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“My first wife was the second cook at a third-rate joint on 4th Street.” Since I first heard this line delivered by Eddie Marr in the 1942 film The Glass Key, it has been my favourite quote from the movies. I thought of it again recently after an unusual invitation led to an exceptional dinner.
The offer came from a Chinese friend in Hong Kong. Would I like to join her for a traditional Japanese kaiseki dinner at Shiori restaurant on Moscow Road in Bayswater? The elements seemed so incongruous, I readily accepted.
The first surprise was Shiori’s location. Moscow Road mostly comprises mansion blocks, pubs and shops, so the uncluttered window of number 45 does seem out of place. Once inside, a trough of grey stones and a small tree are the closest the owners, Takashi and Hitomi Takagi, can get to providing a view of a garden – a key part of the kaiseki experience. Yet, while they are thousands of miles away from Japan, so determined are the Takagis to meet the exacting demands of a kaiseki service that they insist on diners booking in advance.
Inside, Shiori is tiny – 500sq ft – and seats just 16. So that Takashi can maintain his high culinary standards throughout the evening (particularly the timing of the rice cooking), half the reservations are taken for 6.30pm-7pm, the other half for 8pm-8.30pm. As I waited for my guest, I watched Takashi in action, puffing out his cheeks in exertion, reaching for the dishes he had prepared during the day and, once completed, handing them over for his wife to serve. Then I peeped into a small envelope in front of me that contained the night’s menu.
On the outside was the symbol of sakura, the cherry blossom that is about to flower in Japan; inside was a list of the dishes that followed the ritual of the kaiseki meal. The rules dictate that the sashimi must follow a soup course; that the meal must draw to a close with another soup; and that as well as being seasonal, every dish must be stylishly presented. All the food at Shiori, Hitomi told me, is served on elegant Imari pottery made in Arita, Japan.
The eight dishes on the £75 menu were exemplary for very different reasons. I enjoyed the contrast of herring roe with eel alongside my first taste of tiny Japanese mountain potatoes. The thick, white miso soup with taro was nourishing, while the hotpot of cod and vegetables and a bowl of comforting crab with rice and pickles brought out the flavours of the sea. The clear soup with mushrooms and seaweed was a wonderfully refreshing prelude to a scoop of green tea ice-cream.
But two dishes really highlighted the Takagis’ expertise. A salmon and sea bass hakata presented layers of the two fish interlaced with seaweed that had been pressed in a wooden box for a day, alongside the thinnest slice of sudachi, a citrus fruit closely related to yuzu. This was preceded by a plate of the finest sashimi I have eaten outside Japan, comprising Spanish tuna, Cornish mackerel, yellowtail and scallop from Japan, and Canadian snow crab. Added to the pleasure of all this was the friendly service from Hitomi who, having undertaken a saké course in Japan, is also highly knowledgeable in this field.
When I returned during the day the following week, Takashi was preparing a large pollock for that night’s hotpot. His father is a renowned chef, and Takashi had undergone several years of the rigorous training required to reach the kaiseki uplands in Japan before moving to London in 1999 where he met Hitomi, then a student.
The couple returned to Japan but the demands placed on the young chef there left no time for them to be together. “He was exhausted and I was fed up,” Hitomi explained. So they came back to London, where Takashi spent six years at Umu in Mayfair. They then opened Sushi of Shiori, a takeaway with counter seats near Euston station, which confirmed their belief that Japanese food is now so widely appreciated that they could aim even higher.
Hitomi has played a critical role in establishing their new professional home. She found the site, designed the elegant interior and imbues it with her warmth. It can’t be easy being married to a kaiseki chef, who must spend every day striving to excel at a style of cooking whose rules were established many centuries ago, in a country thousands of miles from Shiori’s tiny kitchen. But Hitomi confided: “I am happy now, because I know my husband is happy.”
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
45 Moscow Road, London W2 4AH, 020 7221 9790; theshiori.com
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