Simon Richardson steps through a portal to Japanese fine dining at Meanwood’s most exclusive restaurant.
Meanwood is proper cool, innit? It wasn’t always thus, believe me – but you know what they say about the effect of a Waitrose on an area. It’s got a real buzz to it, from the relaxed home cooking atmosphere of the brilliant Zucco, to the cool-yet-unpretentious vibe of Terminus.
Meanwood isn’t twattish enough to exclude, nor is it too sedate for a Friday night by any means. In fact, these days, it’s my favourite Leeds suburb.
Like someone has melted a cow and turned it into sliced meat butter
But amongst these trendy, teeming venues sits a complete outlier – a place that only seats five, keeps its blinds down at all times, and feels like walking into a spa: HanaMatsuri.
We’ve reviewed HanaMatsuri before, but its most recent incarnation offers something completely different in its omakase dining experience – or “chef’s choice” if you like.
Oh, and if you don’t want to read all the way down to the bottom, I’ll save you a job right now. It’s absolutely incredible.
It’s almost unavoidable that your first experience of HanaMatsuri is slightly jarring, unless you’ve teleported in from Japan. It’s so at odds with the rest of Meanwood that you can’t not feel a bit unnerved and intimidated. It takes a while to settle in and relax, but Chef Kaoru Nakamura is clearly aware of this, leaving you in the capable hands of the two excellent waitresses and waiting until the second section of the menu is underway to truly engage.
It has to be said that one of the greatest strokes of genius that HanaMatsuri has pulled, is keeping those blinds down. It forces you into that small portal to Japan, no ifs, ands, or buts – and the result is all the more ethereal for it.
So, on to the menu then – 23 "courses" (26 if you order the extras – and if you don’t, you’re absolutely crazy) of sheer mastery. To be honest, it’s so good that I can barely find the words to describe it – problematic when you’ve been tasked with writing a review.
The first section of the meal is all about contrasting textures. From two precise pieces of crunchy spider crab tempura to shiny slivers of wafer-thin, impossibly delicate slices of Ike Jime (look it up – it’s fascinating) sea bass, then a smooth, creamy monkfish liver - elevated by the slight pepperiness of radish and spring onion, followed by smoky grilled Ling with a pickled burdock - are you keeping up? The chef and the staff are. It’s so meticulous, you can’t take your eyes off it.
Then, the first optional special – presented as a sharing plate. Now listen here: the wagyu is simply ridiculous, like someone has melted a cow and turned it into sliced meat butter. I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted anything better. You know when a dish is truly exceptional because you find yourself laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it while you’re still eating it. I cradle it lovingly in my mouth, never wanting to let go of the creaminess.
But let go I must, because we’re on to arctic charr in vinegar – almost a collision with extremely posh fish and chips - before an intricate little bowl of steamed egg custard signals the end of the first part of the menu. The custard splits when we dip our spoons into it, making it a slightly challenging texture, one which my wife can’t manage. I eat both; it’s the only “marmite moment” of the meal.
I should mention at this point that we’ve chosen to accompany our meal with sake. I’m not going to claim to know much about it, so we simply asked for a recommendation and enjoyed what we received. It was quite grassy with a clean, melon flavour – the perfect fresh accompaniment to the surrounding flavours, and a handy palate cleanser between dishes.
If this review was a book – and the meal presented enough variety for it to be one – this would be Chapter 2: Nigiri – AKA what we generally refer to as “sushi” in this country.
Simply watching Nakamura prepare the nigiri is delicious enough, and what we’re presented with is the same as before – a brilliantly thought-out order of proceedings that showcases a contrast of textures, styles, and flavours.
At one point, we get three different kinds of tuna back-to-back, the final piece seared before our eyes and oh-so amazingly fatty. It’s a touch of genius to showcase the merits of a single species in such a layered manner.
Have that, John West.
Again, though, the real jaw-dropping standout comes from the optional extras. This time, it’s the spider roll – a whole soft-shell crab rolled up then cut into bitesize pieces, with the legs sticking out of either end.
The theatre of the preparation is more than matched by the taste, believe you me. The fresh, slightly sweet meat comes through while the shell of the crab has the most subtle give to it. The other group of three didn’t order the extras and it’s at this point that I feel their wagyu-jealousy spill over into full-on crab-hatred. In your face! (Or, more specifically, in mine.)
There’s still time for a delicious tuna hand roll (in case we haven’t experienced enough different styles yet), before a delicate homemade omelette and the signature umami of miso soup to finish what has been a truly magnificent meal. You won’t get a better start-to-finish dining experience in Leeds. It’s phenomenal; truly phenomenal.
So, it’s perhaps fitting that I end this review with an equally awe-inspiring snippet of our conversation with the chef.
“Where did you learn to make sushi?”
I mean, come on.
Sushi Bar HanaMatsuri 580 Meanwood Road LS6 4AZ
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
tempura 10, sea bass 9, monkfish liver 10, ling 10, charr 10, egg custard 7, nigiri selection 10, wagyu 10, hand roll 10, spider roll 10, gourd roll 8, omelette 10, miso soup 10
Takes a few minutes to settle into your new world, but when you do, it’s magical
Polite and precise to a fault; precision all over