In Soho you'll find Japanese food by way of the Middle East and Europe. Just don't call it fusion, discovers James Stagg
Oliver Maki might be a Japanese restaurant at heart, but it's Japanese by way of Kuwait and Bahrain, with a hefty dollop of western influence. Its principle is to transcend culinary boundaries with dishes that surprise the diner through uncommon combinations and striking presentation.
Head chef Louis Kenji Huang creating the Sushi Jewel Box
Co-founder Oliver Zeitoun
Chef Huang, who has spent five years with Oliver Maki, declines to describe the menu as fusion, but from the moment the dishes are presented it's clear that this isn't traditional Japanese dining.
"Behind the scenes we're still using traditional Japanese methods to prepare the rice and the sauce," he explains. "But we include new ideas and items that the Japanese might not use. Why not use olive oil, thyme or dill, or any western flavour profiles?"
According to Zeitoun the British are far too overzealous in their dipping of sushi in soy, so the sauce presented in his restaurants is deliberately light so that it doesn't overpower the delicate flavours of the maki and sushi. Unusually, it contains olive oil combined with a home-smoked soy sauce, making it more subtle than traditional variants. The addition makes more sense when it is revealed that Zeitoun comes from a family of olive grove farmers - the family name meaning olive in Arabic. The 55-cover restaurant itself is muted in tones, with a large grey wall with an Oliver Maki logo and simple wooden tables and chairs. The menu starts with a selection of shots and bites, featuring filo shrimp tempura shots, arriving as three shrimps skewered upright in a shot glass with a tangy marie-rose sauce.
Filo shrimp tempura
Then follows a group of salads and starters including fried aubergine with apple miso dressing and chicken plum sauce (£7) along with a chopped tartare (£11) of fish topped with roe and a wasabi mousse.
But the main event has to be the maki, particularly when it's named after the owner. "The maki selection is very popular," says Huang. "Most people use seaweed wrap, but that's only 10% of our maki. We use soya bean wrap - it's not chewy and doesn't taste too fishy."
The Oliver Maki (£18) itself is eight different rolls in one, containing some 30 ingredients, including foie gras, quinoa, avocado and truffle along with the fish. It requires nine cooking processes, from marinades to seaweed cooking and molecular gastronomy. "The Oliver Maki is a pain in the neck," Huang jokes. Another twist on the dishes is that Huang uses only brown rice at the London restaurant. The ingredient lends a nuttiness and firmness to the sushi and maki, even if it takes some processing to suit the dishes.
"It took us a long time to decide whether to use the traditional Japanese rice or brown rice," Huang says. "We were prepared for customers to request white, but nobody has. We do almost 24 hours of processing the rice before we cook it to ensure it's nice and fluffy."
Ebi choco mame maki
While the Oliver Maki dish is a colourful feast, the Sushi Jewel Box is a theatrical presentation of signature rolls. Four layers of Perspex boxes contain 12 items, with one layer filled with smoke, kept in place by a ring of cucumber, to lightly flavour the four pieces within.
If the savoury dishes lean towards Japanese techniques with western flavours, desserts turn the concept on its head, with green tea tiramisu, crème brÁ»lée and pain perdu (a form of French toast) on the menu. "Often with Asian food people don't order dessert," says Huang. "So we give our pastry chef the opportunity to do what they want."
In fact, that approach is taken across the board at Oliver Maki, and Zeitoun is very hands-on when it comes to dish development. "Mr Oliver comes up with crazy ideas and my job is to make it happen," Huang adds.
"Right now I'm working on a special chocolate dish using miso. Hopefully it'll work out, but we'll see. You have to keep moving to satisfy the market and keep ahead."
From the menu
Shots and bites
â- Oyster shots (two pieces) £10
â- Spicy tuna cannoli (two pieces) £9
Salads and starters
â- Rock shrimp tempura £12
â- Soft shell crab curry £15
Sushi and sashimi
â- Sushi jewels (12 pieces) - Omakase £29
â- Sushi symphony (five pieces) - Omakase £17
â- Wagyu burger maki (six pieces) £27
â- Minto peanut pistachio ume maki
(eight pieces) £16
â- Braised smoked short ribs £25
â- Black rice seafood risotto £25
â- Tiramisu £6
â- Crème brÁ»lée £6
The Oliver Maki is prepared with 30 ingredients
33 Dean Street, London W1D 4PW
020 7734 0408
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