Sea Urchin Sushi at Nizuni


This is our second visit to Nizuni.

“I’ve been calling, every couple of weeks, to ask if they have any sea urchin”

The first time round, when it came to ordering, the waitress said, totally matter-of-fact, “Sorry, we don’t have uni”. As if she had no idea of the terrible, disastrous import of the words that came so easily to her. We just went on ordering, too far committed to get up and leave… then ate our meal and headed to Manchurian Legends for their skewers!

So I’ve been calling, every couple of weeks, to ask if they have any sea urchin yet. Every time they’ve said no, or there’s another delivery next week, or there’s a supply problem and we don’t know when we’ll have some in. At no point did they say “Oh, it’s the urchin obsessive again”!

On Monday, though, everything changed. I phoned up and she said “Yes, we do have that”. As if she had no idea of the terrible, wondrous import of the words that came so easily to her. I immediately phoned Rachael, who couldn’t adjust her plans, so we braved it and called again the next day. They went above and beyond: having the fabled foodstuff two days in a row!

So we’re here again, with a round wooden platter holding two of these unexpectedly difficult to come across morsels. And yes, expectations are raised.

Biting in, I’m surprised. I guess I’d expected something tough and chewy, at the cuttlefish end of the sushi spectrum. Instead it is gooey, mushy, and almost gritty. It tastes characteristically like roe, with that fishy, smoky, not quite there yet flavour. So, of course, I feel a bit slow off the mark when I discover that, sure enough, you only eat the roe – or, more precisely, the gonads (bite on that!) – of sea urchins. The rest is generally considered inedible.

I prefer cuttlefish sushi to roe (if I’m honest), but this has a uniqueness of aroma and sparks my interest in its colour and solid-liquid texture.

Worth the wait? Well, if I tell the truth, I’m not convinced it was as fresh as the clear difficulty of getting hold of it might imply. I can imagine a cleaner, less fishy taste, and one that feels richer and more indulgent. Had expectations not been raised, I might have been more pleasantly impressed. Unfortunately, they had been.

Wagyu Beef Sushi with Truffle and Ponzu Jelly at Dinings


There are many things that are spectacular about Dinings. And I’m not just talking about the price-tags attached to some of the dishes. This tiny joint offers really inventive contemporary fusion Japanese cuisine, with an emphasis on high-end ingredients: truffle and wagyu beef abound. Every dish is beautifully presented, and every piece of sushi is topped with some delightful, colour-contrasting flavour-addition that propels what would otherwise be ordinary (though spot-on) bites into something truly extraordinary.

“The wagyu was so meltingly tender that you could certainly eat it without using your teeth”

The main problem I have, though, is that, what with the urge to pile on the flavours and focus on the rarest of constituent parts, everything slightly ends up tasting the same. When they matched wagyu beef sushi with truffle and ponzu jelly it tasted pretty similar to the seabass carpaccio… with truffle and ponzu jelly. Okay, okay, so it’s probably our fault for ordering a couple of variations on a theme, but in our favour a) this was selected for us (or maybe even pushed on us!) by the waitress and b) it was pretty unavoidable, since everything seemed to be matched with a small number of additions.

Unfortunately, that meant that when our wagyu beef sushi arrived, it had somewhat been pre-empted, and I might have got a stronger ‘wow’ impression if I hadn’t already tried the (yes, definitely) delicious truffle and jelly. The wagyu was so meltingly tender that you could certainly eat it without using your teeth, and gave an ethereally smoky impression on the tongue. It’s as close as a direct vector for taste – bypassing thought or internal calculation – as you might come across.

The sushi was certainly better than Dinings ‘famous innovation’ of tar-tar chips – basically (single bite) potato-chip tacos filled with any of seven flavours. Rachael felt, and I agreed, that these would have been much better made with actual (mini-)taco-shells: the potato totally overpowered the flavour of the delicate ingredients, making for a severely underwhelming experiencing.

Overall, judging it on the wagyu beef sushi alone (yes, that is the Chowdown Showdown Londontown requirement!), I’d be super-impressed. I’ll never be able to know how much more blown away I’d have been if I hadn’t tasted the accompaniments beforehand. Sadly, the pretension – and, yes, the excessive cost – lets this place down. Which is a pity, since that beef was something truly special.

