Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Senkai, Piccadilly

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

Senkai on Urbanspoon


Laissez Fare said...

Sounds like a good revival. The food was usually pretty decent at Cocoon but this looks/sounds like they've taken it up a notch. Nice review.

Kavey said...

I was really excited, right up until I read how much the bill came to.

I was excited by the combination of great food and perfect service.

But with so many places serving great food (with acceptable if not perfect service) I simply can't justify spending £100 a head on these dishes.

Looks fantastic though! Very helpful right up!

Ahab said...

I'm not convinced by this review...Im not sure I trust your reviews of japanese food if you have never eaten tempura prawn maki before, like gloopy wasabi, that looks like it came out of a tube rather than the grated japanese horseradish, and if you think a very standard dish of rock shrimp tempura is unique...
200 pounds for this meal is a rip off.
There are better and better value sushi place in london (Sushi of Shiori comes to mind straight away)
A disappointing review imho.

Chris Pople said...

Ahab: One of the benefits of being an amateur blogger as opposed to a professional restaurant critic is that I can be completely honest and admit when I've not had something before. If you choose to dismiss my entire experience based on the fact I've not had or seen rock shrimp tempura previously, that's your lookout. But I have been to Roka, Sushi of Shiori, Yashin and numerous other high-profile Japanese restaurants and this stood up very well to them. I have also spent two weeks in Japan, in case that convinces you my opinion is worth anything.

I have no idea how authentic or otherwise that wasabi was, but it was bloody delicious.

Hollow Legs said...

The decor needs a rethink, that's for sure, and I still think the lamb was oversalted. it was tricky to eat with chopsticks, as it we neither bite-size nor tender enough (though very tender) to bite in half cleanly.

That being said, I really liked the corn and the scallop dish. For £100 a head though... eh....

Matt said...

Is it better than Nobu?

Eva Lai said...

Explain the "China Whites trashy glamour" to me / to us will you, that sounds fascinating.

Eva Lai said...

Wow, that rock shrimp tempura looks (and sounds) absolutely irresistable. £200, wow, you could pay my lawyer...... hahaha... only joking. I think I know what you mean by teriyaki and fishy fish being a panic-inducing combination. Recently I got excited about Wagyu beef - AND FAT - it wasn't the cured type though.

fish said...

and http://www.flickr.com/photos/65720791@N04/5984163566/in/photostream this is my fishy fish. Urm, different fish. Kitchen stuff available at this shop. http://www.flickr.com/photos/65720791@N04/6126917340/in/set-72157627299425804 ; I was busy hijacking a noodle shop. As for which one is more delicious, urm, urm... well... well...

May said...

Like the look of the food. Always good to have another decent Japanese place in London.

I guess the location doesn't do them any favours as you wouldn't notice if you were passing.