Whenever I have seen some gourmet quiver with culinary pleasure and look like they might succumb to the gastronomic equivalent of Stendhal Syndrome over a plate of carbs, protein and fat, I have heretofore considered them a fool.
Last night, I became a fool. (Others may prefer to antedate this change.)
Umu, Marlon Abela’s Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant off Bruton Street, celebrated its tenth birthday with a tasting meal of such epic yet exquisite proportions, with sensory delights in every course, that I finally understood that food can in fact reduce sentient humans to pleasure-beset mutes.
No part of this kaiseki (a multi-course meal) was less than a pretty picture, starting with the sakizuke (amuse-bouche) of marinated fresh squid, amber langoustine and aubergine with coral sauce, which came with a tiny vase of pink blossom, furry buds and mint leaves.
The nimonowan (‘simmered dish’) was a red clam and stone bass filled dumpling, covered with an extraordinary leaf pattern, sitting in a fishy miso broth. I would never have imagined a broth could be scintillating, but I would have been quite content to sit there and sniff it until the place closed/it evaporated/they threw me out for being an olfactory pervert.
Usuzukuri is a form of sashimi (sliced fish on its own), but one where the chef cuts it so closely it becomes almost transparent. While I would have been delighted to see that in action, we did in fact get a brief film on an iPad showing how our Cornish turbot (or its cousin) had been killed with two brief blows and a lot of yanking.
These slices were laid on a wood-block print made by chef Yoshi of fish darting about, which makes him two up on non-cooking, non-printing mortals.
I wasn’t convinced when I heard the next course was wheat gluten. It sounded like a little too much like a workhouse food-substitute, possibly something you’d combine with mattress innards to serve to orphans, but if so, lucky orphans. It is a silken version of tofu and came in four small squares, two flavoured with pumpkin, two with ragwort (a wild flower which tastes much nicer than it sounds).
By this point I was entranced. Spectacle and savour came together course after course.
I had some inkling that a later course would be enough to render me dumb. The yakimono course (flame-grilled food) was of Wagyu beef, which I had always found disappointing – it too often erred into ludicrously soft yet wholly bland. Disappointing until last October, when Umu offered it at their pop-up restaurant at the Frieze Masters art fair.
There, I learnt that proper Wagyu beef had only recently been granted an export licence by the Japanese government. Everything before we thought was Wagyu beef was in fact a cow-postor.
The difference showed immediately then, as it did last night. These small pieces of beef rendered me speechless. The slight marbling pulled against the softness of the flesh. The butter glaze added a tang. But the underlying flavour was so rich, so sweet, so juicy that I was at a loss. Perhaps only once before (the risotto Milanese at Bocca di Lupo) have I wanted to make each mouthful last without end.
After this, I was finished. Not finished eating, for there were three more courses to come, but finished gastronomically, verbally, morally. As three types of nigiri arrived, I didn’t even try to explain my delight. At the raspberry in rose-flavoured candy floss which sat atop a dessert cocktail, I measured the sweet and sharp and the wet and dry with equal pleasure. The cherry-blossom custard with strawberries from Brittany and flakes of meringue went without remark. And by the finale, a Tahitian vanilla and black truffle ice cream covered in black truffles and gold leaf, I was reduced to sounds.
As I said, foolishness. But I’ve never been so happy to be a fool.