Tuesday, 5 July 2016
Takahashi, South Wimbledon
The best sushi experience I've have ever had in London remains Tetsu in Clerkenwell. I might as well get that out of the way first, because comparisons are inevitable and because anyone who will accept nothing less than the finest Japanese food this city has to offer is still better served putting Tetsu on speed dial and smashing the hell out of it for weeks on end in the one in a million chance you may eventually score a space. Hey, if you want the best, you gotta queue with the rest.
But for the majority of us, and if your idea of an enjoyable sushi experience doesn't begin with hours every day for weeks on end listening to an engaged signal (at least, for now), well, let me tell you about a little place in South Wimbledon. Nestled amidst the kebab shops and fried chicken joints and car repair shops of this - and I'm choosing my words carefully here - rather unreconstructed area of South London is the clean lines and orchids of Takahashi, looking like a painted geisha girl hanging around with chimney sweeps. This not a part of town you'd ordinarily expect to find anything worth eating at all, never mind a £75 tasting menu, and yet here it is anyway, doing very well for itself too judging by the numbers packed in on a recent Friday.
The first thing we ate were edamame beans - this is a wholly unremarkable thing to report but I'm doing so just for the sake of completeness. They tasted like any other edamame beans you've ever eaten.
The meal proper kicked off with this stunning sea bream tataki, fish with an almost glass-like translucency resting in a pool of (ponzu? yuzu?) dressing so perfectly balanced between citrus bitterness and seafoody softness that I couldn't stop myself from drinking the leftovers directly from the plate. The attention to detail in the presentation - neat blobs of caviar, chilli chutney and micro herbs - as well as the quality of the main ingredient (tender but with a seductive bite) produced what is surely one of the most perfect seafood dishes I've ever been lucky enough to be served. Already the journey to South Wimbledon had been rewarded, and then some.
Then a bowl of geometrically-precise portobello mushroom segments, each topped with a slice of green chilli and truffle paste, floating in a piping hot thin oil of some kind. The temptation to dig in before the dish had cooled to anywhere near approaching an edible temperature was too great, and I'm afraid I managed to burn my mouth a bit, but it was still worth it. Mushroom, truffle, chilli. What's not to like?
Miso soup was rich and salty, and studded with mini sweetcorn chunks, an idea I would have told you couldn't possibly be an improvement on any standard miso soup but somehow worked rather well. I do run out of things to say about miso soup because, well, it's never really terrible anywhere is it, but there you go.
In a traditional sushi bar setup of stools in front of a counter with the nigiri assembled by hand for each customer, the painting of the nikiri sauce (a mixture of soy, mirin, saké and dashi) on top before presentation would have been the job of the sushi master. At Takahashi there's no bar, so customers are each provided with a bowl of nikiri and a mini paint brush, to perform this vital final stage yourself just before eating and to save the rice going soggy. It's the kind of attention to detail that informs so much of what Takahashi do.
Of course it would all be for nought if the nigiri itself was no good, but these were absolutely wonderful examples of the craft, with stunning quality seafood (the first time I've ever had raw squid worth bothering with, for one thing) draped over fluffy, body-temperature rice. Yes, thanks to the table service a couple of them had started to lose a tiny bit of their warmth by the time we got around to eating them (a pure nigiri experience will always require counter service and for each morsel to be prepared and eaten one at a time) but this was still by anyone's standards superb quality sushi.
Black cod and miso will be a dish familiar to many, and though I've enjoyed slightly better versions elsewhere (the one at Asakusa in Mornington Crescent is great, and surprisingly good value) this was still fun, with plenty of sweet umami and nice thick skin.
I'm afraid this Wagyu dish was the first real dud. I've never been a fan of Wagyu - if I want beef that tastes of nothing much more than fat, I'll just eat beef fat and save the extra few quid, thanks very much - and the uninteresting sweet sauce it came in was never going to help matters. Add to the plate a weirdly wilted and wrinkly collection of vegetables (white asparagus, broccoli, some kind of spinach) and you have a pretty uninspiring plate of food, all the more confusing given what had come before.
And similarly desserts - perhaps this was just a reaction to the fact that so many of the other dishes had been so good, but I do not come to a Japanese restaurant for a clumsy crème brûlée and bland, pasty cheesecake and I was pretty nonplussed by these fairly lazy offerings. Also, whereas we each had an identical dish each for all previous courses, these came as one cheesecake and one crème brûlée, to share. Which was a bit odd.
So it's a shame that a couple of the final courses at Takahashi weren't great, but if you don't go for the tasting menu and instead construct yourself a meal based around the stunning nigiri and seafood courses you could almost definitely walk away with one of the finest Japanese meals it's possible to have in London. Yes, Tetsu is better but Tetsu is so impossibly difficult to book it's almost a theoretical restaurant these days, available only to Amex Centurian cardholders and friends of the chef. Takahashi does so many things right - so very right, that the relatively high bill (written out longhand for each customer, including such exhausting details as the full address and VAT number; will someone please buy Takahashi a printer?) and location are mere inconveniences, and at least you stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting in.
And for that reason and the nigiri, and that sea bream, and for all the other wonderful things I'm sure will be coming out of the kitchens at Takahashi in the coming months, you should get yourself down to South Wimbledon. Restaurants as good as this don't come around very often.
Takahashi stands a very good chance of being in the next version of the app. See where else is good.