Chisou Restaurant, Knightbridge, London
I love Japanese food and I like to have a range of dining options. Nobu, Zuma, Roka, et al are all fabulous Japanese sushi restaurants in london but they aren’t drop-in style, neighbourhood restaurants. And, they are incredibly expensive – which makes it difficult to become a regular. What would you expect from a Japanese restaurant in Mayfair?
On the other had, many of the more ‘local’ Japanese joints are pretty scrubby: questionable sushi, congealed noodles and tepid tempura. Then, there are the everything-oriental-under-the-sun home-delivery places. These are the real bottom-feeders of the restaurant establishment. If you want good Japanese, don’t order it from a restaurant that also does Thai/Chinese/Malaysian/Tibetan. Hybrid takeaway sounds good in theory but is terrible in practice.
So, I was invited to Chisou on Beauchamp Place in Knightbridge and I thought this might be what I’d been looking for: a neighbourhoody place that was casual enough to drop in without a reservation but not swanky… but sophisticated and refined. (BTW: Tajima-Tei IS everything I’m looking for but I don’t live in the East End).
One meal later and I’m undecided. Let me break it down:
– The decor is tasteful, not high-end but a cut above IKEA. It’s been thoughtfully put together by someone who knows how to create some intimacy and drama without spending much on it. The mini-booth areas are cute and give a semblance of privacy. The colour temperature is heavily beige – not dramatic but restful.
– The sake list is really great. There are tons of bottles to choose from and roughly a quarter of which are offered as 750ml, 320ml and 120ml carafes. The only thing that upset me, though, was the ridiculous mark-up on some of the bottles. As a rule of thumb, doubling the retail price is acceptable in a restaurant but the Azure Ginjo was over £80 a bottle on the menu, yet you can obtain this from a local Internet vendor for £27. That is shameless in my opinion and gets major negative marks.
– The food is a mixed bag but nothing was terrible. In fact, everything was reasonable and there was a good variety of fried, grilled and souped items – including sushi. The menu gets high marks for offering such a good range. The quality was unremarkable but NOT poor. Their sushi is their best asset. My highlights were: Negi Toro Maki (fresh, creamy and yum) and unagi sushi (well grilled)… hamachi was average. Sadly, they didn’t have scallops that night, as I like to use an order of scallops to test their supplier.
– service was attentive but they kept trying to clear plates that hadn’t been finished. They also put their fingers into food when serving, which is unhygienic. And, they touch bottle necks to glasses when they pour… So, there needs to be a little more staff training. This is not Japanese service.
At the end of the day, I am undecided because I need to go back to get a clearer picture. At least, I didn’t write this place off. It has a lot going for it – good location, decent food, extensive menu and sake list, pleasant decor and no waiting-list… even if the food wasn’t outstanding. You could do much worse and the prices aren’t going to make your wallet bleed.
So, I went again, which confirmed many of my initial impressions.
The Sushi is their best asset but can be hit-or-miss. For example, Negi Toro Maki is great. Unagi sushi very good. Hotate sushi good. Snow Crab sushi okay. Hamachi sushi mediocre. Ikura sushi… pass.
There are some interesting surprises, like the Kimchee pork belly – this is very nice.
Their tofu dishes are so-so, because of the quality of the tofu itself. Hiyakko is acceptable; Age-dofu better (probably because it’s cooked, hiding flaws).
Service is still very average. Our waiter didn’t know all the dishes and seemed to be thinking about something else other than our order. For some reason, this is the second time I was brought the wrong drinks… so, staff training needs a boost.
[UPDATE: March 2011]
Service has come a long way. A new head waiter has been employed and everything seems to be running much more smoothly. I suppose that they had teething problems for the first six months.
I am happy to say that the quality of the sushi has also improved and I would love to add the Kara Age to my list of must-haves. Eat it hot right away. It melts in your mouth and has great flavour – but doesn’t travel well (yes, they do take away, too).
They still charge too much for their sake but have a wonderful line-up that also changes with the seasons.