Editor's note: Mr Araki returned to Tokyo in March 2019. The restaurant is now in the hands of his former deputy, Marty Lau.
When a well-known chef from abroad opens up a place in London it is often an outpost run by a junior chef, living off the reputation of the parent restaurant. This is the case with Ametsa or the late and unlamented Bo London. By contrast, Mitsuhiro Araki, who had three Michelin stars for his sushi bar in Tokyo, has burnt his boats. He has shut his Tokyo establishment and moved to Piccadilly lock stock and barrel. The cypress wood counter in London has just nine seats, with two dinner sittings per evening.
This is not the only bold step he has taken. There is no a la carte menu, just an omakase menu set at the eye-watering price of £300 per person (not including drinks), making it by a wide margin the costliest in London. By comparison, the priciest menu at Gordon Ramsay is currently £195. Top quality sushi is expensive, as can be seen by the prices of some other high-end establishments such as Masa in New York and Sushi Shikon in Hong Kong, though in both these cases the fish is imported either mostly or entirely from Japan, which clearly adds to the costs. Mr Araki has decided to try and source his fish locally rather than having it flown in. The tuna is caught off the coasts of Ireland or Spain, for example. The rice, however, comes from a farm in Saitama that is run by his father-in-law.
There was a short wine list – so short that there are more seats at the restaurant than labels of wine. It ranges in price from £50 to £190, with a median price of £110 and a mark-up average of 2.8 times retail price, which is actually not bad at all for central London. The choices, put together by master sommelier Gearoid Devaney, were thoughtful. Example wines were Domaine Foreau Vouvray Sec 2011 at £50 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £19, the excellent Riesling Geisberg Domaine Kientzler 2009 at £75 for a wine with a shop price of £25, and the very enjoyable Domaine Ballot Millot Mersault Perrieres 2010 at £150 for a label that retails at £61.
The meal began with a simple snapper soup with yuzu. The first fish was sashimi of snapper from France wrapped up with Beluga caviar inside. This was actually impressive, the snapper avoiding any hint of chewiness, the caviar top notch (18/20). The fresh grated wasabi served with this was from Japan. Steamed French abalone was pressure-steamed for an hour and was also very good. Abalone requires a lot of preparing to mitigate its inherent chewiness, and this was up there with all but the very best that I have eaten in Japan (17/20).
Next was tuna tartare mixed up with soy sauce and a generous shaving of white truffle from Alba and a mayonnaise made in front of the diners. This was a lovely dish, the tuna of high quality, the truffle fragrance working well with it (18/20). The tuna was Spanish, from a 180kg fish. A grilled red prawn from Spain felt like a misstep, the prawn pleasant enough but a little dry and not a patch on the quality of the best prawns that can be found in Spain (13/20).
The meal got back on track with chu toro tuna, the fish having a lovely rich degree of fat (18/20). Similarly otoro, aged for 8 days, was beautifully rich (18/20). After this, salmon was a let down. It is hard to find really top salmon these days, and sadly this was not it (14/20).
Sprat with dried flaked snapper was much better (17/20). Gilt head bream was the only fish tonight imported from Japan, and was excellent (17/20). Squid from Cornwall was boiled and served on the diner’s hand with a little wasabi. This was pleasant but not even close to the quality of squid I have eaten in Japan (15/20).
Next was marinated tuna sushi, which was genuinely superb (18/20). A clam from Dorset was reasonably tender but again would not compare well with one from Japan (15/20). Better was unagi (eel), which had lovely flavour, served in a delicate nori roll (17/20). The meal concluded in traditional fashion with tomago omelette, but in this case garnished with white truffles.
Service was very good, attentive and courteous. The bill for the evening was £439 a head including wine, which is a chunk of change in anyone’s book. If you drank a few beers then perhaps your bill might be £375 a head, with the 15% service charge that is levied. Even at such an elevated price there appears to be a market for such food in London: all nine seats were taken at the 6 p.m. sitting on this weekday evening. Moreover they were almost entirely fully booked for the following couple of months ahead, so the pricing has not so far been a deterrent.
I think that Mr Arak has done a pretty good job of replicating the experience of a sushi bar in Tokyo, given the constraints of using fish from Europe rather than the stunning produce available in Japan. The quality of the fish at its best was impressive, such as the snapper and the tuna. However the prawn and the salmon showed the limitations of what is available in London, and in such cases I think he would have been better editing such things out and focusing just on the very best fish he can get, supplementing where necessary from Japan. The use of the caviar and white truffle could be seen as a luxurious distraction to avoid lingering purely on the quality of the fish, which as can be seen was somewhat variable. At such an elevated price expectations are inevitably high, and so when the meal dips into the merely ordinary it is disappointing, even though the best elements of the meal were genuinely classy. As to whether this price point is sustainable once the initial novelty has worn off, only time will tell.