Friday, 10 September 2021

The Ethical Butcher at the Spurstowe Arms, London Fields


Time, they say, is the great healer, and it seems that's just as true of Covid time as it ever was. Yes, the long, cold months of the last lockdown were thoroughly miserable to live through, even to those who made it through relatively unscathed to the other side, but as the days since we emerged blinking back into the sunlight have turned into weeks and then months, it feels like the odd precious highlight - an escape to the countryside, a Zoom-set pub quiz, a delivery meal - shine that little bit brighter than the abject fear, repetition and drudgery that surrounded them.


One such rare highlight was a package from the Ethical Butcher, a company that's made its name with a completely uncompromising attitude to the meat they sell, a product of sustainable, regenerative agriculture that also (either by sheer coincidence or as a direct result of the care taken to produce it) tastes incredible. I remember the aroma that filled the room when I opened the box up, not the usual butchers stale meat smell (although there's a part of me has a soft spot for that too) but of farmland, wild meadows and open countryside. All meat tastes, and smells, of the life it's lived - and if that's been a good life, that information is generously passed on.


When I received an invite to try the Ethical Butcher's residence at the Spurstowe Arms, then, I jumped at the chance - and not just because the place is a short walk from where I'm living at the moment. It's a lovely old pub, the Spurstowe - original high-ceiling Victorian bar, nice little beer garden out back, picnic tables on the street - and having some elevated, sustainable food to go with your pint of IPA would make an unbeatable combination.


And it started very well. Their regenerative agriculture charcuterie selection, salami and Cerrunos ham, were about as good as you can get anywhere - particularly the salami which had a lovely complex flavour and a texture just the right side of firm. Even some of the bits outside of the Butcher's control were worth talking about - excellent pickled chillies which despite their fierce heat we couldn't stop eating, and some nice salty olives - but I'm afraid I'm not sure we needed the very ordinary cold toast sprinkled with salt and olive oil. Without those, the dish would have been better.


I've had a lot of tomato salads, and not many of them have been very good - I think the mistake is thinking that any tomato grown in the UK has the potential to be better than those from the Med, and that really just isn't the case. These, though, from West Sussex, were superb - an incredibly deep flavour and complemented very well by a simple dressing of walnut oil and balsamic.


So far so good, and the good news about the mains is that you could tell immediately that this was very, very good meat. They arrived on the table with that familiar smell of pasture and meadow, together with a strong beefy note of aged cow. And they tasted almost as good as that smell indicated despite, sadly, both being rather overcooked. Bavette should really only be served rare, which I did ask for, but it arrived medium-well. Thanks to the fine raw product it had no hint of chewiness or dryness, and cut remarkably like fillet, but yes it would have been nice to try it a bit bloodier as it would have been even more impressive.


Similarly the burger would have been that much nicer with a bit of pink inside, but was still an excellent example of its kind, with good crunchy salad elements, a sharp homemade relish and what tasted like proper (ie. properly rubbish) American burger cheese though I'm sure there was more to it than that. The strong, dark crust on the beef itself and the nice loose ground hinted at what could have been if it had just been cooked a little hotter for a bit less, but hey, it was still worth the effort.


Overall, though, the sheer quality of the Ethical Butcher's product shone through the odd mistake from the kitchen, and this was still a good showcase for their product. And of course, if you don't trust the Spurstowe to keep an eye on the clock I can thoroughly, wholeheartedly recommend their meat boxes - particularly now it's barbeque season - where you can try their lamb chops, steaks, burgers and so on in the comfort of your own house/garden and if you overcook it you only have yourself to blame. Besides, a week or so after my meal at the Spurstowe, it's not the mistakes I remember, but the charcuterie, that amazing tomato salad and the incredible smell of aged beef filling the room. Oh, and the cat which sat at our table. Time, you see - the great healer.

