Neil Sowerby spends quality rice and raw seafood time with a Brazilian sushi master

BLAME a Netflix documentary for my absurd existential dread of ‘Omakase’. That’s where connoisseurs of sushi and sashimi go ‘off piste’, leaving their bespoke menu up to a chef they are eyeball to eyeball with across an entire meal. He’ll be a shokunin (master artisan) and you are in his nimble hands as he slivers raw seafood or moulds nigiri in a masterclass of tactile dexterity.

Under the steely scrutiny of turtle-headed Jiro… it’s speed dating with raw fish

The intimidating acme of this tradition is reached at Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seater destination inside a Tokyo underground station that merited three Michelin stars. Famously Anthony Bourdain told an interviewer he’d like his last meal on earth to be a blow-out there (it never happened, two years later he died by his own hand – in Alsace).

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) profiled its chef/patron’s quest for exquisite culinary perfection. Never to be attained, naturally. Jiro Ono was then 85. He had started in kitchens aged seven. Now 97, he’s still at it apparently while, at his side, his dutiful 60-year-old son, Prince Charles like, awaits his accession.

04112023 Andre Chopping Bream
Andre prepares sea bream for our sashimi Image: Confidentials

It’s a tough career choice. 16 hour days are not uncommon. Apprentices spend years learning one facet of culinary preparation; say, three just to get the omelette element right. Few last the course. At this elevated level, customers pull every string to get a booking, paying a bundle, then have 20 minutes to scoff the same number of dishes under the steely scrutiny of turtle-headed Jiro. Basically it’s speed dating with raw fish.

02112023 Musu Interior
MUSU possesses one of Manchester's most striking interiors Image: MUSU

Omakase at MUSU in Manchester is not like this. Not scary at all, to my relief. A bright-eyed Brazilian at his own personal pass puts us instantly at our ease. Not that Head Sushi Chef Andre Aguiar, our host for the evening, has foresworn the hard miles. Much of his four years under a Japanese shokunin in Dublin was spent relentlessly striving to master the art of rice cooking. The rice and its treatment, as every aficionado will insist, is the key to great sushi. Be it the white grains or the darker five year barrel-aged stuff, both sourced from Japan.

04112023 Presenting The Fish At Musu
May I introduce to your seafood for the evening Image: Confidentials

Not that seafood can ever be a bit part player. Andre flourishes a tray featuring the gleaming raw materials for tonight’s intimate feast; it’s just the two of us occupying stools at the six-seater counter. We bow to Skye scallops, mackerel, sea bream, sweet red Carabinero prawns landed off Africa, Cornish sea bass and salmon from Loch Duart, hamachi and, of course, three cuts of tuna – akami (lean) chutoro (medium fatty) and otoro (fatty). Recognising our enthusiasm for the latter trio, he will later bring out a hefty chunk of bluefin newly arrived from Spain to point out the exact location of each cut. Eel’s out of season, sea urchin not available, but if we’re keen to try these in the future he’ll send us personal alerts via the restaurant mailing list. This already feels a dialogue of discovery.

04112023 Bluefin Tuna
Spot the akami, chutoro and otoro on this chunk of bluefin Image: Confidentials

Most first-time diners to MUSU will opt for either of the Kaiseki tasting menus – seven courses for £110 a head or 11 for £150, the same price as the Omakase experience. On the surface the Kaiseki, a loose adaptation of classic Kyoto banquets, offers more variety. The MUSU mission statement is ‘A contemporary interpretation of Japanese dishes’ and indeed the main open kitchen serves a menu more in common with other Manchester pan-Asian destinations. And yes it is too easy to scoff at the presence of the best A5 wagyu beef and N25 beluga reserve caviar that so mirror the glamorous £3million fit-out. But under the deft stewardship of classically-trained chef/patron Mike Shaw (ex Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Gordon Ramsay) the food offering lifts to the next level. Still, after three consecutive Kaisekis my yen is for something more Zen… 

04112023 Junko Flower Arranging Musu
MUSU's floral arrangements are by the legendary Junko Image: Confidentials

The omens have been good as we sip the obligatory pre-Omakase cocktail involving gin, apricot and yuzu against the bar backdrop of Geisha and Mount Fuji murals. There serenely at her flower arranging sits Manchester-based Ikebana whizz Junko Popham, who used to do the same service for Umezushi, the last place in the city where I took sushi seriously. That tiny place was big on sake; here it’s less prominent but head sommelier Ivan Milchev’s wine list is geared towards matching those Japanese flavours. There’s no pairing glasses with the Omakase, so we order a bottle of Mittnacht Cuvee Gyotaki (£62), a biodynamic Alsace blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat & Gewurztraminer devised to cope with the pungency of soy and wasabi while staying crisp for the seafood. ‘Gyotaku’ is a traditional Japanese art created with fish, ink and paper.

