Café Japan has been a Golders Green institution for many years, but was refurbished at the end of 2015 and these days is run by Atari Ya. They are part of a fish wholesaler (T&S Enterprises) that supply a great many of the sushi restaurants in London, and have a few retail outlets as well, such as Atari Ya in Ealing. I was tipped off by a local food expert that the sushi chef here was a cut above the norm, so made my way to Golders Green to find out. Sushi in the UK can be a bit of a minefield, as too few people have experience of the real thing and are consequently much less demanding than the citizens of Tokyo, where sushi is practically a religion. UK sushi places frequently serve fridge-cold rice (it should be body temperature) and coloured horseradish and mustard from tubes in the place of freshly grated wasabi roots, which are expensive. No fish market in the UK (or anywhere else for that matter) matches that of Tokyo, which employs over 60,000 people and sells around 1,600 tons of fish a day. Consequently I tend to be fairly sceptical about sushi places in London. The head sushi chef here is Shigeru Fukushima, who has worked here for five years. Café Japan offers a range of Japanese food, including set lunches for just £8.50, but we were here for sushi.
We sat at a wooden counter and ordered “omakase” i.e. whatever the chef feels is best today. The fresh wasabi root that was grated by the chef, who also presented some pickled ginger as a condiment, encouraged me. The sushi rice was quite lightly vinegared, the texture of the ball of rice (“shari”, the topping is “neta”) reasonable though quite loose, a little more than ideal, with one piece falling apart when I picked it up. Nonetheless the temperature of the rice was at room temperature rather than cold, and the chef applied wasabi and soy to each piece before serving, which is the idea. You shouldn’t really need to apply extra wasabi or soy if the chef is doing his job, the pickled ginger being there to refresh the palate on occasion between pieces. There was no sequence of non-sushi appetisers or sashimi here; we just went straight into the sushi.
The sushi sequence began well with sea bream, very much a benchmark of a sushi restaurant. The texture of this was good, tender with none of the chewiness that can afflict sea bream sushi; the rice with this had a quite liberal dose of wasabi, which worked well with the fairly underrated flavour of the bream. This was followed by sea bass that had been marinated with soy, and also had good texture. This was followed by a fish I have eaten in Japan but never in the UK, the wonderfully named “splendid alfonsino” a deep-water fish with red skin that has a pleasing, pure flavour. Next was salmon, which being farmed was inevitably rather ordinary, followed by an unusual touch, blowtorched salmon belly with lemon and salt, which worked quite well.
We then had lean (akami) tuna, which was silky in texture, followed by the fatty otoro tuna belly. Yellowtail (hamachi) was good, as was cooked mackerel, whose natural oiliness works nicely as sushi. We then had an excellent hand-dived Scottish scallop, which had good natural sweetness, followed by a sweet shrimp, which was also good. The only misstep of the meal was squid sushi, the squid being a little chewy, which doesn't happen at the really top sushi bars in Tokyo. After this came a salmon roe roll and then sea urchin (uni) roll, in this case the sea urchin coming from Iceland. This didn’t quite have the briny purity of Hokkaido sea urchin, but was certainly pleasant. There was no tomago, the savoury omelette hat traditionally ends a sushi meal.
Overall I was pleasantly surprised by Café Japan. The sushi here definitely had the edge over the Ealing Atari Ya branch, and the chef was clearly paying attention to details, such as the use of real wasabi, which is rare even in expensive Mayfair sushi restaurants. The bill came to £35 each, which is very fair. To be sure, there was the odd inconsistency, notably the squid, but in general this was very good sushi by London standards. I would certainly happily return here if in the area.
Further reviews: 01st Aug 2004