7/10

I paid for the Ethical Butcher's meat box myself, but the meal above was an invite and I didn't see a bill.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Nama, Liverpool


If you visited a restaurant in a hideous soulless shopping mall, were told half the menu was unavailable and was forced to order the other half using a criminally un- user-friendly app seemingly designed specifically to be as upsetting as possible, well, you'd be forgiven for not having a very good time.

All these things are true about Nama, a new venture in the GPO food hall in Liverpool, which at first glance appears to have almost nothing going for it at all. If I was in the mood for elevated Japanese cuisine then I'd quite like a seat at a sushi bar in a quiet wood-panelled room, not an echoey corner of a space shared with people snaffling chicken burgers and milkshakes. I'd want to order my food from a friendly and capable member of staff, not a disastrously buggy app which managed to lose my entire order three times as soon as it got to the payment stage. And I'd expect a restaurant giving itself the description "tuna and wagyu" to have at least some wagyu on offer - I mean, come on.

And yet! And yet. Despite everything, despite all of this, Nama turned out to be one of the most exciting and memorable meals I've been privileged enough to enjoy in the last twelve months. It succeeds not because of its location, or the atmosphere, and certainly not that bloody app, but because the food they're making is astonishingly, blindingly good and at prices that make you wonder how on earth they're turning a profit.


These are Sicilian red prawns, plump and deliriously sweet little things, dressed in a lime & ginger ponzu and assisted by a kick of jalapeno. Finished with a few drops of lime oil and topped with wasabi - real wasabi, shaved fresh off the root - this was a sophisticated and classy dish combining the finest European ingredients with top Japanese cheffy skill. They cost £9, and were worth at least three times that. After finishing them off, we ordered another plate.


Stone bass, from Cornwall, rested in a lemongrass and yuzu ponzu, topped with more of that fresh wasabi and sprinkled with nori seaweed. The fish was beautifully sliced and arranged, the dressing expertly judged and the overall effect a masterclass in sushi work.


Salmon, Scottish, was very simply presented to allow the supremely impressive raw ingredient to shine. It was dressed only with a few sprinkles of sesame seed and chives, but with a bit of magic added from a brushing with 20-year-old tare sauce. This was £8.50, in case you thought £9 for the prawns was pushing it a bit.


Next, tuna tartare, from Japanese yellowfin this time, prettily arranged on a bed of koshihikari rice which was fluffy and body-temperature, as is correct, and as is wonderful. At certain moments the reality of eating this incredible food in such odd surroundings, with my fellow diners seemingly completely oblivious to the existence of a world-class Japanese restaurant in their midst, threatened to derail the mood. But the food was always good enough to compensate.


There was another dish of I think tuna I have a photo of here, but can't place it on the rather incomplete online menu. Whatever - rest assured it was as impressive and as great value as everything else, worth making the journey to this odd corner of a shopping mall in Liverpool many times over.

Of course, I need to go back to Nama, not least to try the Wagyu from Gunma prefecture which I was reliably informed would be appearing in a week or two (and by all accounts did, and was also wonderful according to a well-placed source) but also to double-check this amazing place ever existed in such an unlikely circumstance in the first place and wasn't just part of some wasabi-induced fever-dream. The GPO food hall I'm sure has its fans, and I'm sure Jailbird chicken and Patty B's burgers are perfectly decent, but to stumble across Nama felt a bit like the (possibly apocryphal) story of a couple of holidaymakers who obliviously thought they'd check out this restaurant they happened to drive past on the Costa Brava called El Bulli, just 5 minutes after a vanishingly rare cancellation at the most sought-after reservation in the world. Nama shouldn't be here, and yet it is.


And while it is, I suggest very strongly you go and eat there. Rarely has Japanese Izakaya food shined so brightly as in this unlikely spot in the North of England, and who knows what kind of prospect it has having to fight for attention next to the coffee shops and ice cream parlours of the GPO food hall. Even with that half-missing menu, and shonky apps, it is a reason in itself to visit Liverpool, and I can only assume by the time the word spreads, it will be even better. What a strange, unlikely place. But still, what a place.

