14-16 Bruton Place,
Tel. 020 7499 8881
Food type: Japanese
Nearest tube: Bond Street
Many apologies for the lack of posts. The last couple of weeks has been a complete whirlwind with my wedding and subsequent honeymoon. During this time, there has still been plenty of dining out and I will be writing about some of the more exciting (and less exciting) dining experiences of our trip in due course. However, for now, there are some back dated posts to get through in quick succession.
Umu has been around in London for quite some time now. I have visited Umu once, back in 2009, where it held a single Michelin star. At that time it was one of three Japanese restaurants in London to be awarded a star (the other two being both branches of Nobu). My meal then was fine, but nothing spectacular. The kind of meal that you would happily pay for but forget 2 weeks later. Then in the most recent Michelin guide, Umu was upgraded to 2 stars. During this process, they have inherited a new head chef – Yoshinori Ishii, who has put a lot of effort into the sourcing of his produce, going to great lengths to teach Cornish fishermen the ikejime technique of handling fish. This intrigued me, as prior to this, most Japanese restaurants in London often source their fish from suppliers like Atari-ya, which is fine, but not great. So I was keen to see if the additional effort in sourcing would taste different.
I dined at Umu for lunch, quickly ignoring the cheaper lunch menu option for the Kaiseki menu (£115) which they are famous for – chef Ishii had previously trained at the 3 star kaiseki restaurant Kitcho. They also have a wine and sake pairing to go with the Kaiseki menu and I opted for the later as Umu is one of the few Japanese restaurants in London who have an impressive selection of sake.
The meal began with the laying of the traditional black and red lacquered Kaiseki mat which was followed by a delicate dish of steamed clam and scallop accompanied by some pickled vegetables and a ‘seawater shot’. The clam had an interesting crunchy, slightly chewy texture (which may not be everyone’s cup of tea) which contrasted the soft, yielding texture of the scallop. The delicate ingredients were given an umami boost with some dashi infused with plum, balanced with the acidity from the vegetables. On the side, the seawater shot was the essence of the shellfish juice when they were cooked which tasted of the sea.
A soup course soon followed with a perfectly cooked fillet of cod resting on a bed of green pea tofu. The cooking of the cod was immaculate – I wish my camera skills were better because the cod was presented with a beautiful ‘mother of pearl’ sheen which indicates the fish had been timed to perfection. The soup itself was light, cleansing and rejuvenating – a perfect fit for a cold, rainy day in London. The green pea tofu was unlike any tofu I have eaten. It had plenty of pea flavour but not the silky, slippery, soft texture of tofu that I have been accustomed to. It was more like firmer version of mushy peas.
The sashimi course came in two servings. First was some white fish in my case turbot, which had been sliced so thinly you could see through the fish. On the side was some freshly grated wasabi. I was extremely impressed with the quality of the fish for numerous reasons. The turbot had the slightly chewy texture that the Japanese prize with white fish. The fish had also been allowed to mature to develop its umami flavour. More importantly, the fish had been handled properly so it did not taste stale. The second part were different cuts of tuna – akami, otoro and bonito along with slices of hamachi and stone bass which were yet again in excellent condition. It is safe to say that this is the best quality fish I have eaten in London. Ishii-san and his team were generous enough to offer me a bite of some other bites such as mackerel and sea urchin (from Ireland) which were not on the Kaiseki menu.
It was during my conversation with chef Ishii at the end of the meal did he inform me that part of the problem of the fishery industry in England is that the fishing boats do not have the equipment to store fish properly. I am not talking about fancy equipment but rather simple commodities as an ice machine! Think about it for a second – fisherman catches fish in the warmer months which then sits on the boat at around 10 C for 4-6 hours until they get to shore before they are put on ice. The fish has already started to deteriorate during this time.
The meal now moved up another gear with eel cooked two ways. First was a spoon containing elver (baby) eel which had been steamed with sake to bring out its natural sweetness topped with some Exmoor caviar. The star of the show however was a plump juicy piece of wild eel from Northern Ireland, cooked kabayaki style. You could tell that the eel had been cooked with plenty of love upon its arrival with a glistening, lacquered skin which gave way to soft yielding flesh. My only regret was that there was only a small piece of the eel which was absolutely fantastic.
The only dish of the day which I was not too fussed about was the charcoal grilled rabbit. The execution of the dish was fine – the rabbit loin timed correctly and was moist and the croquette of leg meat more-ish, but for me this dish could have easily appeared in any French restaurant. It just lacked that je ne sai quai.
Things got back on track with an excellent wagyu shabu-shabu with some bamboo shoots and crispy vegetables. I have had a similar dish at Ryugin, Hong Kong, and the version here wins hands down. I think the addition of the sudachi jelly on the side was what tipped it in its favour as the acidity from the jelly helped cut through the richness of the beef.
Finally it was time for the rice course which for Kaiseki menus is often a bit of a bore as this usually involves some white rice with pickles and soup. Not here however! Chef Ishii has gone to great lengths to ensure the rice course remains interesting and exciting to the palate. What I was presented was a bowl too pretty to eat containing stone bass and seasonal vegetables. The pickles on the side were excellent as well.
The meal ended with an interesting dessert featuring seasonal Gariguette strawberries paired with asparagus. To be honest, I didn’t mind this odd combination as there was enough sweetness in the dish to balance out the vegetal notes of the asparagus.
At the end of the meal, I was left very impressed with the quality of cooking delivered at Umu. The cooking here is clearly a step up from what I remembered from my previous visit. The dishes I enjoyed on this occasion had balance and finesse while keeping true to its Japanese roots. In particular, I left being stunned by the quality of produce on show. I applaud Chef Ishii for the amount of work he has done to improve the fishery industry in England and I hope that this will in turn benefit other Japanese restaurants in the country. Umu deserves every one of it two stars that it currently holds.