Matthew Fort meets Umu’s Yoshinori Ishii
At Umu in Mayfair, chef Yoshinori Ishii takes traditional Japanese cooking to its zenith
“Mukozuke”, reads the first dish on Umu’s Winter Kaiseki Menu, and underneath: “Kombu cured Scottish scallops, kombu trio, white ear mushroom.”
So, here is an exquisite bowl with three small, fat pillows of creamy scallop resting in it, with shavings of kombu (a kind of kelp); pickled kombu; a dark dab of fermented kombu; a small clump of pickled white ear mushroom. The scallops are cool marine toffee. Curing the scallop between leaves of dried kombu (kobujime) heightens its flavour. One kombu is meaty, the next has the tang of pickling, the next a salty intensity. The white ear mushroom is chewy like jelly. It is a subtle, careful, exquisitely judged introduction to a meal that will run through eight courses.
Umu is tucked away on Bruton Place, just off London’s Bond Street, reserved, understated to the point of secretiveness, behind a heavy wooden door that slides back when you tap the console to the right of it. Inside is a dark panelled dining area, part of which is filled with a highlit open kitchen like a stage. A long, polished bar runs its full length, so that customers sitting at it can watch their dishes being prepared. Behind them are the conventional tables.
“Nimonowan”, reads the menu, and underneath: “Fine clear soup, lotus root, blue tiger prawn, karasumi.”
Needle-cut carrot and daikon rise in an airy stack from a single slice of lotus root resting on a buxom lotus root dumpling stuffed with prawn and moated by a dashi broth. Curls of karasumi (Japanese bottarga) tumble over the carrot and daikon. The flavours and textures haunt the mouth long after the dish has disappeared.
Towering above the familiar culinary foothills of Japanese cooking — sushi, sashimi, teriyaki, yakitori, tempura — is kaiseki-ryōri, a tradition that embraces each of the individual techniques and sublimates them to a unifying gastronomic aesthetic. It’s with kaiseki-ryōri that Yoshinori Ishii’s skills find their fullest expression.
“Tsukuri” reads the menu, and underneath: “Line-caught Cornish white fish ‘ikejime’, usuzukuri (poem from Chef Yoshi in his own wood block print) and selection of fish of the day.”
Yoshinori Ishii, universally known as Yoshi, is a neat, trim figure, with luxuriant black hair, soft brown eyes, a fine moustache and the small, elegant beard you see in 17th-century portraits of Spanish gentlemen. He takes a Nenohi Ao-ko
yanagiba, a “willow blade” knife for cutting fish. It is some 33cm long, elegant and purposeful. He bought it three years ago. He cuts a chunk from a fillet of Cornish turbot with a single, firm sweep of the blade with a cutting technique known as hira-zukuri, pressing down firmly with the heel of the knife, then drawing it towards his body, the blade slightly angled to the left. Each fish requires subtly different treatment.
He takes a second yanagiba knife. It’s smaller, perhaps one-third the length of the first, and comes to a needle point. It’s made by Tsubaya and was given to Yoshi by his father 30 years ago. Once it was the same size as the knife made by Nenohi Ao-ko, but the process of sharpening it twice daily before service has gradually reduced it to its present size.
With the smaller knife he begins to slice translucent rectangular wafers from the turbot chunk, a method known as “usuzukuri”(literally “slicing thinly”) transferring each to a glass plate and overlapping slightly to form a pattern like the scales of the fish. Gently, he presses each turbot wafer into place with the needle tip of the knife until they cover half the piece of glass. He works with the poise and relaxed intensity of a martial arts fighter.
Yoshi pares slices from a fillet of Cornish streaked gurnard and lays them out next to the turbot. The delicate pink of the gurnard and the shadowy white of the turbot flow into each other. He places the glass on top of a rectangular card the size of a postcard decorated with a woodcut of ingredients and Japanese symbols created and printed by Yoshi that sits on a piece of wood the same size. The fish is so thin you can see the design wavering beneath it, as if looking down through water.
Both fish have a radiance and vivacity, as if they had just been lifted from the sea. As each pristine sliver disappears, the beauty of the card and its message is gradually revealed with full clarity. The pleasures of eating, tasting, touching and looking are bound together in a single aesthetic and a single experience.
Harmony lies at the heart of a kaiseki-ryōri meal. There must be harmony of taste, texture and aroma; harmony between food and the season in which it’s served; food and the plate or bowl on or in which it’s served. Above all, there must be harmony between food and guest. Nothing must startle the guest’s senses or come between the guest and their enjoyment and appreciation of the dish they’re eating.
