As I watched six waiting staff descend on the service table to which our two main courses had just been delivered at Chrysan, a new Japanese restaurant near Liverpool Street station, I was intrigued, then pained. There was too much fuss, too little substance.
The same sentiments had surfaced at two other new restaurants that have opened on the other side of Liverpool Street. Sushisamba and Duck & Waffle occupy, respectively, the 38th and 40th floors of the new Heron Tower. My disappointment here was somewhat tempered by the extraordinary view and, in particular, the pleasure of looking down from our table at Duck & Waffle on to the Tower of London far below.
The emergence of these restaurants is obviously connected to the importance of financial services in the capital, but it is also linked to two other social changes.
The first is that, today, so many more people are choosing to live in what is now the fashionable East End. This means that there is a demand for restaurateurs to open over the weekend, which keeps their establishments busy.
The second is the shift in our drinking habits. City restaurants used to benefit hugely from what were once referred to as “tbls” (two bottle lunches). This practice has vanished, but it has been replaced by far more profitable bars which, with the right number of mixologists, will be packed from late afternoon until the early morning.
In fact, the bars at Chrysan and Duck & Waffle served as portents of their restaurants. The former was deserted when we walked in – and when we left two hours later. The latter was packed and frenetic, but its twist on a Bloody Mary left my mouth feeling as though it had been washed out with soap.
Both Sushisamba and Duck & Waffle are managed by Sushi London, a subsidiary of a company that already operates large sushi restaurants in New York and Florida, seemingly on the principle that a combination of Brazilian, Peruvian and Japanese influences transposed to London will be better than the original interpretation.
I was not convinced when I ate in the New York restaurants and I am even less so now. It wasn’t just that we found Sushisamba’s small plates, raw dishes and samba rolls lacking in freshness and acidity. We also found the waiting staff more interested in processing customers than looking after them.
Duck & Waffle possesses one big advantage in its manager, Gavin McGowan Madoo (his mother is from northeast England and his father from the Caribbean). He is charming and enthusiastic, but he and his team are let down by two factors outside their control.
The first, as Duck & Waffle’s name might suggest, is that a great deal of the food tastes overly sweet. This was the case with the smoked haddock scotch egg, the yellowfin tuna and the dish that gives the restaurant its name, duck topped with a fried duck egg, a waffle and mustard maple syrup. The wine list is also confusing and expensive. Do the restaurateurs really believe that the views will be enough to seduce their customers into returning?
I certainly have no intention of returning to Chrysan, despite my admiration for Japanese food and the distinctive pleasures of eating kaiseki meals in Kyoto, where this style of leaving the menu in the hands of the chef originated.
It is symptomatic of the mistranslation that appears to have taken place between Chrysan’s partners – the Hakkasan Group and chef Yoshihiro Murata, who has highly successful restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo – that our meal here was so disappointing.
They have not had the courage of their convictions just to offer a kaiseki menu. And despite an obvious level of professionalism in the kitchen, dishes of a Japanese “mock turtle” soup and one called “where Kyoto meets Scotland” – incorporating shiitake mushrooms and lobster – failed to convince.
Those behind these restaurants have failed to overcome the challenges inherent in bringing a style of cooking that may be successful 3,000 miles away to London’s financial district. They are certainly no competition for Galvin La Chapelle, L’Anima or St. John Bread & Wine – all of which are no more than a stone’s throw away.
1 Snowden Street, EC2, 020 3657 4777; www.chrysan.co.uk
Heron Tower, 110 Bishopsgate, EC2, 020 3640 7330; www.sushisamba.com
Duck & Waffle
(as above); www.sushisamba.com