12 New Burlington Street,
London W1S 3BH
Tel. 0207 287 2481
Food type: Sushi
Nearest tube: Oxford Circus
Website: the Araki
There are very few restaurant openings in London which excite me. The restaurant trends seem to be gravitating towards casual/ small plates concept rather than serious high-end, haute cuisine. If a big name chef is involved in a restaurant’s opening, then this is usually with a more junior chef doing the cooking (e.g. Celeste) or simply on a consultancy base (e.g. Tokimeite). As such when I heard that Mitsuhiro Araki had decided to close his sushi-ya in Tokyo and open up in London I initially received it with plenty of scepticism. Would he be cooking here for a short period of time, train up a more junior chef before heading back to Japan? Nearly a year and half after opening, Araki-san is still in London, serving up his interpretation of Edo-mae sushi during every dinner service.
The dining room is minimalistic with a 10-seat counter made from Hinoki wood. Each seat gives the diner an excellent view of Araki-san crafting his sushi with the aid of two helpers. As you would expect in Japan, there is a no choice ‘Omakase’ menu priced at £300 per head which includes a couple of starters and 12 pieces of sushi. Although some have claimed that this is the most expensive sushi in the world, 3* Sushi Shikon in Hong Kong (a branch of Sushi Yoshitake) charges HKD$3,500 (£320). Irregardless, a meal at the Araki is very pricey by English standards, with only the Fat Duck and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (Inspiration table) coming close. Whether this is value for money or not is dependent on how much you actually enjoy and appreciate sushi.
Many outposts of sushi-yas from Tokyo import their fish directly from Japan. This is certainly the case with Sushi Shikon and Sushi Ginza Iwa in Hong Kong, Shinji by Kanesaka in Singapore and Taka by Sushi Saito in Kuala Lumpur. The Araki is unique because the chef has decided to eschew importing directly from Japan but instead to source more locally from England and Europe. This is a challenge because although the seafood in Europe is world-class, the way fish is transported and stored is lacking. Many fishing boats in England for example do not have basics like ice! Think about that for a second. In the warmer months, fresh fish caught at sea would be sitting in the heat for a significant period before they are brought to shore. I personally feel that sourcing locally is great as it will help improve the fishery industry in England.
The meal started with white asparagus from France with Oscietra caviar and kinome. The asparagus were steamed until very tender and pairing it with the slightly salty Oscietra caviar was nice luxurious treat. The addition of the kinome gave the dish an interesting flavour and the combination with white asparagus is something that I have not encountered before.
We were on more traditional ground with the next course of sea bass sashimi served on a bed of shredded nori. The sea bass was sourced from Spain and had been pressed with kombu to impart additional umami to it. The sea bass skin had been blanched and marinated with soy and sake. Each rose of sea bass was served with a small dab of freshly grated wasabi with some soy dipping sauce on the side. We were encouraged to try the fish first without the soy and then with it. I was very impressed with the texture of the fish which had a dense, meaty texture with a hint of chewiness to it. The sea bass skin was also another interesting element and it was prepared in such a way to give an additional chewy texture to the dish. I appreciate that a chewy texture such as this may not be to the liking of many British people. However, I praise Araki-san for sticking to his guns as opposed to modifying his cooking to suit the British palate.
The next course was one of Araki-san’s new signatures – tuna tartare, made using both chutoro and otoro which had been marinated in a soy based sauce, served with a mayonnaise and a healthy grating of both spring and summer truffles. As extravagant as this sounds, this was a completely mind-blowing dish. The acidity from the yuzu used to flavour the mayonnaise help cut through the richness of the fish and it is hard not to like truffles, even if they were not winter truffles. I would be interested to return during the white truffle season to try this dish with Alba white truffles.
The final appetiser was a trio of salmon, tuna and sea bream. The salmon, from Loch Duart, had been wrapped in a shiso leaf and gently steamed. The result was the fish had a lovely fragrance which had been imparted from the herb. Next was the tuna belly which had been slow cooked to achieve a soft melt-in-your-mouth texture. Finally the sea bream had been gently grilled with a lovely smoky aroma with the skin ground to a crumb for additional texture.
After this began the sequence of sushi. Araki-san uses rice grown by his father-in-law in Japan and seasons it traditionally with red vinegar. I found it interesting that he intentionally prepares the shari (rice) to have a very loose, open texture with the grains of rice barely holding on to each another. As the resulting sushi is often very fragile, Araki-san often chooses to serve the sushi directly into the customer’s hands. I find his approach to the shari very interesting as it allows for the sushi to literally melt in your mouth. As Araki-san is famous for his tuna (today sourced from Malta), we were served it in abundance including a double helping of chutoro (medium fatty tuna) and otoro (fattiest tuna). They pop up later in the meal again with the chutoro marinated in a soy flavoured with truffles while the otoro is grilled. Other neta used include grilled yellowtail, abalone (steamed for 6 hours with sake), grilled langoustine, salmon with golden Almas caviar, scallop and Welsh eel. The meal naturally concluded with the traditional tamago which had a little savoury note to it with the addition of langoustines to the mix.
I absolutely loved my meal at the Araki. It is always interesting seeing a top sushi master in action and I cannot help but admire his deftness in touch when preparing the shari. Admittedly £300 is a lot of money for sushi and this is somewhat hampered by the lack of quality ingredients he can source locally, resulting in a sequence of sushi which is somewhat limited. To that end, Araki-san compensates with an abundance of premium tuna and generous servings of truffles and caviar. I have no problem with this as I am a big fan of tuna, although this may not be to everyone’s liking. There is however no doubt that if you are looking for world-class sushi in England, then the Araki is pretty much your only option.