To my Western eyes, everything the Japanese do seems to have an air of Eastern mysticism surrounding it. From ethereal temples curling to the sky to kimono-clad geisha girls, Cos-playing Harajuku kids to Wasabi flavoured Kitkats.
Their cuisine is no different, and whilst travelling through Japan what struck us the most was the delicacy of unusual dishes and regional differences in flavouring. It’s fairly obvious that Sushi is the most infamous Japanese dish, but Katsu Curry and Teppenyaki are close runners up, but wonderful examples of the delicate but powerful flavourings they manage to tease your tastebuds with.
Disclaimer: We were invited guests of Matsuri, but my (many) opinions are only ever my own, and I would never recommend anywhere that I wouldn’t happily re-visit.
If you haven’t been to a Teppanyaki restaurant yet, I highly recommend it. Go in a big, social group (perfect for a corporate dinner the boss is paying for) and be prepared for the most theatrical dinner cooking performances you’ll experience. Sat in a horseshoe around a iron grill, a personal chef cooks the main portion of your dinner – to order – in flamboyant fashion in front of you. Flame, steam and the flashing of swift utensils combine for a meal with a difference.
Matsuri in St James for that matter sure is an experience. Tucked just around the corner(ish) from the bastion of English-ness that is Fortnum and Masons’, Matsuri is a quiet hideaway for Japanese businessmen and city workers spending their bonuses.
Welcomed with a lovely glass of wine, we were treated to a wee sushi making demonstration by the Matsuri sushi chef. Having trained for over 5 years, our demonstrator certainly knew his tuna from his salmon, and made lovely taste testers for us to sample.
Not being able to eat the normal tempura selection, us gluten-free diners were treated to a mouthwatering array of vegetables faux-tempura’d in a light potato starch batter. Normally as a
trouble child harder to cater for food allergy we end up with cardboard copies of the gluten laid good stuff. This time we absolutely lucked in – the selection of vegetables in a wee broth with daikon were stunning – the aubergine alone had Ceri and I raving for a good 20 minutes afterwards.
Then the grill was fired up, and our main meal and chef came out ready for our theatrical delectation.
First up was a succulent piece of Alaskan black cod marinated in ginger. Grilled and lightly steamed on the hot plate in front of us, the flavour was simply stunning. Simple, fleshy but with a crisp overtone from the ginger. Mouthwatering.
Galician beef T-bone steak with green and white asparagus, followed by a garlic butter rice was then cooked in front of us. Good, but overshadowed by the cod, we enjoyed the texture marbled through the beef with a selection of wines hand picked (and presented) and matched especially by their sommelier.
Then, my biggest downfall. Plum wine. Plum wines are normally so rich and indulgent that there is no need for dessert, but make for a delightful punctuation to an indulgently playful meal. The Umenoyado Aragoshi Umeshu served at Matsuri was no exception to this rule, though slightly lighter in texture than many I have had before.
Our final course was their specialty fire-ball ice-cream, flambéed with pancakes and pineapple, and a flame spectacular eliciting gasps from the enthralled audience.
As gluten intolerant diners part of a large group we were treated like royalty by the Matsuri kitchen team. Served first (normally last once the rest of the party has tucked halfway in) every effort was taken to ensure we would have an gluten free meal. Served with a gluten free soy sauce, even our sushi was made specially. (See Fran’s post for the low-down on their Gluten-heavy meal).
All the chefs were notified about our intolerances (though we had a slight mishap at dessert – to be honest with a glass of soft plum wine in hand it wasn’t needed in any case). The food for the entire table was cooked carefully and sensitively for us.
The décor in the main basement restaurant though luxe is subdued, casting more attention towards the cooking area and method, the experience of the Teppenyaki grill taking precedence. With a relaunched sushi bar, and new head chef it should be rather interesting to see how this St James stalwart will flamboyantly continue to entertain and tickle the taste buds of their clientele.
Having tried teppenyaki before, I enjoyed being able to concentrate more on the flavour and ingredients cooked before us. Our prior experience was a little more down-to-earth in less luxurious surroundings, but still a wonderful experience.