Everything about the meal must be perfect; ingredients at the height of seasonal perfection, prepared and cooked to perfection and served on a plate that expresses their perfection and reflects the season. For kaiseki-ryōri, says Yoshi, the ingredients must be of the season and, as far as possible, local. Only that way will it be of the requisite excellence. This sounds as if it should be tediously, stiflingly earnest, but in practice, delicacy, lightness and playfulness are as much a part of kaiseki-ryōri as its immense craft and seriousness. It engages all human aspects, including humour.
“Selection of fish of the day”, reads the menu, with no further information underneath. Sashimi in other words.
The beauty of tsukuri or sashimi depends on the freshness of the fish. “The first 10 minutes after a fish is killed is critical,” Yoshi says. “The flesh begins to degrade as soon as the fish dies. Even if the fish is stressed when it’s killed, it will affect the quality. Most of the flavour is in the fat, so we must keep it in the best condition possible. That’s why I only use fish that have been treated by the ‘ikejime method’ immediately after they’ve been killed.”
Ikejime involves running a metal spike along the fish’s spine, either from the tail end or, requiring more skill, through the head, to paralyse its nervous system and halt the process of decay that starts immediately after death. The technique was developed by Japanese fishermen to preserve the freshness of fish better, and for longer than conventional methods. Yoshi has been extolling it to Cornish fishermen for 10 years, but only one or two have taken him up on it. Consequently, he buys only from them. “The best fisherman has a Japanese wife,” he says smiling.
For a plate of sashimi, Yoshi cuts a plump section of cuckoo wrasse, a fish the Cornish used to throw away, from a precisely trimmed fillet with a single long sweep of the long knife. The blade glides smoothly and effortlessly through the lucent meat. He takes the chunk of fish and holds it between the finger and thumb of his left hand. Using the same knife, he strokes the skin side of the fish, creating five precise, parallel cuts 1cm deep. With chopsticks, he places the wrasse on a long, narrow plate that curves at either end and is divided along its length into shallow waves that are the earthy colours of winter. It takes its precise place among the neat sections of red mullet, grey mullet, bream, mackerel, lozenges of tuna belly and tuna loin.
Yoshi settles tiny nasturtium leaves, purple shiso and coils of white radish among them. Each piece of fish has an almost jewel-like brilliance, curving and rippling over the rough, granular surface of the tile, as if shimmering in a rock pool. A creamy cloud of brown sea urchin roe sits alone in its carapace on a separate tile. Two bowls of dipping sauces — one of soya sauce enriched with bonito flakes; the other spiked with citrus flavours and herbs — sit in front.
The tuna belly has the cool, smooth richness of foie gras and feels as if it liquefies on contact with a warm tongue. The brighter tuna loin is firmer, more like cold butter, with a note of iron. The mackerel is clean and bright. The wrasse is softer, milder, fudge-soft. The mullet has a shimmering firmness; the bream is almost fibrous.
Yoshi grew up in the rural part of Chiba, near Tokyo, and his interest in cooking began with fishing, an early passion. Not satisfied with catching fish, he experimented with cooking them. “They were very tiny,” he says, “but I started by using the flavours I’d seen my mother use: ginger, soy, spring onion.” To begin with he had no serious ambition to become a chef, but he came to see it as a way of satisfying his curiosity to explore the world outside Japan. “I decided to become a chef as I could always find a job anywhere I wanted to go.”
“Agemono” reads the menu, and underneath: “Cornish crab three ways: ‘Isobe-age’ nori ginger, ‘shiso-age’ Wagyu, ‘kuriimu korokke’ black winter truffle”.
That is: brown and white crab meat wrapped in nori and deep fried, like tempura; crab meat wrapped in a scarf of silky Wagyu beef tied with a shiso leaf; and a deep-fried crab meat croquette with black truffle. An exemplary play on the differing textures of exteriors and interiors, all heightening the flavour of the crab.
Kaiseki-ryōri, Yoshi explains, grew out of the Japanese tea ceremony — that slow, social ballet of rules and procedures that can last up to four hours. It was devised in the 16th century by Sen no Rikyū, a tea master, and a central figure in the development of the tea ceremony, to
provide guests with something to eat — a bowl of miso soup and three vegetarian side dishes — during the ceremony. This was known simply as “kaiseki”. The multi-course gastronomic theatre of kaiseki-ryōri evolved over several centuries, drawing on court and temple cooking. There is a basic structure to a kaiseki-ryōri banquet today: an appetizer, soup, sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish and a steamed course.
