I have wanted to go to Japan for years but have never quite made it. So I’m thrilled that finally, tickets are booked for next spring (honeymoon!) and have been literally feeding my excitement by visiting some of the best destinations for Japanese cuisine here in London.
The Matsuri St James is a traditional Japanese restaurant in the heart of Mayfair. It specialises in authentic (I’m told – ask me again after spring 2015!) and theatrical teppan-yaki, in which fresh fish, meat and vegetables are cooked by a chef on an iron grill in front of customers seated around a semi-circular table.
On arrival, you are greeted by a gigantic mask made of washi paper and bamboo – apparently the symbol of one of the largest Japanese festivals, called Nebuta. The rest of the restaurant carries on this festival theme, such as the colourful kimono worn by the waitresses.
We started with a newly invented cocktail which as yet has not been named by the skilled barman; the combination of unfiltered sake and passionfruit pulp gave an unusually silky, creamy texture.
Just the thing to wash away the day’s stresses.
You can order individual dishes from the a la carte menu at The Matsuri, but it’s more fun to let the knowledgeable staff guide you through the suggested menu of impressively showy dishes, many of which are prepared before your eyes.
The first course was a selection of sushi; turbot, salmon and seared tuna sat atop palm-warm parcels of rice.
Then the house special, Matsuri roll with plenty of chilli bite:
Next came tempura, which Mark pronounced the best he’s ever had. The batter was impossibly light and not remotely greasy; it encased perfect specimens of prawns and vegetables.
Meanwhile the teppan-yaki grill was being fired up and the chef began to prepare the next course in the procession, egg fried rice. Watching the deft knife and stir fry action was mesmerising.
As well as being a dab hand on the teppan-yaki, the chef was remarkably affable, sharing a couple of trade secrets.
Top tip: the secret to egg fried rice is to use day-old rice; the dryness means the grains will brown better and give more flavour to the dish.
I wouldn’t want to betray any of the courses by picking a favourite, but special mention must be given to the black cod, which is marinated for a minimum of three days until it is meltingly cloud-like.
Chunks of rare, flash fried fillet beef, served with a mild wasabi dip.
We couldn’t help but rubber-neck at the table next to us, who were clearly having fun with the company card and ordering amazingly marbled wagyu beef:
To complete the experience, the Fireball Ice Cream is a must for dessert – brandy is poured onto ice cream to create a huge fireball which is then served on a pancake with grilled pineapple.
For those not in the mood for pyrotechnics, the matcha green tea ice cream is a lovely way to round off an excellent meal.
Every course was matched by an excellent selection of wines and to finish, the whisky trolley was wheeled over, groaning under the weight of an impressive array of rare Japanese spirits.
The experience at The Matsuri has made me even more excited to visit Japan; and I will know just where to come to help along the slow countdown until our flight takes off.
I was invited to dine as a guest of The Matsuri and to give an honest review. I will be back!