9/10

Friday, 3 September 2021

Bandra Bhai, Fitzrovia


I don't know why I don't review more bars on this blog. Some of my happiest moments have been in places like Rules or Bar Termini or Swift or Scout, game-changing world-class establishments where if you leave without having had the time of your life and spent a fortune well, you're doing something wrong. London is packed full of great bars, with almost every part of town hosting at least one chance to get hold of a good martini, but the very best bars exist in their own rarefied space, a magical blend of bartender skill, twinkling clandestine atmosphere and the low, contented buzz of a group of people having a lovely time.


A good part of the magic of a great bar, then, and crucial to the correct "buzz", is being that sweet spot of not too busy (involving booking way in advance or - bleugh - queuing) or being funereally deathly quiet, which is equally undesirable. A bar is more than the staff and the cocktail list - it's also the people that choose to drink there, and in what numbers. Given that these are early days for Bandra Bhai, and the word is only beginning to spread, the healthy number of fellow cocktail fans in the plush downstairs space (underneath hip Indian restaurant du jour Pali Hill) points to the fact that already Fitzrovia has another hit on its hands, and that before too long it could be pretty oversubscribed. For now though, it's ours to enjoy in its current relaxed and inviting form, a comfortable and serene place to enjoy cracking cocktails, and tastefully done Indian small plates.


Before the food, though, cocktails. This is a Rajdoot Martini, an very imaginative blend of gin, samphire-infused vodka (yes please) and something called Cocchi Americano which I'd not crossed paths with before so let me hand you over to Wikipedia - "Cocchi Americano (pronounced: /ˈkɔkki ameriˈkano/) is a quinine-flavored aperitif wine produced by Giulio Cocchi Spumanti in the Asti province of Italy.". So now you know. The Martini was superb by the way, fragrant and sophisticated with the samphire just a gentle seawater backnote instead of being aggressively fishy (thank god).


I will never not love a cocktail served in a metal pineapple, and the "Gaba Singh Side-Hustle" was not only visually arresting but, thanks to the time-honoured combination of cognac and pineapple, a treat for all the senses. It's probably worth addressing the fact that £16.50 is a little toppy for a fruit cocktail but personally I'd pay an extra £5 for the metal pineapple.


Though it's perfectly acceptable to come to Bandra Bhai just for drinks, and there's nothing wrong with that, it would perhaps be a shame not to try at least a couple of the dishes of elevated Mumbai cuisine from the kitchens on the ground floor. So firstly these Mangalore buns, lovely and soft and steamy which came alongside a fantastically rich mixture of spiced crab meat. Whether this was what you're supposed to do or not, I made a hole in the bun and filled it with crab, and then devoured it in a couple of quick bites before the whole construct fell apart. It was great.


And of course we were duty-bound to order lamb chops, gorgeously crisped up on the grill, soaked in a beguiling spice marinade and served with a smooth coriander chutney. Absolutely wonderful things as, yes, you might expect for £20 for two but hey, they aren't pretending to be a cheap chop house. This is high-end stuff, unapologetically so.

As with any cocktail bar - at least, any good cocktail bar - the final bill will align in direct proportion to the amount of fun you're having, so expect to be charged accordingly if you skip out of the place high on life (and pineapple cognac). But as I said, this is exactly how it should be, and if you factor in the experienced bar staff, the friendly front of house and the extremely comfortable surroundings, well, this is what I consider getting your money's worth. You can certainly pay a lot more for a lot less. This lot above (had we not been on an invite) would have come to about £70 including service, so £35pp, if not quite a bargain then certainly more than reasonable.


And although it is early days, already Bandra Bhai has the feel of a settled and mature bar hosting what felt like a cast of regulars, a genuinely exciting new addition to Fitzrovia (a place not exactly brimming with smart cocktail options). The Indian theme, used intelligently and judiciously, adds a certain 'lean' to the drinks list in the same way as Kwānt on Heddon St does for African - fitting the mood of the building without being clunky or clichéd. All in all, it's a very smart little operation which I hope to visit again as soon as time will allow. Long live the metal pineapple.

