Thom Archer watches a master at work in this compact Japanese gem
It feels appropriate that on a week when social media’s Ten Year Challenge is filling my timeline with photos demonstrating what a difference a few years makes, I’m sat in a restaurant I last visited and reviewed in December 2016. (It scored a very impressive 16/20 - Read here)
With methodical rhythm he multitasks between marine surgery and starch-sculpting
Repeat visits and review updates should be more of a common practice - even OFSTED assesses schools every few years, and they’re nowhere near as important as restaurants - otherwise you get places trading off the goodwill of reviews outdated to the point of irrelevant and unrecognisable - like 2007-era Sugababes basking in the glory years of Mutya, Siobhan, and Keisha; or Manchester United still considering themselves a world class team. Zulfi’s in Hyde Park still boast their “Best kebab in Britain” award from The Sun; a newspaper which for years now has dealt exclusively in gammon.
My editor had requested a neighbourhood hidden gem - positioned on an awkward corner of Meanwood with its blinds constantly shut and not much clue as to what’s behind them. This is definitely hidden - but it still felt like an opportunistic pitch.
Japanese cuisine and culture is steeped in tradition and adherence to heritage. The blinds, for example, remained down despite leading would-be customers to think the restaurant was closed, because that's what sushi bars in Japan do. How much could it possibly have changed in two short years?
Appearances are pretty much the same. The restaurant is set across two rooms, each with a counter where a chef prepares food for four people. That’s eight people in total for those of you counting. That’s not even big enough to accommodate the mourners at Piers Morgan’s wake. Decked out in blonde pine, it envelops you into a sepia-tone womb where soft jazz reverberates; an overwhelming sense of knee-melting calm takes over, and voices automatically recalibrate to a polite whisper.
The menu has proven surprisingly dynamic since my last visit. Izakaya bar-style dishes like chicken wings and miso-glazed tofu are gone, replaced by small plates which suggest a focus on produce and sustainability - wriggly tangles of wakame dressed in ponzu (£8.90) or bouncy slices of mackerel, octopus, and prawn marinated in vinegar.
A plate of homemade pickles (£3.90) is a compilation of flavours and textures from bright and silky familiar ginger, to slimy, kimchi-esque fermented cabbage, and earthy, miso-dimmed slices of daikon with the satisfying crunch of biting chunks out of a garden fence.
A range of omakase menus offer a surprise selection of dishes at chef Nakamura’s discretion, guiding you through the geographical and seasonal landscape where every element, right down to the presentation, represents a significant meaning. This is the kind of language that would usually trigger my aversion to self-important Chef’s Table style navel-gazing, but for whatever reason, it slips under the radar. It’s hard not to buy into the experience when you’re sat one foot away from a chef who’s finessing great cross-sections of sealife into precise, gorgeous arrangements.
With methodical rhythm he multitasks between marine surgery and starch-sculpting; reaching into a basket of perfectly vinegared rice and massaging it flat on top of bamboo mats and sheets of nori, piled with fatty tuna and more of that pickled radish (£11.50); or a spicy tartare of chilli, kewpie mayonnaise, and flossy mounds of fish almost whipped off the surface of a fillet (£9.50); or a sour fermented plum which tastes like fizzy cherry cola bottles (£3.20), and then bound tightly into familiar hosomaki or inside-out rolls.
One brutally elegant manoeuvre sees a whole, deep-fried soft shell crab get encased in a roll (£12.90) - its legs sticking out of either end like a cartoon character trapped in a roll-up blind.
The same rice is moulded into plinths which proudly display sea urchin (£12 per piece) - mermaid’s breath the colour of a sunset - or slices of velvety, fat-flecked A5-grade wagyu (£8.90 per piece) which idly loll over the edges, their penultimate stopover on a long journey from being imported from the Gunma prefecture of Japan to your mouth. A quick blast from a blow-torch brings the fat up to melting point and caramelises the very edges of tiny cross-hatch incisions in the meat’s surface.
The drinks list shows a similar dedication to sourcing; sake ranges from £45 for 1.8l of Ozeki Ginkan (served warm) to £100 for a regular sized bottle of Isojiman, with a £560 bottle of Dassai Beyond for vanity. It does feel superfluous to have such a wide range of a niche product when there’s no sommelier to up-sell or explain them. We go in blind and end up with a bottle of bright white, unfiltered Nigori sake best described as a rice pudding martini.
That’s the kind of complete immersion the place offers though, and a slight language barrier is a small price to pay for complete, uncompromising authenticity by a chef who lets the food do the talking.
Sushi bar Hanamatsuri, 580 Meanwood Road, Leeds, LS6 4AZ Tel: 0113 295 5920
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PLEASE NOTE: 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: only if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God's own personal chef
Sea Urchin 9.5, Wagyu 10, Pickled Plum Hosomaki 10, Fatty Tuna & Pickled Radish ISO 10, Dynamite Roll 10, Spider Roll 10, Seared Vinegared Mackerel 10, Pickles 10, Seaweed 10
Expertly judged and timed
Almost ethereal but some might find that a little disorientating