“Hashiyasume” reads the menu, and underneath: “Van-tan house yuzu jelly, Moorland Douglas fir vodka.”
Sharp, clean, refreshing, like a lemon sorbet, the yuzu jelly is made with fruit from a tree that Chef Van, the original chef at Umu, grew in England from a pip he’d brought back from Japan 20 years ago. The present echoes the past.
“A friend suggested I should go to work at Kitcho, said to be the best restaurant in Japan,” Yoshi says. After a year at a cookery school in Osaka, he joined the Tokuoka family-owned Kitcho. “To begin with it was hard. I used to think, ‘This isn’t my job. This isn’t my life’. But I got used to it and then enjoyed it. Kitcho was my great school where I could get opportunity to meet great mentors and watch their great skills and begin to learn about kaiseki.”
He worked at Kitcho for nine years, seven of which Hitoshi Ishihara was the head chef. “Mr Tokuoka and Mr Ishihara are my mentors,” Yoshi says. He still uses their honorifics out of respect.
“At Kitcho, I began to really understand the relationship between food and the plates and bowls. I began to study Zen Buddhism, as I realised cooking was a form of meditation, that it involved my spirit was much as my experience.’
“Yakimono” reads the menu, and underneath: “Roe deer tataki, lightly seared, sake kasu, eddoe yam.”
Neat, mathematical cubes of roe deer and compressed eddoe, pickled reddish, Tokyo leek, bitter greens, and dabs of mustard on a flat mottled tile of what looks like raw clay mixed with gravel. Rough and smooth. And smoky, tart, soft, firm, sweet, fruity, bitter, sharp and hot. A masterly dance of textures and flavours.
“After Kitcho, I was ready for my travels,” Yoshi says. “I wanted to go to Europe because I loved European design: Mini, Ducati, Ferrari, Triumph and split-cane fishing rods.” He worked at the Japanese embassy in Geneva for three years, and when the ambassador was transferred to New York, Yoshi went with him.
The ambassador then returned to Tokyo, and while Yoshi was thinking about setting up his own restaurant in New York, he was approached by Marlon Abela Restaurants and asked if he would take over the kitchens of Umu. He still dreams of one day having a restaurant like that of Mr Tokuoka and Mr Ishihara, devoted to kaiseki-ryōri, without having to serve sushi, sashimi, bento boxes and other dishes he must to keep Umu busy and customers happy. “We have only one goal,” Yoshi adds, “to make the customer happy.”
“Gohan”, reads the menu and underneath: “‘Zosui’ monkfish, winter black truffle, homemade Japanese pickles.”
Black and white soup in a black tureen set over a low flame with pink and white pickles in a cut glass bowl. Rustic, subtle and seductive. The stock, says Yoshi, is made with just the head of monkfish and Japanese vegetables. The dish is gently sweet and allusive, slippery, soothing.
Yoshi spends almost as much time thinking about how his food is presented as about its preparation. The plates and bowls on which it’s served are as much a part of the experience as looking at, smelling and tasting the dishes. They serve as subtle connections between the food and the seasons, or their origins. In Japan, a kaiseki-ryōri restaurant would use extremely valuable antique china. “It’s very difficult to find in London,” says Yoshi, “so I make my own china. It’s just as well as the staff break quite a lot.”
He has a potter’s wheel and kiln in his flat where he makes plates and bowls on his day off. Modestly, he says: “I’m still learning. I work on the Oxford University Anagama Project, where we make pottery using the most traditional methods. For example, I’m only just beginning to experiment with glazes. I don’t like glazes that are too bright or too shiny. They distract from the food. They’re not harmonious.”
“Dessert” reads the menu, and underneath: “‘Snow beans’ kumquat and wasabi”.
It looks like a tiny Michelin Man of meringue and melts like a sweet snowflake with a touch of kumquat citrus and a whisper of wasabi.
Most chefs of Yoshi’s stature have given up day-to-day cooking for a more executive role, but he’s not ready to, and doubts he ever will be. “I’m still learning how to cut fish after 30 years. Every piece is different, depending on the season, the age, how it’s been treated when it’s caught. I’m always learning techniques for making my plates and bowls. My mentor Hitoshi Ishihara owns his restaurant, Mizai, in Kyoto. ‘Mizai’ means ‘not yet perfect’. That’s my motto. Every day I say to myself I have to do better.’
£155 reads the bill, with Prestige Wine or Sake pairing for an additional £95 underneath.
○ Umu, 14–16 Bruton Place, Mayfair, London W1; umurestaurant.com