This restaurant in Soho, which opened in early 2016, is actually the fifth in a chain that originated in the Middle East (Kuwait and Bahrain). The founders are Canadian/Lebanese brothers, co-founder Oliver Zeitoun having formerly worked in advertising. This is not a restaurant for Japanese food purists. It seems to be aiming more at the Zuma/Nobu crowd, with dishes pimped up with foie gras, chilli and the like. Head chef Kenji Huang formerly cooked at the Los Angeles branch of the Nobu group, and seems to be targeting the same kind of customers that populate that restaurant in Tinseltown. Dishes like “Mount Fuji maki” and “tofu tacos” give you a general idea of what to expect.
The dining room is smart but lacks the bling that you might expect of a Nobu wannabe. The main room is upstairs but with additional seating at ground level. The restaurant can accommodate around 55 customers at one time, with the menu appearing on an iPad rather than paper. The wine list, also electronically presented, started at £32 and had some quite ambitious bottles tucked away, though the version on-line seems to bear only a passing resemblance to the one that I saw at the table. The very enjoyable Chateau Musar 2007 at £55 was actually £10 less than it was listed that day on the company web site, not unreasonably priced compared to its shop cost of £26 (doubtless this little slip in favour of the customer will be fixed in due course). By contrast a Chateau Le Puy 1986 was an excessive £395 for a label with a current market price of £150, and Tenuta Dell Terre Nere Calderara Sottana 2013 was £76 for a wine that retails at £27.
The dishes that we tried varied considerably in standard. Akami tuna sashimi was pleasant if unexceptional (pushing 13/20), and for a supplement of £2.50 you could have freshly grated wasabi served with it. “Mount Fuji maki” was a roll with eel and foie gras, not an entirely illogical flavour combination, though quite why the rolls were presented under shot glasses eluded me (12/20).
I really liked the odd-sounding spicy shrimp tacos, where the crisp tacos worked well with the soft shrimp, and the spicy kick was nicely judged. Mixing Japanese food with tacos sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I thought it actually worked well (14/20). By contrast the rock shrimp tempura (£12) was just odd, the pieces of tempura having a sticky glaze coating and peculiar texture: it was not crisp but instead stodgy, like tucking into a shrimp-flavoured tennis ball. It takes a certain talent to completely ruin something deep-fried but the kitchen managed it here with alacrity. A Japanese tempura chef would have committed seppuku rather than serve this (8/20). Shrimp tempura wrapped in filo (£13) instead of batter was unusual but better, though what it was doing in a glass with Marie rose sauce is a mystery only a Lebanese/Canadian living in Kuwait could truly appreciate (11/20).
“Uni shot” featured a taste of sea urchin with radish and a tart ponzu sauce with a dab of yuzu ice cream in a shot glass. The uni would not have passed muster in a Hokkaido sushi bar but the acidic accompaniments were the main taste that came through, which presumably was the idea (11/20). Japanese beef was presented raw next to a hot stone, the diners being left to cook the meat themselves on the stone. This seems to me a risky proposition with a few slices of high grade Ozaki A5 beef (from Miyazaki Prefecture) at a little matter of £59, as it is easy to overcook the thin slices of beef (a few seconds is ample). Perhaps at some point they will go the whole hog and just leave a cow in the corner of the room with a shotgun and a butcher’s knife, and leave the diners to get in with it. The beef itself was a costly and high quality cut, but this is shopping rather than cooking.
Black cod with shiitake mushrooms (£27) was a nod to the well-known Nobu dish, and although the mushroom seemed somewhat overcooked to me the cod was fine (12/20). “No-noodle udon” (£17) was, as its name suggests, not a noodle dish but rather a series of vegetables (such as carrots, beans, mushrooms) which you might think were at least artfully sliced into the shape of noodles, but you would be wrong. It was really just a stir-fry featuring remarkably bland vegetables that not only lacked flavour but were under-seasoned (10/20). £17 for a plate of vegetables must make this one of the more profitable dishes in London, but then, as Grace Dent pointed out to me, those invisible noodles are expensive to make. The dish could equally accurately be described as “no pie pie” or, if they took inspiration from Rene Magrite, “no pipe pipe”. I await the “no caviar caviar” version, charged at a premium.
The bill came to £174 a head, admittedly with plenty of good wine. If you shared a modest bottle from the list then a typical cost per head might be closer to £90 or so per head, though with no “starter/main course/dessert” menu structure, actually predicting the size of the final bill would require a bit of calculation when ordering. Our German waitress from Cologne was very good – friendly and happy to answer my food geek questions about the precise origin of the beef without rolling her eyes once. Overall I found the cooking at Oliver Maki far too erratic for the price point. I don’t mind them playing with traditional Japanese food, and indeed really liked the spicy tuna tacos. However some dishes did not work for me at all, and what they did to that rock-shrimp tempura entirely baffles me. On the positive side, the product quality was actually quite good, with proper beef, quite good tuna and real wasabi, though so they should be at these prices. However, inconsistency in cooking is less than forgivable when you are likely to run up a bill of this scale.