The art of sublime sushi at SUMI
Tempus checks out London's newest high-quality sushi joint - and winds up tasting one of the finest cuts of beef anywhere in the capital
In the ill-defined "Western world", our relationship with sushi is, for the most part, rather unusual and frankly a little dissapointing. Where I'm from, for instance, time-hungry London commuters have managed to take one of the most artful, aesthetically stunning meals, borne of centuries of painstaking craftsmanship, and reduced it to a cheap snack to wolf down on the 5:17 from Charing Cross to Orpington.
Without looking beyond the normal haunts of Tesco, Sainsburys or M&S, any Brit could be forgiven for believing sushi was little more than a dry, bland option when a processed sandwich simply won't hit the spot. But last week, my partner and I did indeed look beyond the high street supermarket chains and stumbled across the holy grail of sushi in the British capital: SUMI.
Nestled in the leafy climes of Notting Hill, a blink would see you miss the newly-opened SUMI entirely, such is its unassuming (yet tasteful) pinewood facade. Upon arrival, we stepped inside - masks fully on - to an unusual sight; rather than a dining area with a distinct and separate kitchen space nearby, or hidden entirely from view, SUMI blends the two together for a unique and somewhat puzzling experience. Diners sit, fluorescent cocktails in hand, barely five metres from the row of industrious chefs who are sizzling their beef, melding their sushi-meshi and mixing their sauces.
Without meaning to delve into the realm of cliche with too much gusto, sushi-making of this sort is something of an art form, and having it in my peripheral vision for the entire evening was insightful, fascinating and not a little distracting - my partner and I often finding ourselves sat in silence and just watching as wave after wave of impossibly fragile nigiri constructions were plated and whisked away to adjacent tables.
SUMI is the brainchild of Endo Kazutoshi, the Michelin-starred maestro behind the West London restaurant that bears his name. SUMI is, as its own website puts it, something of a "little sister" restaurant to its more opulent counterpart in White City, but is the recipient of no less love from Kazutoshi. After all, the third-generation sushi master named it after his own mother. From my viewing point, on a table in the corner, peering out at the chefs bumping shoulders in the kitchen, SUMI looks like a cross between a flash Soho-esque cocktail house and a welcoming, cosy izakaya, the likes of which you might find in the backstreets of Kyoto or Osaka. It's at once pristine, austere and minimalist, while lit and decorated with a certain charming warmth.
One of a number of efficient, dedicated waiters on staff then sidled up to our table to take our orders from the enormous cocktail menu, the size of which had taken me aback compared to the rather stripped-back food menu featuring just four choices of mains. A short pause later and I found myself sipping on the so-called Smoky Boulevardier, an outrageous mix of Johnny Walker Black Label, Lagavulin 16-year-old, umesu plum liqueur, Antica Formula and Campari. On paper, this five-booze cocktail had me more than a little sceptical, due in no small part to the inclusion of two separate whiskies. But to say I was proved wrong would be doing a disservice to the bartenders, hidden away at the back of SUMI's dining area. Somehow, they have thrown together these ingredients in such a way that the cocktail is crisp, refreshing and bitter without having too much of a boozy kick.
SUMI's menu, stripped back and limited in size, may see those less au fait with the terminology behind sushi needing a gentle nudge from the waiters. Romanised Japanese names for styles and ingredients are all that are listed here - there are few English translations - so prepare to scratch your head a little bit when presented with a menu offering such items as "otoro nigiri", "sake sashimi" and "hamachi temaki". Our diligent, attentive waiter gave us a helping hand - sake is apparently salmon, suzuki is seabass and otoro is one of the fattiest cuts of tuna - while also reeling off a number of specials, including seared prawn nigiri and a seabass and wasabi temaki. We placed our order and took a few more sips of our cocktails while we waited, chowing down on the veritable mountain of edamame pods we had requested earlier.
Though frighteningly small, our starter packed a gigantic punch, despite being a rather unusual propsect; two deep-fried bites of high-end fillet steak, coated in panko breadcrumbs and served under the delightful name "kushikatsu". And then came the immaculately presented found of sushi, each one placed in the centre of gorgeous matte grey and brown plates. First to arrive was the salmon sashimi, an astonishingly tender, almost buttery cut of fish that disintegrated on contact with the tongue. Such was the delicacy of the flesh that I forwent both the wasabi and ginger on the plate, allowing the salmon to speak for itself. Next to arrive was the "otoro" nigiri, a slab of vibrant pink, fatty tuna resting on a bed of sushi-meshi rice. I opted for the "aburi" nigiri, in which the topping is lightly seared over an open flame in place of being served raw. With marbled fat permeating the tuna, the texture, once again, was remarkably soft, with the flavour profile hosting distinct meaty quality that set it apart from the salmon.
We also opted for two specials described to us by the waiter. The first was the ebi (shrimp) nigiri, which we also ordered "aburi" style after a recommendation from the staff, and which we were informed had been shipped over all the way from Maritime Canada that same morning. Fleshy and full of umami flavours, this is shrimp at its absolute best, cooked to perfection by the kitchen team. The second special was a stonking seabass and wasabi temaki, a long, cylindrical form of sushi, resembling a sort-of seaweed taco and rarely found in the UK. This was perhaps the most acquired taste of our journey through SUMI; the chefs do not go light on the wasabi, and as a result this explosively flavourful temaki is a striking contrast to the earlier, ultra-delicate flavours found in the salmon and tuna. Still, those looking for big, bold flavours harnessed from top-quality fresh ingredients should not miss this offering.
While SUMI prides itself - and has already developed quite a reputation - for its glorious sushi menu, guests would be doing themselves an enormous disservice by not glancing across to the other side of the menu and asking for the Japanese A4 Wagyu striploin, served "tagliata" style with charred puntarelle and an onion and yuzu sauce, perhaps the finest cut of beef both my partner and I have ever sampled. This utterly decadent cut is intensely marbled and fatty, allowing it to literally live up to the age-old cliche of meat "melting in your mouth"; served medium-rare with a lightly crispy exterior, we barely needed to chew. Drizzled in a sweet yet tangy sauce, this item is a must-have for anyone who has never sampled the delights of Wagyu, or those who love their meat almost impossibly tender.
When it comes to the food, SUMI has proven that it is the ultimate in contemporary dining in the capital. Its dishes are expertly curated while always falling short of fussy, with the chefs harnessing the power of fresh ingredients to allow the food to speak for itself. It is at once highly traditional and thoroughly modern, a place where the ancient Japanese staple of salmon sashimi can sit comfortably alongside the more extravagant offerings such as the kushikatsu fried fillet, and where a decadent, experimental cocktail does nothing but complement ultra-simple, lightly seared cuts of tuna or shrimp. It is a melding of old and new - of cutting edge and thoroughly traditional - and it is quite simply wonderful.