04112023 Almond White Choc Pud
Chef/patron Mike is a Michelin-trained patissier and its shows Image: MUSU

The parade of 18 dishes begins with a miso soup teeming with Binchotin coal-seared wagyu, white truffle and spring onion and ends with a typical Shaw dessert involving almond, yuzu and white chocolate. In between it’s a game of two halves divided between sashimi and sushi (hand-pressed nigirisushi – this is a California roll free zone).

Immediately we can’t resist quizzing Andre how his passion forJapanese food came about. Bizarrely he got hooked during army service in his native Brazil, introduced by his captain, a sushi devotee. He has since forged a career in Japanese catering, often thrown in at the deep end, but has never been to the country; when a trip was on the cards fatherhood intervened. 

04112023 Fresh Japanese Wasabe At Musu
Accept no substitute – the one true wasabi root Image: Confidentials

Instead, Japan comes to him. Fresh yuzu fruit, heritage rice, soy sauce and more. At his elbow is a freshly imported six inch long wasabi root alongside a vivid green puck of the paste. Far superior to English efforts apparently. There’s a purple ring inside our home-grown specimens, turning the paste an inauthentic grey. And don’t even get Andre started on the adulterated wasabi inside the little tubes.

04112023 Salmon Sashimi
Salt cured Cornish salmon sashimi Image: Confidentials

There’s a dab of the authentic, complex stuff on our sashimi plates and we are encouraged to use our chopsticks to dip our fishy morsels into a pot of the house-made nikiri. The same mix of shoyu, mirin, sake and dashi will reappear as the glaze daubed delicately on our nigiri, where the regimen is fingers only, swallow whole.

Sashimi or sushi, the lessons we are learning are twofold – slight ageing and curing are key, ditto minimal, intense garnishes. Citrus prominent, both Sicilian lemon and yuzu zests.  The delicacy is in the detail. Fish to be eaten raw, or virtually, has to arrive mega-fresh. If even a trusted supplier buggers up, it will be rejected.

‘Wet fish’ can cultivate bacteria; three to seven days ageing, depending on which fish, can counter that and enhance flavour and texture.

04112023 Cherry Blossom Knife At Musu
Cutting edge stuff – Andre's bespoke cherry blossom blade Image: Confidentials

Among the sashimi it’s good to contrast five day aged hamachi (Japanese amberjack) cured six hours in kombu with Cornish salmon six days aged, cured in salt. Each has its own character – the hamachi sour and slightly fatty in a beguiling way, the salmon less tangy, subtler.

It’s with the sushi the superlatives begin. Dear old mackerel may not be the sexiest fish on the block but it shines on the chopping board in front of us. Our portion has been cold-smoked and lightly pickled with lime salt. Andre pares it delicately with his long knife, a limited edition number embossed with a cherry blossom motif, scoops out a wad of slightly sticky rice from his bucket and presses the mackerel on to it. 

04112023 Mackerel Nigiri At Muzu
Marvellous mackerel is the pick of the nigiri Image: MUSU

Equally magnificent is the medium-fat chutoro, seared with bincho (Japanese charcoal), just getting the nod ahead of an akame tuna loin nigiri, served with pickled wasabi stem, and the melting otoro tuna fat belly topped with saline beluga caviar. Tuna three ways.

Special mention too for the carabinero prawns, which arrive with a miso butter made using   their shells and are as sweet as a Geisha’s smile. A bonus of a nori cone featuring fish eggs, spring onions, wasabi and I’m not quite sure what else is an endearing wild card extra from Andre.

He signs off by telling us how much he is looking forward to stoking up a Brazilian style Easter barbecue for the family. If the beef gets even a smidgeon of the loving care he brings to fish and rice…

MUSU, 64 Bridge Street, Manchester M3, 0161 883 7753. As well as Omakase, Kaiseki and a design-your-own tasting menu a la carte called Sentaku there’s also Subaiya Express, a four course weekday set lunch for £35. 

Follow Neil Sowerby on Twitter @antonegomanc, or on Instagram @sowerby_neil

04112023 Musu Bill

The scoring

All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.

Venues are rated against the best examples of their type, so tea rooms are measured against other tea rooms, casual dining against other casual dining, fine dining against other fine dining.

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.

  • Food 9/10

    Soup 8, hamachi 9, salmon 9, remaining sashimi 9; mackerel 10, three tuna-based sushis 9, carabinero prawns 9 and remaining sushi dishes 9, nori cone 9, dessert 8.

  • Service 4.5/5

    As on previous visits a Michelin-level of informed attentiveness, this time, unavoidably, just from the drinks team and Andre.

  • Atmosphere 4.5/5

    All rather jolly. The soundtrack’s booming even before MUSU’s late night transformation into an izakaya/nightclub, but so intent were we on the food it barely registered.