Is it Nobu? No. Is it Sake No Hana? No. Timothy Mawn has a surprise for you. Ever heard of Atariya?
THERE HAS BEEN a terrific amount of quibbling, squabbling and down right dirty talk between many, er, professional (supposedly) food critics about the title of the best sushi bar in London. This is an important subject to many as this ‘fast food’ has become a common part of many people’s lives, replacing the sandwich at lunchtime and generally viewed as a lighter, healthier option.
It is, no doubt, only a matter of time, as the bandwagon rolls on, until Greggs releases its own range of sausage sushi rolls, cheese and ham nigiri and builder’s bento, so conspicuously common has this snack become.
But let’s be reasonable: sushi by its very nature is not an immodest, arrogant or high-brow food – quite the reverse in fact: it is a quiet food, displaying only a deft knife skill, at times some visual flair and an integrity of quality.
Sushi, meaning ‘sour tasting’ in Japanese and (much to the disgust of my Japanese wife) thought to be introduced from the Mekong, is an integral part of Nipponesque food culture, for most a daily snack.
So, for the non-Japanese sushi-loving people reading this, my question is, What makes good sushi? Only two things: perfectly cooked vinegared rice and, most importantly, spankingly, well-sliced, fresh fish. What could be simpler?
Forget what other people jealously view as the best sushi in London: if you want plain good sushi, the actual type that Japanese expatriates eat here in the capital, then here is my guide.
First, purchase a deerstalker, a magnifying glass, a newspaper with cut out eye holes and a pipe; at this stage, a false moustache and plastic nose are not quite necessary, as they may inhibit the actual eating process.
Secondly, find a highly-rated sushi bar or restaurant and kindly ask to speak to the head chef or manager and ask them where they buy their fish and for the number of the company’s salesperson.
With this information in hand, phone this person and ask them where they, or their family eat sushi. It really is that simple: information fresh from the horse mackerel’s mouth. Better, in my opinion, to speak to the butcher, not to the sausage.
FOR A CHEF who buys lots of raw fish for sashimi and tartare in my restaurant, I followed this very same pattern, only using a beanie hat instead of the aforementioned deerstalker, to be told by my salesperson that they have their own restaurants, which he thinks are excellent at providing my exacting requirements…
I chose to take him up on his word. Logic suggests that a Japanese fish supplier with their own outlets should at the very least be able to offer a standard greater then any run of the mill sushi bars, so off I headed, still holding the cut-out newspaper.
Atariya, are a Japanese distributor who have been trading in London for more than 30 years , and have faithfully supplied all of the top Japanese restaurants, yet they are a company probably only known to savvy chefs, Japanese expatriates and locals lucky enough to live near their seven unassuming restaurants and sushi bars. They also have a couple of tiny haphazard shops too.
I decided first to try the Ealing Common sushi restaurant, conveniently located directly opposite the tube station exit. Upon arrival we were greeted by the friendly, slightly unnerving yell of Irasshaimase! and the briney fug of the sea and soy. So far, so Tokyo.
As a chef, it is always a pleasure to enter a restaurant filled with families who are not the screaming groups of kids found in Pizza Express et al, but the type who respectfully share this moment to bond, discuss and enjoy food. This is very rare to find in English restaurant culture, but I have seen it many times over in Mediterranean Europe and more so in Asia.
This shows, to me, a trust in the management and the kitchen by the parents, a necessary life lesson and an important education in the sharing and appreciation of enjoying good food, an opportunity to nurture social skills over the table, sadly lacking in England.
This is why I can talk about the joy of a tomato to any of my young Italian chefs, for at least an hour, and they will be transported back home immediately, to a fond place, which I would jealously love to inhabit. But I digress.
We over-ordered as I am greedy, and each swiftly prepared dish was as it would, and should, be in any similar place in Japan. It is not necessary to describe or over-analyse each dish we ate as nothing was lost in translation.
If you want to eat sushi with the Japanese, in England, surrounded by quietly appreciative expatriate families reaching for a taste of home, then you really need to look no further than Atariya.
But before I sign off, do not dispense with that expensively acquired deerstalker as I need to ask you a question: what are your feelings about natto? More on this soon.
Now let us know your favourite sushi restaurant in London in the comments