The Chisou empire’s Great Portland Street outpost
Of all the London restaurants to have closed in the past year or two, few have wounded me as much as the unexpected closure of Ten Ten Tei. That budget Soho restaurant wasn’t perfect. Aside from the iffy service, one of its chief sins was its smorgasbord menu offering tempura, noodles and countless other Japanese classics in the indiscriminate manner rarely found in the Home Islands themselves. But Ten Ten Tei did stand out with dependably good quality sushi and sashimi at reasonable prices that didn’t make your wallet bleed cash.
Of all the capital’s other Japanese restaurants, I did not expect Sushi Atelier to be in the running as Ten Ten Tei’s heir. Look carefully at the small print on their website or business cards and you’ll discover that Sushi Atelier is not the independent it first appears to be, but another property of Chisou. This original pricey-ish Japanese restaurant now owns so many sub-brands and spin-offs scattered throughout Mayfair and the Soho borderlands that I’ve stumbled across a few without actively trying to.
Sushi Atelier is not only a bit cheaper than its stablemates with a somewhat more unconventional menu, it also has a younger vibe. Unlike the beige hues of its sister restaurants, Sushi Atelier has its generally minimalist interiors spiced up with the occasional wall mural and an intermittent soundtrack of buzzy but not intrusive music.
First things first
It may be tempting to order one of the £20 sushi sets which pairs salmon or akami tuna nigiri sushi with a few california rolls, just as Rodan and Gamora did. While satisfactory enough, the quality of the fish in these sets was ultimately unremarkable. You’d be far better off following the Euro Hedgie’s example in picking the similarly priced chirashi sushi. Pieces of fish scattered on top of a bowl of fluffy rice may not fit most Westerner’s stereotyped view of sushi, but the slices of firm cuttlefish, quivering amaebi shrimp, buttery salmon and gently sweet butterfish were all a credit to the kitchen’s taste in fish and skill in knife work.
If you’re feeling a bit more flush, then place yourself in the hands of the chefs with 12 pieces of omakase nigiri sushi. The choice of fish will vary depending on the season and the chefs’ discretion. In my case, my grateful gob was filled not only with the same buttery salmon and sweet butterfish from the chirashi sushi, but with other highlights such as the delicately fatty chutoro tuna and unctuous scallop. Each roll was licked with glazes in a manner similar to the sushi from Jugemu – from sweet and sour to vinegary and spicy, almost every one was surprisingly complimentary not only to the fish underneath but the vinegary sweet medium-grained rice too.
Although the steamed gyoza had supple and sturdy skins, the pork filling was rather dreary – these little dumplings just couldn’t match the standard set by Kyoto’s Hohei Gyoza. A far better starter/side dish was the chawanmushi-style tofu. The wispy yet wheaty tofu came topped with sour and very modestly spicy kimchi. While not exactly a glove-like fit, it was a nonetheless pleasing combination.
Our waitress claimed that all the desserts are made in-house with the exception of the mochi ice cream and I believe her. Of the ice cream flavours, yuzu and black sesame were bolder and more distinctive than the limping green tea. All came encased in very modestly elastic rice flour skins.
The black sesame panna cotta was a far better pudding. Although a bit miserly in size, the contrast between the wispy and moderately creamy panna cotta and the nutty, slightly tangy sesame paste meant that no mouthful was ever dull.
Going back for seconds
Although you can opt for the unconvincing sencha and its endless free refills, you’re better off with a cup of the genmai cha instead. This tea was not only warming, but refreshing with a pleasing maltiness too.
Sorry folks, I forgot to take a photo of the genmai cha.
Ocha zuke is a dish rarely seen over here, probably because it’s usually the Japanese equivalent of bubble and squeak – repurposing leftovers. The meaty if surprisingly bland seabream maki-style rolls weren’t the main attraction here. The limelight was instead taken by the zesty shiso leaf and soaking the rice in the umami dashi and then slurping up gleefully. Although billed as a ‘green tea’ dashi, it tasted far more like a traditional dashi than some crazy tea-fish hybrid stock. Regardless, this was a satisfyingly soothing l’il dish.
It’s worth picking and choosing from the a la carte sushi selection to try out both a few of the classics and some underappreciated gems. All of the nigiri rolls used sweet and fluffy small-grained rice. Inari tofu was wrinkly and malty, while cooked octopus was meaty and salty with a tangy, nutty glaze.
Although the sea urchin wasn’t as boldly flavoured as I expected, it still had a briney mineral-ish tang to it with an umami undertone. Chewy and meaty horse mackerel was made even better with a sweet, shiny glaze, while fatty chutoro tuna was delightful in its soft, gently creamy unctuousness. Only the muted ikura salmon roe was a letdown.
