Nobu Matsuhisa may be able to claim considerable credit for having sold sushi to the well-heeled West, but even for him, offering a ’refreshing alternative’ to the British high tea is truly risky stuff.
There’s no denying that English attitudes to food have advanced light years in recent decades. Schoolchildren fattened on spotted dick and greasy cottage pie have bravely tested their palates, and fallen in love, with first the humble avocado, then now-ubiquitous hummus, sushi, Vietnamese pho, ultra-chic foraged Scandinavian cuisine.
And yet, there are certain occasions when culinary innovation is far from welcome. Spines were ruffled in the Hedgehog household when one Christmas guest produced Ukrainian salads alongside the festive dinner. Sunday roasts, morning fry-ups and cream teas are so beloved that any attempt at modernisation, in certain circles at least, is considered almost heretical.
Nobu Matsuhisa may be able to claim considerable credit for having sold sushi to the well-heeled West, but even for him, offering a ‘refreshing alternative’ to the British high tea is truly risky stuff.
The ambience at Nobu Berkeley street was clearly intended to ease shell-shocked scone-lovers back into their comfort zone: dimmed lighting, soft jazz music and wincingly polite waiters who were only too happy to explain the Japanese tea menu to inquisitive guests and journalists puzzling as to why their green tea had a cappuccino-like froth.
The frothy green tea is called macha and proceedings opened with a solemn tea-frothing ceremony, a waiter crouching beside the table to whip the macha powder with water using an elegant wooden whisk — this gives the tea a creamier taste, I learned.
Two bento boxes arrived shortly afterwards, both beautifully presented, one for savoury Japanese bites, the other containing an assortment of desserts.
I tried the takoyaki first, two neat round dumplings, one filled with octopus, the other with beef. The waiter described takoyaki as Japanese ‘street food’ and for all its Nobu-style refinement it was street-food at heart: bold, salty and satisfyingly stodgy — had the takoyaki been any larger I would have struggled. Together with salmon sashimi with wasabi sour cream and the grilled Japanese vegetables and salsa, these were more than worthy substitutes for cucumber sandwiches. And there was still another whole bento box to go.
The green tea doughnut was a highlight: light and fluffy and filled with a zingy, fresh-tasting yuzu curd. I was delighted to find fruit and mochi skewers in the second box, too. Mochi are a recent obsession of mine, but I can accept that they may not be to everyone’s taste. They are sweet rice dumplings, in this case filled with red bean curd, with the texture of slightly softer and chewier Turkish delight that sometimes sticks to the teeth in a way that I find completely irresistible.
Mochi haters can still sate themselves with delicate miso sable biscuits and a white chocolate and mango pudding, ensuring that the Japanese tea is no less decadent than the traditional British version.
So having deserted the great British high tea, did I feel anything was missing from the Japanese version? Perhaps only a glass of champagne, but this is easily rectified.