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God, they say, is in the detail. If I were one of those who believed in the capricious old sod, then I would mark out Sushi Tetsu in London's Clerkenwell as a holy place.
It is all detail. It is the pointillism of food; the effect achieved through the accretion of tiny individual gestures. Blimey, but it's good. Proper good. The sort of good that makes you nibble your bottom lip and blink a lot to hold back the emotion.
If my intention were solely to make sure the place was full and therefore stayed in business, this review is more than overkill. It's a Stinger missile to crack a nut. I could probably fill it by knocking on the doors of my more enlightened neighbours and telling them the good news. The restaurant, tucked away down one of old London's lost alleys, is tiny. There is a blond-wood bar that seats seven, spaces at which can be booked. And that's it. There are a couple of tables for two, but they stayed empty. Anybody who arrived looking for a seat was simply told by the chef's wife, who runs front of house, that they were full and that was that. I felt their pain.
The new venture belongs to chef Toru Takahashi and his wife, Harumi. Takahashi, who picked up the nickname "Tetsu" while as an apprentice in Kobe, served for five years as sushi chef at Nobu in London, but don't let that put you off. There is nothing, praise be, of Nobu about the food here. It is just straight up sushi – nigiri and maki – and sashimi (with the occasional hand roll). There are no hot dishes – not even, when we were there, miso soup. Nor are there any desperate attempts to bring something arch and contemporary to the classic Japanese repertoire. It's far better than that. All of it is made by Takahashi and Takahashi alone.
A banana leaf is laid before you, wiped and polished – and polished and wiped again. A mound of pickled ginger is placed to one side. The fun may now begin.
While items can be ordered individually from around £3.50 per single piece to £5.80 for the more exotic stuff, there are also set menus or omakase, priced from £15.50 to £38 for the more intricate options. What's in them is decided by the chef, depending on what's good. We asked for sea urchin. He told me he had some, but we couldn't have it. "I tasted it," he said. "It's not good enough." OK then. He said this without being condescending or grand. Indeed, there is nothing self-regarding or intimidating about Takahashi. Watching him work is a joy, but he's also very good company.
A mid-ranged sashimi selection brought glistening pieces of yellow tail and tuna, salmon and the sweetest of sweet shrimp. The nearest thing to adornment was the juice of the aromatic Japanese citrus ponzu, brushed lightly across pieces of sea bream. The nigiri here is the whole package, which is to say the rice is exactly how you always wish it might be and so rarely is. It is the right side of just warm.
The vinegared edge is there without being overstated. The grains cling to each other without being needy. On to these pillows, formed by hand in front of you, go sea bream, or slightly funky strips of cuttlefish with shiso leaf, or a piece of squid which has been so finely sliced half the way through by his knife as to look like bleached-out marquetry. Occasionally a blowtorch is applied to get the oils running. There is a delicate brush with soy. A strip of toasted seaweed is used to form a collar to hold back a cluster of orange salmon roe. Marinated eel, warmed somewhere backstage, and laid with a blob of sauce, disintegrates in your mouth to release its oils. We order a second round.
Someone once told me that defining properly good sushi from the also-rans was a tricky business; the food was so very simple that difference could be measured in tiny percentage points. I understood what they meant. Making it is a job for obsessives and so is eating it. But when the good stuff comes along, you just know it. There are cheaper places to eat sushi in London, and there are noisier, hipper places too. But right now I honestly don't believe there is any better place.
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