As pleasurably familiar as the chutoro nigiri was, it was almost upstaged in this meal by the rice rolls topped with pressed, grilled eel. The thin yet meaty fish had a woody nuttiness to it with a gentle tangy undertone. The latter was bolstered by the creamy, sweet and peppery wasabi – the closest I’ve seen yet in London to the much more subtle varieties of wasabi I encountered in Japan – and the sharp, briney pickles. Preparing eel yourself can be a royal pain – there’s even less reason to do so when the professionals at Sushi Atelier can prepare it to such a sublime standard.
I wasn’t expecting much from the hojiberry crème caramel – especially as the separate hojiberry tea tasted far too subtle for its own good. Here, the thick and eggy yet feathery light pudding concealed a syrup-like puddle of orange zest-like sweetness with a woody edge. Neither overbearing and cloying nor too weak and transient, this delicious pudding left me begging for more.
If you’re tempted by Sushi Atelier’s self-declared ‘modern sushi’ mission statement, then don’t opt for the obvious choice of the rainbow rolls. The qualities of the fish used were buried beneath the dull and indistinct sweet creaminess of the mayo and avocado. The crunchy fish roe was easily the most pleasing element here. Unless you’re ordering for finicky children or your squeamish, slightly racist provincial in-laws, choose something else instead.
You’re better off with the octopus ‘carpaccio’ which was far more subtle and substantially less gimmicky than I expected. The thin yet meaty smooth slices of cooked cephalopod were the perfect textural conveyor for the nuttiness of its glaze and accompanying morsels of puffed rice. The gentle heat, sweetness and vinegariness of the wasabi was the finishing touch on this unexpected masterpiece.
Sushi Atelier occasionally dips into some of Japan’s other culinary arts through its selection of specials. Teriyaki pork was a significant step above the slop typically scooped out of a Wasabi bain marie. The tender pig had a gently sweet undertone to it, emphasised further by the sticky sweetness and umami of the thin teriyaki sauce. Even if it hadn’t been so well-crafted from beginning to end, the teriyaki sauce deserves kudos for not being the sickly, cloying mucus often tipped out of a jar in many other, lesser Japanese restaurants in this town.
The chicken tsukune was less successful. The modestly meaty and smoothly ground chicken meatballs were rather dull and highly dependent on the sticky sweet tare for character. In the wake of Yumi Izakaya‘s closure, London is still in need of some high-quality yakitori.
Although the beef used in the wagyu nigiri special wasn’t quite as buttery as I expected, the largely raw bovine flesh was still pleasurably tender and unctuous. Don’t diss the lightly browned bark – its caramelised sweetness almost stole the limelight when taken with the sweet, vinegary rice underneath.
Sea urchin sashimi not only had an intricate, almost-fractal appearance to it, it was also a beautiful thing to behold in the mouth. It had a gently creamy start with a briney, mineral-ish follow-through and a crisp, clear aftertaste. The only duff note here was the wasabi chosen to accompany the sea urchin. Its nasal burning fieriness is what most people expect from wasabi, but the more nuanced versions from previous meals would’ve been a more apt accompaniment.
Although the green tea cheesecake only had a rather thin and meagre biscuit crumb base, the distinctly creamy, matcha-flavoured top layer was certainly a crowd pleaser.
Although you can spend a lot at Sushi Atelier, even then it’s still far less than what you’d cough up at many of London’s po-faced nigiri temples. You don’t have to splurge to eat well here, whether it’s by opting for the chirashi sushi or by carefully navigating the a la carte sushi selection, and the quality of the desserts are an unexpected bonus. Although you can get even cheaper sushi in this town from all the usual suspects, don’t confuse cheapness with value. If only all chains and group restaurants, big or small, used their economies of scale as well as Chisou does with Sushi Atelier – quality fish at easily digestible prices. Is that too much to ask for?
What to order: Sushi omakase; Sushi a la carte; Chirashi sushi; Desserts; Pressed eel; Octopus carpaccio
What to skip: Sushi sets
Name: Sushi Atelier
Address: 114 Great Portland Street, London W1W 6PH
Phone: 020 7636 4455
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday noon-15.00 and 18.00-22.00. Saturday 18.00-22.00. Closed Sunday.
Reservations? Highly recommended on and around weekends. Essential for medium-to-large groups.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £30 approx. if you choose carefully. £50-70 approx. if you treat yourself a bit. £100 if you splurge.