IT'S festive Poolside, what with the whoops from the big wheel, the screams and chuckling from the ice rink and its attendant elven bone resetters, the whooshing of cash round Liverpool One and the stomping of the Nogzy and the Crocky in black trackies accessorised with fibreglass angel hair.
With both starters, the light dipping sauce served as a finishing touch, a goodnight kiss. Quiet, where they could have been loud, it meant we had to listen carefully, so to speak, for their contribution to the dish
But down Brunswick Street this Saturday evening, the offices empty, it’s all Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, a sneak preview of an abandoned post-crunch business district and a proper conversation stopper at that. The only twinkle in its eye is the presence of nearby Drury Lane, evocative of spectaculars in London’s theatreland.
Notwithstanding its scrubbed decking and modern logo, Etsu has the look of a housing estate pub, the concrete kind, set back in the shadows of a blank sprawl. Having killed said conversation with a, “Jeez, that’s not it is it?” we approached it subdued as if approaching our home’s gaping and size-12-imprinted front door.
Etsu hunkers down, sheltering like a cat in a downpour, among stiff-standing office blocks pixelated by a gloomy film of drizzle. Its classic commercial-centre-restaurant exterior demonstrates the conformity of a particular kind of weekend city boy in his leisure-time uniform of bootcut jeans and polo shirt. Its Etsu logo is all branded blandness whilst the decking raises the spectre of dreary trips to Ikea.
But Etsu’s surroundings and design are no match for the power of its welcome and cuisine, which are almost cartoonishly vibrant.
Inside, the restaurant is small and laid out around a long wooden table that is perhaps communal at lunchtimes but tonight occupied by a large party. The first indication of the charming service came when, having ordered a pint of Asahi and a rum and coke, the waitress returned a minute later to ask if that was Diet Coke or regular.
This was followed by an instance of pleasing idiosyncrasy when she confidently laid the pint before my female companion and gave the rum and coke to me. Not to be sexist, but that seems an unlikely punt. Moreover, as we had delayed (annoyingly, most probably) the ordering of mains, our waitress advised us, as she laid down the starters, that a big table had just come in and it might be advisable to order sooner rather than later. She apologised five minutes later in case we had felt rushed. We thought, conversely, that this had been a thoughtful consideration on her part.
We eased our way in with faultless edamame (£2.95), the plump, nutty beans putting a bag of dry-roasted peanuts to shame as a beer companion. There was also the pleasing discovery that they can be popped backwards into your mouth like spud gun suicide.
A Japanese friend had cast her eye over the menu online and urged us to order niku gyoza (£4.95) and we declared her a fine human being as we admired these dumplings, their pearl-like flesh swaddled round minced pork and vegetables and browned just-so in the pan. A place for everything, and everything in its place. There was a scramble for these.
The yasai tempura (£4.95) were approached with more poise, not because they were inferior but rather down to their delicacy, of form and flavour. One leaf – I am not certain what of – was encased in a puff of batter as light as the leaf itself. There was not a whole lot of taste but to criticise it for that is to entirely miss the point: this was all about the harmony that Japanese cuisine emphasises, the beauty of the contrasts.
I followed in my dad’s footsteps at one juncture when I saw what I thought was a rogue bit of batter, the Japanese equivalent of the delectable gravel underneath a portion of chips. I swooped. I should have known better, harmony and all. It was a little mound of wafer thin ginger.
My dad’s footsteps? There was a wedding reception – my sister’s friend – and here the buffet featured sushi. My dad took up a tactical position within easy reach of the food, casually picking at this new taste sensation as he chatted. Then his big mistake: spotting what he thought was a dip - a bright green dip, a bowl of nose-dribblingly hot wasabi. He thrust his sushi into it like you would bread and hummous and within seconds was in the toilets, I think, alongside my 15-year-old self, rejecting my first cider and black.
With both starters the light dipping sauce gave little more than a sheen and the merest adjustment of flavour, serving as a finishing touch, a goodnight kiss. Quiet, where they could have been loud, it meant we had to listen carefully, so to speak, for their contribution to the dish.
As gluttonous as it was (and un-harmonious too, considering I still had a bit of my pint left) we also tried a twelve-piece sushi set (£11.95). The raw flesh had a reassuring vividness, like the bright eye that is one indicator of a fish’s freshness. We approached the plate like a game of chess, one go at a time, each thinking a few moves ahead. I don’t think I have had better.
The rice that accompanied our mains was as fat as pearl barley. The pork in my companion’s tonkatsu (£12.95) was perfectly weighted and its coating was the texture of rough sandpaper, the exact grade of which I suspect the chef could have specified. This was accompanied by a rather dull bagged-type salad. But for the shards of carrot it did not seem appropriate to the dish, even though something fresh to cut across the richness of the pork was welcome. Another accompaniment might have achieved it more elegantly, such as Japanese pickled vegetables, or shredded cabbage, maybe mooli.
My katsu-don (£12.95) had a strange pockmarked appearance on top, down to an egg-cooking technique that is new to me – steaming. The dish combines slices of tonkatsu – deep-fried pork loin, as above – with dashi stock and onions. It is finished by pouring egg over then placing a lid on until it sets, before serving over rice. Simple but truly satisfying, the egg both binding the textures together and contributing to them.
Finally, to dessert, and the chef’s special was cherry blossom liqueur with pound cake (£4.95). It was poor, though, the liqueur element a bit of pink icing that lacked in flavour, attached to a piece of dry sponge. My companion ordered chocolate cake (£4.95). This turned out to be more of a fondant but so good it could have called itself anything it liked. It gave such a hit of espresso that there was no need for coffee. We chose the black sesame ice cream to accompany both and it was fantastic. Half your mouth thinks it’s eating a piece of prawn toast, the other half a ‘99’, and that is a wonderful thing.
Apart from the pound cake and the salad the only other gripe was the wine list. There was a plum wine and a number of sake but West-wise, just four whites, and two both of rose and red.
Feeling anything but harmonious I bumbled into the gents, or rather the unisexes. Here the scent of every airport toilet you have ever visited came together headily, as if solidified into talc and patted onto your bottom. In one of the cubicles there was a control panel alongside the toilet – for what, I'm not sure – and the hand dryer was one of those super ones that you put your hands into, the closest we'll ever get to a bullet train.
We can project a kind of wackiness onto Japan, in part due to the proliferation of details such as these which are often different from – perhaps funnier than – our own equivalents. But once the main event is under way at Etsu – the eating – consideration of anything else fades away and you realise that here is cooking that demands to be taken seriously.
25 The Strand
0151 236 7530
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5: What the Fukuoka?; 6-9: Sake the chef; 10-11: Just say Noh; 12-13: Rising sun; 14-15: Nippon tuck; 16-18: If you knew sushi; 19: Glad to be geisha; 20. Big in Japan. More than 20: Banzai!