Japan’s influence on British dining is hard to miss in any of the big cities, especially London. We’re simply spoilt for choice. Sushi has gone from a 1980s yuppy delicacy, to a high street routine for many people, with even corner shops offering boxed sets for a few coins (although you’re playing with fire if you go for those!) One of the uniquely Japanese culinary traditions that is a little harder to come by though is the dramatic teppanyaki restaurant. This iron griddle setup offers culinary theatrics, with diners having their meals prepared right in front of them by fast-fingered chefs who opt for bursts of flame to wow their audience. In comparison, the recent trend for theatre-style kitchens in restaurants still feels detached and reserved.
Matsuri in Mayfair immediately succeeds in showing us its authenticity, in that it is extremely popular with Japanese diners in London. When we arrived and were led down the staircase into the restaurant by our softly spoken kimono-wearing waitress, we could see parties of Japanese businessmen, families, and couples all captivated by the chefs at work in front of them.
Taking in our intimately-lit surroundings which featured traditional Japanese furnishings, this felt like such a contrast from so many other restaurants around London, which either seek to barrage you with oriental imagery, or alternatively, put too much of a ‘east meets west’ spin on things. Not so here. Looking through the cocktail menu, we couldn’t help but choose some signature creations that made use of the restaurant’s fine collection of sakes and shochus.
Before the culinary theatre started, we were keen to get some starters that we’d seen another table order moments before. A classic first – prawn tempura. Sometimes, the colour of a dish just leaps out at you, and you from it you know the sheer quality of the preparation that’s gone into it. The batter of the tempura was a lot lighter than many other places we’d seen, and was a great deal more delicate, lacking the oily, overly heavy nature of other restaurants’ recipes. As for the prawns themselves, the crisp skin gave way to a wonderfully fluffy interior, which soaked up the soy sauce hungrily.
Matsuri also boasts a renowned sushi bar, so we weren’t going to pass up ordering something from this part of the menu. We were recommended the prawn tempura and avocado rolls. Again, the colour that came off these beautifully prepared pieces just leapt off the plate, thanks largely to the almost sparkling nature of the salmon roe that they had been rolled in. This added a delicate salty finish to each roll, after the warming bite of the special spiced sauce that they came with had cooled.
As well as the extensive selection of sake and shochu that we had already sampled, Matsuri boasts a wine list that not only covers the European vineyards, but also a range of Japanese varieties. The sommelier helped us make the perfect pairings with our respective courses – we were happy to go with his recommendations, particularly because he clearly enjoyed making them, and obviously wanted us to get the most out of our meal.
The time had finally come though for our chef to come out and work his magic in front of us. We ordered two very different dishes – quail with herbs and garlic, and Scottish salmon teriyaki. Although it’s not usually tradition to photograph a meal before it’s been made, the ingredients of our two main courses just looked too fantastic to not capture.
As the chef began preparing our dishes, it was impossible to take our eyes away from the flurry of dicing, flipping, and careful and controlled seasoning going on just a few feet away from us. Teppanyaki restaurants are known for their visual aspect, but what really hooked us straight away was how it played to the other senses. The intense sizzles as the ingredients hit the griddle draw you in, and the subtle aromas that build as the garlic melts and the meat browns have you getting restless in your seat, willing the food to be ready.
Credit goes to our chef, not only for his visible skill while preparing our dishes, but for not getting too unnerved by our unbroken staring at the salmon and quail as he presented our dishes to us. These were stares of people who knew how good their impending meals were going to be. The sticky teriyaki glaze that covered the salmon had a caramelised sweetness to it – not at all sickly, but almost smoky in its aftertaste. As for the fish itself, the flakes fell apart so easily, and were perfect to accompany with the egg fried rice that the chef had also prepared just moments earlier.
The rich nature of the quail meant that it did not need any particularly strong complementary flavours in its preparation – using only a few sprigs of rosemary, the meat was impossibly juicy and had soaked up the flavours of the garnish, along with those of the asparagus and mushroom accompaniment.
With green tea ice cream and sponge, bean curd and chocolate sauce on the dessert menu, we were never going to be able to pass it up. Again, the colour of the dish just jumped out at us, and the fact that the green tea ingredients toned down the sweetness of each part of the dessert made this the perfect light finish to our meal. Then again, we’d already seen someone else order the chocolate tart with whipped cream and fresh raspberry, so we were going to have to order this too. Ever so slightly warm inside, and with a thick, almost mousse-like consistency, the tart, like the green tea sponge, was light and never overly sickly or rich.
It’s not often that you can step out of a restaurant and feel like you’ve honestly been treated to an experience you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Matsuri doesn’t rely on just its dramatic cooking techniques to differentiate itself from other Japanese restaurants; the traditional dress and courtesy of the waiting staff, the intimate atmosphere, and the obviously painstaking dedication to combining the best in Japanese food and drink together on the menu are what leave you throughly smitten with this restaurant. Of course, it is through the exciting performance cooking that you get to see these wonderful foods up close, which isn’t something that you can say of restaurants who separate you from the action going on in the kitchen!
15 Bury Street, St James’s, London, SW1Y 6AL