Kurisu Omakase at Ichiban Sushi, 58A Atlantic Road, London SW9 8PY. All bookings announced on Instagram @kurisuomakase. Dinner £ 108
It’s eight o’clock on a dark April evening and I’m hunched over my phone, trying to beat the invisible hordes. I had set myself an alarm for this moment, and now I’m going, quickly running through the dialogs for name, address and everything. Finally, I click confirm and allow my phone to take a deep breath of electronics for a refresh. There you go: I have two places for dinner in three months. I’m in.
I am shocked at myself. It is not me. I let the other towel sniffers, desperate to be the first to walk through the door of the next big deal, behave like this. I am much cooler. Or maybe not. Stranger still: the two seats I reserved are inside a modest restaurant a 12-minute walk from my house on Atlantic Road in Brixton. It’s called Ichiban Sushi and opened in 1999. My family went there for years when the kids were little, for comforting rice bowls, robust nigiri, and more punchy Thai green curries. The latter wasn’t quite the outlier it might seem. Ichiban is owned by a Thai-Colombian couple. Sometimes on weekends the food was brought to us by their bright-eyed 10-year-old son Chris, who was helping out in the family business.
Turns out Chris Restrepo was doing more than picking up and transporting. He soaked up the intricacies of sushi. He was, he said now, finding a direction in life. At 16, he started in the kitchen. He ate at the best sushi restaurants in London and then went to Tokyo. He got a place at the prestigious Tokyo Sushi Academy. He was ambitious. Now 28, he wanted to bring something back.
That something is Kurisu Omakase, Kurisu being Japanese for Chris. This is a tasting sushi menu served twice a night on Sundays and Mondays when Ichiban is closed, to eight diners. I heard about it from my friend chef Tim Anderson, who has the Nanban ramen restaurant elsewhere in Brixton. But the word also got around. Revered Endo’s Endo Kazutoshi at the Rotunda arrived one night, as did some of the Araki crew. Serious chefs come to see what Restrepo is doing.
With reason. I ate at the fabulous Endo. I splurged at Umi and purred on Sushi Tetsu. I have no hesitation in saying that what is served here is some of the best sushi in the UK today. Yes, there are oceans of techniques on display, but there is so much more to it. There is character, storytelling, and wit. Restrepo is a chef as a storyteller. The old tables where we were once served these Thai green curries are pulled out to form a low counter. He takes up a position on the other side with his brazier of glowing embers, his blowtorch, his sauces and, of course, his box of blond wooden fish. In a neat reversal, it’s now her mother, Suwannee, who fetch and carries from the back kitchen.
As Restrepo greets us, a guy pokes his head through the front door and barks a friendly greeting at Suwannee. Restrepo shrugs his shoulders. “It’s Brixton,” he said simply. The occasional blue light will flash. There will be raucous laughs of street life from the sidewalk outside. Meanwhile, inside, we are taken by the hand. It begins with slices of pale pink tuna. Like most fish, it has been aged to give a more dense texture and to deepen the flavor. The tuna has been seized. There’s a puddle of a quick ponzu vinaigrette and a shower of Parmesan for the boosted umami.
Then, he tells us, there must be a fried dish, because it follows a formal order. It is a golden croquette of white and brown crab meat. A nod to its Thai heritage, it rests on a thick green pond of a sweet and sour nam jim sauce. This trio of openings ends with a piece of hamachi covered in miso and seared in a brazier until bubbly and brown, with a fan of enoki tempura mushrooms, a salad of grated radishes and a ginger vinaigrette.
Now he presents the blond wooden box containing a dozen types of fish. We observe the delicate movements of the jeweler’s hand, the rice hollowed out and shaped by hot fingers and palm, sprinkled with water between portions; wasabi dabbed just so; the diamond crowned with a loop of immaculate net. He places each one directly in front of us. The rice is just above room temperature and lightly vinegared. Some fish are brushed with soy. There is the whistle and the pop of the blowtorch. Sometimes the brazier is used to sear fish. At one point, the coals are used directly. It is both dinner and theater.
Each of these small, jewel-like lessons comes with notes. The caviar comes from Exmoor; Spanish farmed bluefin tuna. Some fish come from Brixham. Provenance matters. Between providing this vital information, Restrepo tells us stories: how he was denied access to restaurants in Tokyo because of his tattoos, which signified gang membership; the unsubtle racist divide between Japanese students at the sushi academy and those elsewhere.
It would be repetitive to list all the nigiri, but there are strengths: a cross cut of crimson tuna, half belly fat, half loin with a dollop of truffle mustard sauce; a seared trout belly with a Thai basil miso so aromatic you could dab it behind your ears; sweet and immaculate langoustine, the very essence of the sea, with nam jim. The scallops are scored 18 times for the surface to open. “We call it the Houdini cup because it disappears in the mouth,” he says. Finally, he makes temaki rolls: cones of rice with seaweed and the best tuna tartare. “Here,” he said, extending it from his hand to mine. “Take a tuna spliff.”
The price of £ 108 is steep. Add sake and it will be even heavier. But compared to similar offers in London, it can only be considered good value for money. Plus, we should all be wary of cheap sushi. Restrepo has other residences around London, but later in the year he hopes that Ichiban will become his permanent home. Suwannee will also serve a Thai tasting menu on a few nights of the week. All new dates are announced via his Instagram account, @kurisuomakase, and are going very quickly indeed. Yes I know. Everything is terribly competitive. Do what I did and set an alarm. It is totally worth it.
I am fortunate to live in an area of London where I can order take out food from Dishoom. Oh, the buttery joys of this house black dal. Now, following the cult success of their Bacon Naan Kit, they’ve launched their first home meal kit for delivery across much of the UK. The Home Feast box feeds two to three people, costs £ 60 and includes that dal, plus lamb sheekh skewers, mattar paneer, murgh malai, rotis, lassi and a gulkand mess to finish. Visit store.dishoom.com/home.
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