Dinings – Sushi so Good it’s a Jewel of the East
The pinnacle of Japanese presentation and excellently pure food may be found revelling in its status as by far one of the best restaurants Harcourt Street hosts.
The most memorable Japanese restaurants — whether they serve a formal kaiseki set menu or an informal izakaya one (principally a bar with food attached or a sushi counter) — invariably leave me with two sensations.
The first is a sense of danger. This comes from eating more raw food than usual, as well as having the opportunity to watch chefs wielding extremely sharp knives at close quarters. The scene late one night at Aburiya Kinnosuke, a favourite izakaya close to Grand Central Station in New York, as the chefs ceremonially cleaned and wiped their long knives, could have made their kitchen a set for Sweeney Todd. The second is how much I learn. Most Japanese restaurants provide an introduction to ingredients not on my usual radar and to their chefs’ wonderfully elegant, and often breathtakingly simple, style of presentation.
All these elements came together as we sat at the sushi counter of Dinings London, a curiously named jewel of a restaurant in Marylebone. In fact, I would go so far as to say that seat 106, as it is known to the waiting staff, on the right-hand corner of the sushi counter, is perhaps the most dangerous seat I have ever occupied in any restaurant anywhere.
The interior is cramped. An old bow window lets natural light on to the three sushi chefs who work opposite six customers. At the end of the counter, behind a pair of curtains, is the main kitchen. A steep, narrow, curved staircase leads to more tables below.
Seat 106 is at the apex of all this. As the orders come in, the head chef shouts out what he requires. “Fire one spider crab” is an instruction we heard several times. This corner of the glass counter, with the raw fish and summer truffles on display beneath, is also where the finished plates are slid along for collection and delivery. A great deal of self-restraint had to be enforced as beautifully arranged plates of food were displayed no more than a few inches away before being whisked off to other diners.
The backchat was almost as riveting as the food. One waitress, obviously having to deal with regular customers, slipped behind the counter to ask the chef whether she could take an order for a favourite dish that was not on the current menu. Then there was the invariable mix-up, as table three’s sushi was carried down the stairs before reappearing at its actual destination: table two.
Nor was danger ever far away. Seat 106 happens to be next to the stairwell where the waiting staff moved swiftly up and down. I had to be careful not to turn too quickly for fear of falling down the stairs from my stool.
The meal began with Dinings’ interpretation of the old and the new. First came a bowl of miso soup laced with tomatoes and lobster with plenty of diced fresh lobster claw lurking at the bottom of the bowl. Then there was a personal favourite, nasu miso, half a large aubergine marinated in soy sauce that had been cooked so the vegetable still retained its form but its flesh had become sweet and sticky. It supported the belief held by many chefs that aubergine is most successfully cooked as though it were a piece of meat rather than a vegetable. Then came one of the specials of the day: a sliced scallop, cooked sous vide, served on a white plate with an unctuous black sauce made from seaweed enlivened by a chilli jam. By the time we had fought over it, the remnants looked like a Rorschach test.
Four different sushi followed, including pieces of o-toro, from the rich underbelly of the tuna. As our waiter served it to us he whispered that the chef’s advice was not to adulterate such delicate flavour with soy sauce. Two prawns from Santa Barbara, California, sat on the artfully arranged plate with two slices of turbot. These were topped with even thinner slices of truffle, while the soft flesh of two pieces of eel was given extra crunch by a mound of diced cucumber.
With a couple of Japanese beers, the meal came to £125 for two. And the star ingredient of it all was the rice. It had a nutty, succulent quality that delighted us both, a couple hitherto poles apart in their appreciation of this staple. My final memories of our meal were watching my partner fishing for the very last grain and hoping that one day I will be able to cook it at home to the same high standard.
Dinings address: 22 Harcourt Street London W1H 4HH
Dinings opening hours: daily from 12pm-2:30pm; 6pm-10:30pm