Natto Maki at Atari-ya


Fermented soybean – natto – that’s basically rotted legumes. It’s gotta taste nicer than it sounds, right? Wrong, at least to my palate.

“It indisputably has a unique flavour”

As I understand it, many people really enjoy the flavour of natto, generally raw, and often in sushi. And I can understand why some people might particularly enjoy the stuff – it indisputably has a unique flavour. It’s just to me that really is a flavour embodying exactly how you might think rotten beans might end up, down to the slimy, grainy texture, pungent flavour and putrid aftertaste.

All I can say is that if this is an acquired taste, it’s not one I’ve achieved yet. After the chicken livers this is only the second dish on the list I actually can’t eat. You might hope there wouldn’t be any to achieve that accolade, but I do accept that part of the Chowdown Showdown endeavour should be challenging taste boundaries and ‘calibrating our palates’. This was just one challenge too far.

Nigiri Sushi at Yashin Sushi


I love sushi. I can understand the squeamishness about eating raw fish, but I can’t understand how anybody who tries good sushi can fail to be converted by the taste.

“Yashin’s Nigiri Sushi was firmly in this uber-league”

I’ll happily eat mediocre sushi around London, but I was surprised when in New York a few years back at just how genuinely nasty the cheapest offering you can get there is, when New Yorkers are generally quite exacting when it comes to food. On the other hand, a visit to Nobu-Next-Door during the same trip showed me some of the best Japanese food that the States has to offer. I had hoped that it would be good, but not so good that I’d be left wanting to go back. I’m happy (just about) to spend that much on a meal once, but I try to avoid getting a taste for it. Unfortunately, of course, it really was that good, and left me with an understanding of just how great sushi can be (though without ruining the less exquisite usual standard for me).

Yashin’s Nigiri Sushi was firmly in this uber-league. (You’ll want to order one of the ‘omakase’ – again, Time Out lets us down by failing to tell us exactly what we’re supposed to be ordering!) We got eight pieces of chef-selected fish-of-the-day, neatly laid on cuboids of rice, plus their ‘roll-of-the-day’. Each fish was matched with a different topping, from wasabi foam to ponzu jelly to strawberry and basil. If that sounds vague, I’m afraid it’s because, in spite of the waiter’s careful explanation of every last detail, I was left not-much-the-wiser after a barrage of quick-fire information.

“Yashin’s ‘tag-line’ is the enigmatic ‘Without Soy Sauce'”

I keep finding myself using this word in reviews, and not necessarily because I consider it the highest accolade, but the fish was meltingly soft, with flavours so subtle and lacking in ‘fishiness’ that it almost made sense pairing it with a sliver of strawberry. I say almost because, to be frank, I’m not convinced that the hint of strawberry (if it really was detectable) added a great deal.

That might sound like a major criticism, but the truth is that sushi and sashimi (rightly) should be all-about-the-fish, and this fish was so good I didn’t mind the lack of distraction. In fact, Yashin’s ‘tag-line’ is the enigmatic ‘Without Soy Sauce’. Enigmatic in that they didn’t make any attempt to explain this dictum, which I presume is the same belief that you wouldn’t cover your Michelin-starred French dinner in a snowstorm of salt, so why drown sushi in soy? If that was the reason, it went unsaid.

Breaking one of our golden rules – that portion size counts and therefore Rachael and I should have the full dish each – between the three of us we decided to share this, plus a sashimi platter, ‘miso cappucino’, and some prawn tempura roll. All of these were spectacular. “Why did you do it?”, I hear you cry. Well, at £30 for eight pieces of nigiri and four pieces of maki, it was easily pushing the bounds of good sense.

We ended up ordering another omakase (and a wagyu-beef roll, the one disappointing dish of the night), so we got a fairly good selection each. We had considered ordering the £60 omakase, but, slightly strangely, this would have bought us just fifteen pieces of nigiri, and no roll, a strange ‘buying-in-bulk’ non-discount. And here we get to the heart of the matter, this, and the soy-sauce ban, and the over-detailed explanations that left me bewildered rather than enlightened all reeked of a pretentiousness that food of this quality doesn’t need. Both Rachael and I came away feeling a little underwhelmed by what should have been a spectacular dish, which is a real shame. Defeat plucked from the fish-filled jaws of victory!

56/100 of London’s best dishes