8/10

I was invited to Bandra Bhai and didn't see a bill.

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

The Compasses Inn, Crundale


Apologies, if you've even noticed, for the relatively low level of activity here recently. I don't have a particularly good excuse other than I've been on holiday and am having a lot of work done on the house, two activities I don't recommend anyone else attempt at the same time. But here we are now, and in the well-established tradition on this blog of avoiding the really hard work until the last possible moment I'm not going to tell you about my four days in Berlin, or a smart new Japanese Izakaya in Liverpool I visited a week or two ago, but instead a gastropub in Kent I went to on Saturday.


If every great meal begins with a journey (© Ferran Adria) then the Compasses is off to a flying start before you even get to the starters. Even for an part of Kent known for its serene, pastoral loveliness, Crundale is especially off the beaten track, down a series of tiny lanes and a £20 cab ride from the nearest station. During a post-lunch pint in the front beer garden over the course of 20 minutes or so, we counted exactly four pieces of traffic - three Landrovers and a horse and cart, which probably tells you everything you need to know about the area.


Inside, the pub is as pretty as you can imagine, with a maze of low-beamed rooms featuring giant ancient fireplaces, and whether thanks to Covid restrictions or a genuine customer-focussed desire to do the right thing, tables are very nicely spaced apart. If, like me, your ideal dining room is a 15th century pub with stone-flagged floors and views over a manicured lawn flanked by willow trees then even if food-wise they offered nothing any more exciting than scampi and chips it still would have been more than worth the journey.


Fortunately, the offering is a little more ambitious than that, although I must admit to a pang of disappointment reading the phrase "Game may contain traces of shot" at the bottom of a game-season menu that contains no game. I have heard there are supply issues with grouse this year though, and I think we may still be a bit early for wild duck, so I won't dwell on that.


Once the starters arrived anyway, most was forgiven. Halbut was a dainty, geometric arrangement of delicately cured fish accompanied by remarkably sweet and lovely potatoes and a fresh tomato consommé packed with personality.


Quail was intelligently presented, with the supremes neatly trimmed and black puddings coming in the form of little cherry-sized breadcrumbed nuggets. As well as some actual cherries dotted about the place, the sauce I think was cherry-based so it all added up to a rather clever and attractive little dish.


You can't really go far wrong with the combination of chicken, leeks and truffle - well, I imagine you can but the Compasses fortunately hadn't - and some gloriously moist chunks of poultry with golden brown skin came arranged next to very nice herby dumplings and with a very moreish cream sauce. On top of all this, as well, a generous mound of shaved truffle which is always going to win extra brownie points.


The other main was "treacle cured beef", served nicely pink and accompanied by some dark, glossy ox cheek and something called "English Mustard Clotted Cream" which I'm afraid I didn't get to try but I think I'm on fairly soild ground assuming it was pretty good. I didn't hear any complaints, anyway.


Desserts, if ever-so-slightly less exciting than the mains, still impressed with a combination of presentational exactness and seasonal charm. Raspberry, lemon and yuzu tart had a slightly clunky thick pastry case but the filling was very enjoyable topped with huge plump raspberries. And creme caramel arrived with "elderflower poached apple", which sounds like it really made use of the best local produce (and I'm sure it did).

It seems to be a bit of a theme of Kentish gastropubs (see also the Kentish Hare) that local wines are being offered at ludicrously low markups, so a bottle of Gusbourne Estate 2016 landed on our table for barely a £10 markup at £45, and was enjoyed all the more for it. And furthermore our bill of about £80/head (they don't even ask for service, so we added it on) seemed more than reasonable considering the amount of effort that had gone into everything that lunchtime.

