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 hanging on my cell phone trying to defeat the invisible hordes. I had set myself an alarm clock for this moment, and now I get started, quickly scrolling through the dialog boxes for name, address and everything else. Finally, I click Confirm and allow my phone to take an electronic deep breath of a refresher. There it is: I have two seats for dinner, over three months later. Count me in.
I am shocked myself. That’s not me. I let other napkin sniffers, desperate to be the first to get through the door of the next big thing, behave like that. I am a lot cooler. Or maybe not. Stranger still, the two seats I’ve reserved are in a modest restaurant a 12-minute walk from my house on Atlantic Road in Brixton. It’s called Ichiban Sushi and it opened in 1999. My family went there for years when the kids were little to buy comforting rice bowls, hearty nigiri, and more than crunchy green Thai curries. The latter wasn’t quite the outlier as it may seem. Ichiban is owned by a Thai-Colombian couple. On the weekends, sometimes her 10 year old son Chris brought us the food with shining eyes, who helped out in the family business.
It turned out that Chris Restrepo did more than just pick up and carry. He soaked up the intricacies of sushi. He now says that he has found a direction in life. At 16 he started in the kitchen. He ate his way through the best sushi restaurants in London and later went to Tokyo. He secured a place at the renowned Tokyo Sushi Academy. He was ambitious. The 28-year-old wanted to bring something back.
That something is Kurisu Omakase, where Kurisu is Japanese for Chris. It’s a sushi tasting menu that’s served twice in the evenings for eight guests on Sundays and Mondays when the Ichiban is closed. I heard about it from my friend, chef Tim Anderson, who runs the Nanban ramen restaurant elsewhere in Brixton. But word got around too. Endo Kazutoshi of the revered Endo in the rotunda showed up one night, as did some of the Araki crew. Serious cooks come to see what Restrepo is up to.
For good reason. I ate at the fabulous Endo. I splurged at Umi and purred over Sushi Tetsu. I don’t hesitate to say that what is served here is some of the best sushi in the UK today. Yes, there are oceans of technology to see, but there is so much more. There is character and story and wit. Restrepo is a cook as a storyteller. The old tables where we were once served these green Thai curries are being dragged around to a low counter. On the other hand, he takes a stand with his brazier, blowtorch, sauces and of course his light-wood fish box. In a neat inversion, it’s now his mother, Suwannee, who fetches and carries from the back kitchen.
Just as Restrepo greets us, a guy pokes his head through the front door and barks friendly at Suwannee. Restrepo shrugs his shoulders. “It’s Brixton,” he says simply. The occasional blue light will blink. There will be loud laughter from the street life of the sidewalk outside. In the meantime we are being taken by the hand internally. It starts with light pink tuna slices. Like most fish, it has been ripened to give it a denser texture and deepen the flavor. The tuna was fried. There’s a puddle of a brisk ponzu dressing and a Parmesan shower for fortified umami.
Next, he tells us, there has to be a deep-fried course because he is obeying a formal order. It is a golden croquette made from white and brown crab meat. A nod to its Thai heritage, it sits on a thick green pond with a sweet and sour Nam Jim sauce. This trio of openers ends with a miso-slicked piece of hamachi seared on the brazilian until it bubbly and turns brown, with a fan of tempura-ed enoki mushrooms, a grated radish salad, and a ginger dressing.
Now he presents the blonde wooden box with a dozen species of fish. We observe the delicate hand movements of the jeweler, the rice, which is scooped and shaped by warm fingers and palms, is brushed with water between the portions; the wasabi was just dabbing; the diamond topped with a curl of pristine fillet. He puts everyone right in front of us. The rice is just above room temperature and slightly fortified with vinegar. Some of the fish are coated with soy. There’s the hissing and popping of the blowtorch. Sometimes the brazier is used to sear the fish. At one point the coals are used directly. It’s both dinner and theater.
Each of these tiny, jewel-like courses come with notes. The caviar comes from Exmoor; the farmed bluefin tuna from Spain. Some fish come from Brixham. Provenance counts. In between providing this vital piece of information, Restrepo tells us stories: how he was denied access to restaurants in Tokyo because of his tattoos, suggesting gang membership; the blurred racist divide between the Japanese students at the Sushi Academy and those from elsewhere.
It would be repetitive to list all the nigiri, but there are highlights: a cross cut of crimson tuna, half fat belly, half loin with a dollop of truffle and mustard sauce; a seared trout belly with Thai basil miso, so aromatic you could dab it behind your ears; Sweet, pristine lobster, the essence of the sea, with Nam Jim. Scallops are scored 18 times to open the surface. “It’s called the Houdini cut because it disappears on the palate,” he says. Finally, he makes Temaki rolls: seaweed rice cones and the best tuna tartare. “Here,” he says, and puts it from his hand into mine. “Have a tuna spliff.”
The price of 108 € is high. Add sake and it’ll be even stronger. But compared to similar offerings in London, it can only be classified as inexpensive. Also, we should all be wary of cheap sushi. Restrepo has other residences in London but later in the year he hopes Ichiban will become his permanent residence. Suwannee also serves a Thai tasting menu some nights of the week. All new dates are announced via his Instagram account @kurisuomakase and are really very fast. Yes I know. It’s all terrifyingly competitive. Just do what I did and set an alarm. It is so worth it.
I am fortunate to live in a part of London where I can order takeaway from Dishoom. Oh, the buttery delights of this black house. Now, following the cult success of their Bacon Naan Kit, they have launched their first home meal kit, which is supplied across much of the UK. The Home Feast box feeds two to three people, costs £ 60 and includes this dal, plus lamb sheekh kababs, mattar paneer, murgh malai, rotis, lassi and a glucand chaos to finish off. visit store.dishoom.com/home.
Pie Maestros Calum Franklin and his deputy in the Holborn Dining Room Nokx Majozi gather with Hawksmoor Group chef Matt Brown for the annual dinner to raise funds for the Action Against Hunger charity. On October 2nd they have a five-course feast at the Hawksmoor Guildhall in London. Tickets cost £ 150. This is the ninth event of its kind. Over the years, the dinners, which include both live and silent auction, have raised more than £ 625,000.
Newcastle chef Kenny Atkinson has announced a new restaurant for the city on Instagram. Solstice will be a sibling of Atkinson’s House of Tides, which opened in 2014 and has had a Michelin star since 2016, the only restaurant in Newcastle to do so. Atkinson gave no further information other than the name.