This was going to be the year I finally got to visit Japan, a country that I have been itching to get to since missing out on a school trip back when I was fourteen. Somewhere towards the end of 2016, we hatched a plan to spend three to six months in Japan, just eating, exploring and hopefully learning some Japanese. The length of time raised some eyebrows but we weren’t phased; we figured, if not now, then when?! Well it turns out, it won’t be now… and the when might actually be next year. Plans: some were made to be followed, while others were made to be broken. I’d like to think this one is just on hold.
The annoyingly sensible decision to put the brakes on this grand plan was made a couple of days before we ventured to Elizabeth Allen’s Shibui residency at Carousel, featuring her take on European and Japanese fusion cuisine. Ironic consolation or just rubbing salt in the wounds? I think if it had been bad, it would have been the latter but it wasn’t, so while we can’t yet experience the real deal, it was a good reminder than there are plenty of places in London where we can savour that taste of Japan in its many guises.
You may know of Elizabeth Allen from Pidgin, an East London restaurant which has made quite an impression, enough so to gain its first Michelin star last year. Personally, I have never been which is probably why I was curious to try Shibui, supposedly Allen’s ode to sophisticated BBQ with a Japanese perspective. According to all the accompanying literature and the introduction from the chef herself, the word ‘shibui’ means to refine the unrefined, so the plan here was to take something simple and elevate it to something more luxurious perhaps?
A quick look at the menu confirmed that this was no ordinary sushi and sashimi affair, there was no inference of raw fish in sight. Instead, we started with a tempura nori topped with apple puree, oyster (not in full form sadly) and sambal. This was a crunchy mouthful of sweet and salty cleverness; here’s hoping that would not be the first and last time I have tempura nori. Hey restaurants, ditch the courgettes and start frying up this green stuff instead!
Buttermilk chicken doesn’t exactly scream sophistication but add in a drizzle of miso jus and top with caviar, then voila you’ve got some fine dining fried chicken. This dish was perhaps my favourite and the one I thought best represented Allen’s philosophy. I like chicken wings but I also think they’re the runtiest, saddest parts, only worth eating when they’re crispy or covered in some kind of sticky sauce. Chef was smart enough to do both and had us all desperately begging for another wing.
I was less in love with the fermented cucumber with sorrel and apple mainly because it lacked the intensity I was expecting from the fermentation process. Where was that mouth-tingling sourness that I adore? Sure, it was refreshing but it lacked oomph and basically felt like a side dish with no star to accompany it. We had the choice of an additional course – maltagliati, lamb sweetbreads, brown butter, cabbage and Périgord truffle – and took it with open arms. As a pasta dish, the silky smooth pasta combined with the cabbage and truffle was quite delicious, but as a sweetbreads dish, there was too much hide and seek with those unctuous little gems for my liking. For £12.50 extra, I would have liked more than three or four sweetbreads!
Thankfully the koji beef, coffee and Jerusalem artichoke with blistered sprout tops, beef fat and XO was more substantial. This was the comfort dish of the night; all the elements were what my Asian aunties would call ‘warming’. The coffee took the richness of the beef up a notch, the sprout tops were rendered decadent with the addition of the beef fat. I was also really impressed with the cooking of the beef; well rested, perfectly pink, and it cut like a hot knife through butter. Not an easy feat when you’re serving that number of people all within a few minutes of each other.
Dessert had a deconstructed apple pie vibe to it, albeit with a Japanese twist as you’d expect from Shibui. Softly stewed apple was hidden underneath crisp shards of pastry, and drizzled with a kinako custard and butterscotch laced with miso. That last ingredient sold it for me; apple, custard, pastry are always a winning combo but that miso in the butterscotch added a subtle saltiness, counteracting all those sweet elements perfectly!
Shibui was definitely not for the traditional Japanophile; the intertwining of Allen’s Asian and European heritage was obvious and proudly displayed. While I didn’t love every course, it was a small consolation to our big change of plans for Japan. What I did love was that her style was evident in the menu, and I’m convinced that there’s a place for it too. Some tweaks are required, but it wouldn’t hurt to have something fresh and creative among the swarm of London’s upmarket and sometimes uptight Japanese offerings. I’ll be waiting with bated breath to see whether Shibui stays true to its ethos when it properly opens, whenever and wherever that may be!
Carousel in Marylebone hosts a revolving set of chefs with vastly different cuisines and styles; I’d definitely recommend you check out what’s coming up next if you’ve never been before!
Do you have a country that’s been on your bucket list forever?