Of course, if you want to factor in the transportation to and from this idyllic spot, yes the costs add up. But as you can hopefully see, we didn't feel like it wasn't worth the outlay, and it didn't seem to be putting many other people off either - every table inside was taken with plenty more out back enjoying the garden. If you're good, no matter where you're good, people will find you. And The Compasses are very good indeed.

8/10

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Mangal 2, Dalston


Fans of London restaurants have, despite everything, had a great deal to get excited about over the last few weeks. As the post-covid landscape continues to shift and shuffle, and amidst the smattering of genuinely sad closures and the continuing stress of the "pingdemic", a few genuine surprises and delights have cropped up. Some I've featured on this blog, and that ventures as diverse as Temaki, Bingham Riverhouse and INO Gastrobar have landed so successfully in such difficult times is testament to London's relentless capacity to reinvent and reenergise.

But sometimes a restaurant story crops up from such an unlikely corner of the city that you have to keep checking you're not going mad or aren't unwittingly part of some kind of elaborate reality TV scam. Mangal 2 was, until quite recently, a perfectly decent and fairly traditional ocakbasi, one of many that line Stoke Newington High Street serving tarama, sucuk, lamb chops and flatbread, fairly efficiently and for not very much money. I liked it, but then I've never really found an ocakbasi I didn't like, and the only thing that set Mangal 2 apart from, say, Bos Cirrik or Umut 2000 (both steps away) was the fact that on any given night you stood a fairly good chance of eating at the next table from eccentric art duo Gilbert and George, who had made it their local.

But during lockdown(s), something very strange happened at Mangal 2. Owners/brothers Ferhat (front of house and irrascible Twitter personality) and Sertaç (new-wave Anatolian chef with a year in foodie mecca Copenhagen under his belt) Dirik, having decided that running a restaurant during a global pandemic wasn't already enough of a challenge, and running the risk of completely flummoxing their traditional customer base (not least Gilbert and George), quietly relaunched their modest little Dalston spot as a exciting modern Turkish bistro serving a short, bold menu of carefully crafted and exquisitely presented dishes that completely redefine what Turkish food means in London.

Don't believe me? I don't blame you - I could hardly believe it myself - but stop me when you see something you don't immediately want to eat:

Sourdough Pide with Cultured Keymak Butter
Cold Grilled Onion Salad
Friggitelli Peppers
Cull Yaw Kofte
House Hummus
Brown Crab Sarma with a Langoustine Emulsion Grilled Quail

(Nothing yet? OK I'll continue)

Grilled Aubergine with a Buttermilk and Aleppo Glaze
Mushroom Manti Dumplings, Confit Tomato and Yoghurt
Chicken Thigh Shish
Yaprak Doner
Lamb Sweetbreads with Pomegranete Molasses
Cull Yaw Chop

(Still happily eat everything? Same here.)

Grilled Octopus with Butter Beans
Line-Caught Mackerel
Plaice with Garlic Kaymak Butter

...OK, OK, I'll stop. But you can see my issue when presented with the above - if you have even the most passing interest in live-fire Turkish cuisine, or let's face it, food generally, choosing a sensible amount of dishes from this mini masterpiece of a menu is an absolutely Herculanean task, and one, in the end, we failed miserably at. But let me at least explain to you why.


House pickles arrived before anything else, a couple of bits of nice crunchy turnip (I think) and soft, sweet gherkin. A nod to the Turkish past but with their feet firmly in the Nordic-flavoured present, they were a modest indicator of what was to come.


"Pide" they coyly called this beautiful thing, though it was unlike anything bearing that name I'd come across in London or elsewhere, ever. Charred from a searing hot oven, risen like a Yorkshire pudding and soaked in excellent olive oil, it was a masterclass in bread work, and a dollop of funky, salty "kaymak" butter added another touch of that Nordic/Turkish crossover charm.


Onion salad had also been treated to a healthy time over the coals, and as well as being dressed with various interesting herbs and spices boasted a significant kick from chilli flakes, something which only revealed itself after I'd already had a couple of large mouthfuls. Was a nice surprise, though.


