Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Temaki, Brixton


One of the strange things about living in a country like the UK, somewhere that only in recent decades that has really found its feet when it comes to eating out and food generally, is that an ersatz introduction to a particular cuisine, via, say a high-street chain or supermarket reproduction, can quite unfairly cloud your opinion of an entire food culture for a good chunk of your life. For many of us growing up, Pizza Express was a pizza, and if you didn't like Pizza Express, you didn't like pizza. Sweet & sour pork balls was Chinese food, lamb vindaloo and poppadums was Indian, and a steakhouse served watery grey slabs of mystery meat with frozen chips and that was that.

The first time I tried a real, Neopolitan style pizza - at Santa Maria in Ealing I think it was - I was struck by the realisation that it wasn't actually pizza I didn't like, it was the cardboard-flavoured water biscuits covered in commodity slop they served at Pizza Express. Silk Road in Camberwell was lesson 101 in the infinite variety and invention of Chinese food, a journey that continues to this day, the idea that a country of a billion people and thousands of distinct cooking traditions could be accurately represented by a portion of frozen orange chicken and prawn crackers being increasingly farcical. And Tayyabs for Indian/Pakistani, and Hawksmoor for steak. See how far we've all come.


Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing inherently wrong with a Set Meal A for Two or even Pizza Express if you're really desperate, but when a sizeable percentage of the British population grows up associating these places with Chinese food and Pizza then the task of convincing people it's worthwhile seeking out the real deal becomes increasingly difficult. I know a lot of people who say they don't like sushi, but I also know they will have only ever picked it off the shelves, cold and faded, at Waitrose or off the conveyor belt at Yo! Sushi at Gatwick North, and I wonder what their reaction would be to an omakase involving fluffy body-temperature rice and healthy slabs of marbled otoro.


So, step forward Temaki. If you think sushi isn't for you, or that the good stuff needs to be prohibitively expensive, this friendly yet determinedly cool space in Brixton Market is about to change all that. Not only is this serious, authentic Japanese food, borne of traditional skills (the chef spent a year in Japan) and making the most of the best British ingredients, but you're also treated to the theatre of your dinner being lovingly prepared to order, omakase-style, right in front of you, the kind of experience that you may expect to a hell of a lot more for elsewhere.


The menu is short, in that style of Japanese ultra-specialisation that London could really do with seeing a lot more of, and if there's a single damn thing on it you don't want to eat well, you're a stronger person than me. We basically tried everything, starting with a plate of monkfish kara age, golden-brown nibbles of meaty fish served with a ponzu-spiked mayo studded with fish roe.


Yellowtail sashimi came in another ponzu dressing, this time sharp and gently sweet, and with a couple of bits of chilli to add a bit of heat. Also on the plate were a citrussy nasturium leaves; Temaki use local ingredients whenever they think they're better than the alternative, to often impressive effect.


Take these peas, for example. Temaki have rightly decided that fresh local summer peas are a far more enticing prospect than frozen edamame shipped halfway across the world, and so, coated in salt and buckwheat, they have turned them into an English-Japanese fusion snack. You draw the peas out of the pods with your teeth while stripping the salty coating from the outside - innovative and dangerously addictive.


Salmon tataki had a good dark, firm crust and the house pickled onion cut through the fat beneath that skin beautifully.


House pickles included carrot, daikon and turnip, all a good balance of sweet & sour and loosened with sesame oil.


And then with the small plates and snacks out of the way, we were on to the main events. I'd had temaki before in the same way I'd had pizza before that meal at Santa Maria, insofar as not really. The cold, lifeless little cones of dry grains and sad fish available from your local supermarket bore absolutely no comparison to these things, prepared lovingly by hand with warm rice and the finest seafood, which were so gloriously easy to eat I'm surprised I'm not there still, endlessly reordering between mouthfuls of sake. This is akami tuna with nikiri soy, nikiri being that kind of glossy reduced sweet soy that sushi chefs often "paint" onto nigiri before serving, and it's this particular style of temaki that inspired head chef Shaulan Steenson to go down the temaki route after a life-changing experience in Japan. I find quite a few experiences in Japan tend to be life-changing.


Otoro (fatty tuna) was also fantastic, another addictively proportioned morsel of warm rice and fish, with some spring onion for crunch. There's almost certainly a lot more going on in these things than I am aware of, certainly there are more ingredients than the menu describes, but part of the joy of eating here is discovering all the clever little dressings and pickles they've added to the different temaki in order to better showcase the main ingredient. About this time, and not pictured here is a Devon (Brixham) crab temaki, which added white soy and egg yolk to the sweet, soft seafood.


Eel is another premium ingredient that Temaki know how to use well. Glazed in a BBQ sauce, and wrapped up with cucumber, it was another absolutely superb thing, each of the couple of mouthfuls it took to demolish it balancing honeyed seafood, the crunch of veg and soft rice.

As for a final bill, I'm afraid we didn't see one, as somewhere along the way my booking enquiry was intercepted by the owners and they had offered all of the above on the house. Thanks very much to them. But although food like this shouldn't ever be cheap, I think six expertly-crafted temaki with top-quality rice and ingredients like otoro, crab and eel for £30 is something approaching a bargain. Think of it as a kind of temaki tasting menu. And as for the generous mound of fried monkfish pieces (£7), the lovely crusty salmon tataki (£7) and so on, well, you'll only end up with a big bill because it's all so addictively brilliant, not because it's overpriced. This is, by anyone's standards, good value.


Look, I realise that in my worryingly obsessive foodie way I tend to get excited about anywhere doing something new (or at least new in London) because, well, new is exciting, especially for jaded old bloggers like me. Perhaps in a few years when there's a temaki bar on every street corner I'll look back on this review and wonder how I was so easily impressed, but something tells me quality like this will age well. And whether or not this is the start of some new hand roll trend or a one-off, the fact is it's here now and it's great, and so you should make the absolute most of it because if the last couple of years have taught us anything, it's that you'd better take these opportunities as often as you can. So what on earth are you waiting for?

9/10

I was quite prepared to pay for my dinner but the owners would have none of it, so I didn't see a bill. I think it would have come to about £50/head if we were paying.

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