Head chef Yasuhiro Mineno will question everything you think you know about Japanese food, finds Lee Williams
When you visit Yashin Ocean House, a Japanese restaurant in South Kensington in London, be prepared to have many of your preconceptions about Japanese cuisine shattered. The first one to get the hammer treatment might be when you ask for soy sauce to go with your sushi (four pieces £13.50, eight pieces £30). You will be told, politely but firmly, that you can't have it.
"Fresh fish still has hard proteins," explains Yasuhiro Mineno, head chef and the man famed as having the best knife skills in Europe. "These proteins make good texture but no taste, so you need to add salt or soy or something. After ageing, the fish has taste, so you don't need to add anything."
"It's exactly the same process as in beef," adds Yashin's founder and designer Jun Ogura. "It takes 20 days to form the amino acids which give it flavour."
At Yashin they don't leave their fish for 20 days, but it could be three or four, or sometimes more than a week. There is no rule of thumb, according to Mineno. It is touch and experience that tells him when a fish is ready.
This ageing technique is a tradition which grew up separately to the one of 'fresh' sushi, originating several hundred years ago in Tokyo, according to Ogura. Another tradition kept alive at Yashin is the head to tail philosophy, where every part of the fish is used in the cooking process. And when they say every part, they mean it - the heads are grilled; the scales are served deep-fried as a crispy garnish; the stomachs are marinated with salt for several weeks to make a marinade; and the bones are used for stocks and even eaten whole. "The head to tail concept is quite normal in Japan," says Ogura. "It's based on Buddhism. It's like an appreciation of all life."
This philosophy finds expression in one of Yashin's most popular starters, Hone Kawa Senbei (£5). Here mackerel bones are marinated in saltwater with kombu (dried seaweed) and soju (a kind of sake made from potatoes) before being dried then deep-fried whole inside the skin. Served with vegetable chips, crispy seaweed and crispy, deep-fried scales, the whole dish is a spectrum of crunchy textures and sweet, salty and umami flavours.
Tradition informs a lot of the food at Yashin Ocean House, but they aren't sticklers for it. In fact, much of what they do is boldly experimental, such as the Scottish smoked salmon dish (£5.80) currently trialling at sister restaurant Yashin Sushi and Bar. Here, smoked salmon is served on top of a jelly made from salmon and hibiki, a kind of Japanese whisky, and served with shavings of dark chocolate.
And on the Yashin Ocean House menu there is a fish you will be forgiven for never having heard of before. The chargrilled Saikyo cobia with aubergine cream (£15.50) takes a traditional preparation of fish marinated in sweet miso but replaces the usual black cod with cobia, a fish most Japanese chefs haven't heard of either. "I found it in a book," says Mineno. "Many Vietnamese farmers eat it."
Not all of the fish is so exotic or so far-travelled. Other products come from Cornwall, France and Portugal and from local markets, where Mineno buys live fish that he kills himself using the traditional iki jime method - a more humane form of killing and one which damages the meat less. The fish's spinal cord is cut with a small knife or wire as soon as it is caught. This stops the fish thrashing around, a process which stresses the flesh and can raise its temperature up to 60 or 80 degrees, effectively cooking it and spoiling the quality of the 'raw' sushi.
Vegetable garden tempura
If Mineno sounds knowledgeable and highly skilled, it is because he is. He first trained as a traditional kaiseki chef in Japan for five years before coming to the UK, where he worked at Yumi, then as head chef at Ubon by Nobu. In 2007 he met Ogura, an interior designer, and together with the other founding chef, Shinya Ikeda, they decided to open their own sushi restaurant.
Yashin Sushi and Bar opened in 2010 with Yashin Ocean House opening in 2013. "Originally we wanted to distinguish it from Yashin Sushi Bar, so it didn't make sense to serve sushi," says Ogura, then he shrugs: "But this is what the customers want."
Which just goes to show that at Yashin Ocean House they listen to their customers. Just not if you ask for soy sauce.
Salt bowl grouper
From the menu
Carpaccio and sashimi
- Scottish salmon with green chilli sauce £7.70
- Cornish wild seabass with dried miso flake £11.20
- Foie fras miso dengaku, glazed in red aged miso £15
- Cod cheek with chilli amazu £7.80
Wagyu from Japan
- Japanese wagyu sushi, two pieces £16
- Japanese wagyu carpaccio A4/A5 £26
- Paradise prawn served head to tail £6.50
- Soft-shell mizuna, tempura soft-shell blue crab and mizuna leaf with tosa vinegar £11.80
Yashin Ocean House
117-119 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3RN
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