So far, so great. But things were about to get a lot more exciting with the arrival of the "sarma", a parcel of brown crab and rice wrapped in vine leaf which would have been soaked in buttery seafood flavours and troublingly addictive even without the addition of "langoustine emulsion", a kind of seafood mayonnaise, swirled on top. The fact that this dish involves two of my favourite things in the world, and not only did not disappoint but somehow was even greater than I imagined it would be, should tell you everything you need to know. Astonishing stuff.


From here on, everything that arrived on our table with nothing short of magical. Firstly this cull yaw kofte, which announced its presence with an aroma so enchantingly gamey and complex that it was worth ordering just to have the opportunity to be near it. Of course, to eat it was to be even further bewitched - these extraordinary animals which I've spoken about before on this blog are raised by Matt Chatfield on his farm in Cornwall and though I don't know a great deal about the mystical methods he uses to turn older sheep that would otherwise have been culled (hence the name) into one of Western Europe's greatest meat products of any kind (this is not hyperbole, seriously try some), all I do know is that anywhere serving it knows a thing or two about great ingredients.


Manti dumplings had a delicate thin casing and rich, powerfully-flavoured mushroom filling and came served with a lovely tomato chutney of some kind ("confit" on the menu) and some yoghurt, hot with garlic. This is one of those dishes, vibrant and bright, with each element working in total harmony, that's so easy to eat and so attractively constructed that it sort of washes over you, a soothing balm of tasteful summer flavour.


And then the sweetbreads. Oh, lordy the sweetbreads. Gleaming gems of meaty offal coated in glossy pomegranate molasses that you wrapped up in shiso leaves and ate a few precious morsels at a time, these were just about the finest and most expertly dressed lamb glands I can remember having anywhere - in fact, I'm fairly confident they're the best you can find in London and if anyone finds any better I'll need to make a special journey there too.


Even an ezme salad, the one vaguely recognisable item from the Mangal 2 Before Times, seemed a cut above, seasoned nicely and with a good texture.


At this point, all the food we'd ordered had arrived and had been comprehensively demolished. But barely a 2nd glance was needed to my dining companion that we weren't prepared to end the evening here, not by a long way, and so we ordered firstly the quail, a carefully-cooked thing coated in a fascinating dry rub of who knows how many different kinds of herbs and spices...


...and secondly, of course, more cull yaw, because if there's one thing any evening needs it's more cull yaw. Here was a whole chop, a steal at £16, which ran from pure fat at one end which melted in the mouth like gamey butter, to pink slices of chargrilled meat at the other, the flavour of which I struggle to describe without using (and re-using) words like "intense", "complex" and "completely bloody otherworldly". I feel the same way about cull yaw as I do about late season grouse - there's that strong sense of the environment the animal has come from translating directly into the flavours in the meat, and of a healthy life lived well.


There was, finally, also a dessert. Tahini tart was the first time I'd had the sesame paste outside of a savoury dish but it made absolute sense here, topped with a lovely rich hazelnut cream. Anywhere else this would have been a highlight, here it was merely a booknote to one of the most extraordinary meals I've had in the capital in recent years.


So yes, as you may have gathered by now, it's fair to say I'm very much in favour of the revamped Mangal 2. Ignoring the extraordinary back story and simply taken at face value as a new modern Turkish bistro, the fierce intelligence of the sourcing and cooking and innovation on the menu would have still had me giddy with delight, a genuinely new and exciting addition to the capital. But that the Dirik brothers have risked everything - their traditional customer base, their livelihoods in a pandemic - in a brazen attempt to reinvent and relaunch their family business into something that looks boldly forward while keeping an eye on tradition, in an experiment that let's face it could have just as easily backfired as found a new and appreciative audience well, that's just even more to admire. For this monumental achievement, in this year of all years, they should be exceedingly proud. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to book another table.

10/10

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.