Tuesday, 12 July 2011
"Without Soy Sauce
but if you want to."
This bizarrely illiterate directive is spelled out in large neon lettering on the back wall of stylish, newish sushi joint Yashin in Kensington. A couple of issues immediately spring to mind. Firstly, what on earth have Yashin got against soy sauce? I can understand Chinese restaurants being proud to not use MSG in their food, or a burger joint advertising their use of never-frozen beef, but I can't imagine anyone thinking the fact they deliberately avoid soy, a relatively benign and pretty tasty condiment at the best of times, would really be a selling point. Secondly, why then qualify it with "but if you want to"? Do they mean "unless" you want to, which would be a rather weak climb-down but would at least make grammatical sense or do they literally mean it to sound so hostile - "well, go ahead and ask for soy, then, you awkward bastard, but we won't like it and may spit in your miso." Very weird.
Fortunately, despite being forced to stare at this illuminated act of literary aggression throughout the course of our meal, it turned out to be quite at odds with the attitude of the staff, who to a man were helpful, pleasant and so completely on the ball when it came to service we barely needed to look up from our dinner for one of them to immediately catch our eye. Admittedly, it's probably quite easy being attentive in a room with only 16-odd covers upstairs and almost as many staff milling around, but it still doesn't mean it's not appreciated. The ultra-dutiful service also makes sense in the context of the prices at Yashin, which start at nose-bleeding and swiftly head towards eyeball-bursting if you're not very careful. Thinking I was being sensible in ordering one of the cheapest sakes on the menu, £26 in fact bought me a measure of size of a small beer bottle - it was nice enough I suppose, but I find it very hard to enjoy any alcoholic beverage more expensive than vintage champagne that isn't, in fact, vintage champagne.
The food itself, too, very much continued the theme of playing fast and loose with the idea of value. Marinated oysters were prettily presented on dyed blue ice, with a powerful shallot dressing and crispy lotus root, but the two not particularly massive shellfish weren't really extraordinary enough to justify £5.60. Akedashi soup (£2.50) felt a bit more like a good deal, rich and colourful and very much suiting the ironic afternoon tea presentation.
I only have myself to blame for the £13.50 price tag associated with a dish of Wagyu Carpaccio with wasabi, but having had a rather disappointing Wagyu steak when seared on the Jospers at top steakhouse Goodman a few months back I wondered if the Japanese method would bring out more in this premium meat. I can't really say it did though - the dressing was rather straightforward, just notes of vinegar and sugar and white radish, and the beef itself tender but pretty bland. Perhaps I'm missing something.
Grouper Carpaccio with spicy yuzu (£7.90) was better, grouper having a great firm texture and plenty of fresh flavour, and yuzu turned out to be a great acidic compliment to the protein, albeit displaying nothing much approaching the description "spicy"; I was underwhelmed with the seafood salad with sweet potato though, which contained tasteless rubbery chunks of unseasoned seafood (some kind of clam I think, amongst other things).
Soft shell crab "salad" (more accurately described as "a soft shelled crab and a shed load of lettuce") boasted expertly fried crab with absolutely bags of seafood flavour, but was a fairly miserly portion for £8.40. At Mien Tay, my local Vietnamese, you get two of these for £7, and, ironically, a nice soy & chilli sauce to dip them in. Because actually, Yashin, sometimes I do want to.
And then, the centrepiece of the meal, the Omakase 8 sushi set. Yashin are unusual amongst sushi places, at least in London, for very briefly searing the top of the nigiri with a blowtorch before dressing and serving. This bit of theatre is exciting to watch, especially when, as we were on our visit, you're sat so close to the prep area there's a very real chance of getting your eyebrows singed, but let's just consider this whole blowtorch business for a second. Sushi is raw fish, right? And nigiri is warm sushi rice with raw fish on top. And whether or not you prefer your fish raw or cooked, the fact is that there's a reason why sushi is served raw because cooking it fundamentally changes the way fish tastes. And if Yashin think they're improving the sushi by cooking it, then that means they think cooked fish tastes better than raw, which is, to say the least, a very odd attitude from a sushi restaurant. The omakase, by the way, was pretty nice - I particularly enjoyed some fatty tuna topped with a tiny flower petal and dab of truffle oil, and a salmon with lovely sharp ponzu jelly - but it wasn't anything above the standard of ingredients I enjoyed at Asakusa last year, and cost a frankly ludicrous £30.
I think you probably have the picture by now. If money was no object, if you are a connoisseur of fine sake and you like your nigiri cooked, you could easily find a lot to like at Yashin. In fact, plenty of people have, and it was with a mixture of surprise and regret that it slowly dawned on me I wasn't going to have quite the transcendental experience greater reviewers than me had spoken of. I should also say that my dining companion that night, a food blogger whose younger palate is probably not quite as battered as mine had a much better time and has already been two or three times. But if it was just up to me, I wouldn't go back to Yashin and to that extent I can't recommend it. It's perfectly nice, fresh food served at the kind of silly prices (our bill, with a couple of extra bits of sashimi, came to £161 for two) I can't see anyone but the guys who took our place at the bar after we'd gone, who parked their vintage Mercedes convertible just outside, being able to justify.
Pictures courtesy of Hollow Legs