell the tale.
This is often what happens when a sushi novice eats real traditional Japanese sushi for the first time. It’s the turning point, when you realise that real Japanese sushi has nothing to do with the California rolls and all-salmon sushi boxes you’ve been eating your whole life. It’s that special moment when a two-thumbs lump of raw clam slides down your throat, then right back up again into your mouth, when you know, that you know nothing, Jon Snow.
But when I think back to my first cigarette, for example, I remember coughing and heaving then too. Yet I was undeterred and quickly progressed to the advanced level of smoking in no time. Of course, I’ve since quit the nasty habit many years ago, around the time when smoking went out and avocados came in, but the point I’m trying to make is that some things are an acquired taste.
What I took away from my first authentic traditional Japanese sushi experience, was not that I didn’t enjoy it, but that I had a lot to learn about it. And so on I went, venturing into the wonderful but weird world of Japanese sushi. I began to take note, studying and scrutinising everything about how the Japanese make and eat sushi. Tasting, chewing, observing. The further I ventured, the more I understood, until I had a sort of epiphany moment, like converting to a new religion, when I knew there would be no going back.
The Best Traditional Japanese Sushi in London
While I’m not yet a top-level sushi expert, I consider myself a connoisseur. I’ve eaten sushi all over the world and at more places than I can count. In London, I’ve been to Roka, Oka, Zuma, Kyubi, Yashin Ocean House, Sake No Hana, Sushi Samba, Chotto Matte, Sumosan, Dozo, Maze Sushi, Yo Sushi!, YouMeSushi, Feng Sushi, Wasabi, Itsu, and many more. But most of these are not traditional. Even the incredible Yashin Ocean House, which I love and reviewed recently, is modern, western fusion, and a long way from traditional Japanese.
I am now two high-end traditional Japanese sushi experiences away from booking the holy grail of sushi in London that is the Araki, a £300 per person sushi seating prepared by three Michelin star super chef Mitsuhiro Araki. It has taken me years to reach this point, decades. The Araki is not for the sushi novice, unless of course if you’re not paying the bill and have nothing to lose. But to make it truly count, you should first train, prepare and polish your palate to the highest level in order to fully appreciate this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m getting close, but I’m not there yet.
First, I need to eat at the infamous Sushi Tetsu, known as the hardest restaurant to book in the UK. It’s considered to be the number one Japanese sushi restaurant in London, and at only £96 a head for the 12-piece nigiri omakase, it’s in high demand. But with just 7 seats capacity, it’s almost inaccessible. When I go, you’ll be the first to know. Then I want to try Ginza Onodera London, to compare it to my experience at Ginza Onodera Honolulu, which is still the best dinner of my life. After that, I think I’ll be ready.
So, dear readers, to answer the question where can one find the best traditional Japanese sushi in London that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg and is also possible to get a table? Drumroll please…
Kiku in Mayfair. Don’t be fooled by the location. The world was quite of a different place back in 1978 when the restaurant first opened up. It’s 40 years of operation, however, is an achievement indicative of just how good the restaurant is.
Another thing I’ve learned along the way is to always sit at the sushi counter. Not only for eating sushi at its freshest, but also to watch the itamae work, since sushi is also an art. In Japan, a customary way to show the chef your appreciation of the food is to buy him a beer or a drink.
I was blown away by the quality of the sushi at Kiku. Normally, I would start with some appetisers or sashimi but this time I wanted to go straight for the nigiri, which is the ‘main course’ portion of Japanese sushi. Unlike the western version, which focuses more on maki rolls, the Japanese tend to only eat a maki roll or two at the very end. I would also normally choose omakase, but I was in the mood for some very specific things so instead, we ordered a la carte.
What I ordered (nigiri):
- sake (salmon)
- saketoro (seared salmon belly)
- amaebi (sweet prawn)
- tai (sea bream)
- maguro (tuna)
- chutoro (medium fatty tuna)
- hamachi (yellow tail)
- kani (crab meat)
- ikura (salmon roe)
Everything was incredible. Each bite, truly perfect. Everything was soft, tasty, fresh. Nothing was chewy, but also I didn’t order the chewier items. My latest obsession is amaebi, the sweet prawn I was seriously craving, and it was divine here. I am really going to hate pregnancy, aren’t I?
We went for a second round of the seared salmon belly, which melted over our tongues, I don’t even think I chewed it it was that soft. And also the kani, which we’d never had like that before and was so fresh and delicious we had to order more. The waitress actually misheard my order of uni (sea urchin) for kani, but after all we thanked her for the mistake as we got to try something new.
At the end, we went for a simple salmon and avocado hand roll each and shared a portion of tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet) and a miso roasted aubergine. Kiku is a Japanese restaurant not only specialising in sushi but also a wide variety of Japanese fine-dining, including sukiyaki and shabu shabu.
Kiku is on Half Moon Street in Mayfair. It’s really popular so booking is advised.
What time is it? Nigiri o’clock!