Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Senkai is the new name for Cocoon. I'm not sure what went wrong with Cocoon; by all accounts it was a very nice Japanese restaurant that boasted a proper sushi master and a fantastic West End location in a handsome Nash terrace overlooking Piccadilly Circus, but nobody ever went. Including me, in fact. It could have been the prices, perhaps it was the slight air of China Whites trashy glamour, perhaps through a combination of mysterious factors it just slipped off people's radars. There must be a myriad of complex and ethereal reasons why some decent restaurants flourish and others die a slow death; Cocoon was maybe just one of the unlucky ones.
But now, it's back and all spruced up with a revamped menu. And very good it is too, if (as with the previous incarnation) you can look past the vaguely Travelodge décor and aren't too put off by the fact that without too much effort the bill can sail past the £100 a head mark. But good food is rarely cheap, and I will happily eat my dinner in a portaloo if the service is as sparkling and the food as accomplished as the dishes we tried last night. After a plate of shishito peppers (kind of a Japanese padron pepper, in fact literally identical to padron peppers as far as I can tell) and a rather nice passionfruit-based cocktail in the bar called a Frozen Flower, we ordered a selection of items from across the three main sections of the menu - "Raw Bar", "Senkai Plates" and "Robata".
First to arrive was a very attractive maki selection of salmon, asparagus and crispy fried prawn, each fresh and bright and very easy to enjoy. The tempura prawn, in particular, was something I'd not seen in a maki roll before and was amazingly sweet with great texture contrasts. The best thing about the maki plate though was the house wasabi, which was thick and slimy (in a good way) and far removed from the cloying dry pastes you usually find in sushi selections. Still blew your head off, though.
I couldn't get enough of the Cured Wagyu beef. Sliced into delicate thin wafers and boasting a huge amount of rich beefy flavour (not to mention a generous marbling of white fat), it was moreish to the point of addictive, and all the more enjoyable for being something I'd not eaten before anywhere else. It was £16, admittedly, per portion but then this is Wagyu and there was certainly enough of it.
Salmon tataki dressed in something called wafu (vinegar and oil and who knows what else) were buttery and full of flavour, attractively sliced across the "grain" and neatly presented. And the final item from the "Raw Bar" menu were these scallops with crunchy ginger, one of the few raw scallop dishes I've had in recent years that has the balance sweet scallops and accompaniments (citrusy ponzu and earthy fried ginger) just right. Very nice.
From the "Senkai plates" we were nudged towards the Rock shrimp tempura with red chilli mayonnaise. "Like prawn popcorn" our waiter said, and he was quite right - the most delicate and fragile tempura casings around nuggets of sweet, warm crustacean and with a fresh chilli-spiked mayonnaise, they were, again, unusual (I hesitate to use the word "unique" although I've never seen them anywhere else) and very, very tasty.
Pork and Jerusalem artichoke gyoza looked and tasted the part, too, with that familiar mix of soft dumpling underneath and crispy fried top side.
From the "Robata" (grill), the first dish to arrive was a sliced rump of lamb, rather aggressively seasoned but of clearly high quality and perfectly cooked to juicy pink. I didn't detect much - in fact, any - of the advertised sansho (better known as Sichuan) peppercorns but maybe I'm just immune to the stuff now after too many dinners at Chilli Cool. And almost as an afterthought we ordered "Grilled corn with lime butter" and these turned out to be completely brilliant, creamy and caramely with a subtle note of lime and burned sugar.
There was only one dish I didn't enjoy and it was this sliced monkfish in teriyaki sauce. It was so strange with its mix of sweet teriyaki sauce and very (very) "fishy" fish that I'm afraid I panicked and told the waiter I thought it might be off. It wasn't, of course - it was just weird, but full credit for the staff for being embarrassingly polite and reassuring, even so far as having the chef come out with a piece of the raw (bright white and completely odour-free) monkfish fillet to prove their point. Still didn't much like it, though.
Monkfish aside, though, the food at Senkai is sensationally good, and furthermore, following my rant about bad service in Battersea last week, it was a delight to be back in a restaurant where everyone was polite without being obsequious, efficient without being harried, friendly without being matey. Front of house at Senkai were pretty much perfect, and made the evening all the more agreeable.
The catch, as ever, is the price. I could have gone a bit easier on the booze (story of my life) but between the two of us we had 5 glasses of wine and a cocktail (plus another side of roasted aubergine and a single course of mochi ice cream to share) and the bill came to £200. Which is a lot. In fact, let's face it, it's an awful lot of money despite all the food being very good and with top quality ingredients and taking into account the stellar service. So, in the end, although I can thoroughly recommend the experience at Senkai, whether or not it can be considered to be good value may be a job for someone not being gifted their meal on the back of a PR invite (which I was). I will say this though - for sheer flare, passion and charm, you can do little better for Japanese food in London. Cocoon is dead - long live Senkai.
I was invited to review Senkai