Eating out: Belting it out

Itsu; 118 Draycott Avenue, London SW3, 0171 584 5522. Open Mon-Sat noon-11pm, Sun noon-10pm. Bar open in evenings. Credit cards accepted, except Diners
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AT THE height of the Eighties stock market boom, a plague of heart attacks swept through the New York investment banking community, laying waste to dozens and dozens of fit, healthy young men. It turned out that their hearts were riddled with tiny worms - something which puzzled doctors until one bright spark finally worked out the reason. The bankers had picked them up from all the raw tuna they'd been eating at trendy new sushi bars. Unlike the Japanese, they had no built-in immunity.

I have no idea whether or not this popular urban myth from the Greed Decade is true. But I rather hope it isn't because I like raw tuna an awful lot. Almost as much as I like the green wasabi paste, the sticky rice and the razor-thin slices of tangy pink ginger. In fact, deadly worm threat apart, there's only one thing that would stop me wanting to eat sushi every day for the rest of my life: it's so bloody expensive.

Which explains why I was particularly pleased when the chance came to review Julian (Pret A Manger) Metcalfe's highly-rated new sushi restaurant, Itsu. If I had been paying, I'm sure I would have spent the whole dinner totting up all the dishes I'd had so far and agonising over whether my budget could run to yet another one. But in my capacity as reviewer, I felt actively encouraged to choose the more expensive dishes (they're all colour-coded according to price).

If you believe Itsu's marketing philosophy, the restaurant is just as well-suited to cheapskates as it is to those for whom money is no object. But I think this fails to take into account three vital human characteristics: snobbery, greed and techno-philia. The snobbishness is what stops you going for the white pounds 2.50 dishes rather than the gold pounds 3.50 ones; the greed forces you to eat more than your stomach really needs; and the technophilia is what makes you pick up plate after plate because they all pass in front of your nose on a shiny conveyor belt and playing with such a dinky new toy is so novel and fun.

He's no fool, that Julian Metcalfe. The restaurant hasn't been open long but already it's so popular that when you arrive (it doesn't take bookings) you'll almost certainly have to hang out in the bar upstairs before you can go downstairs to eat. While you wait, you're given a rectangular device which vibrates when your table's ready. Smarter readers will probably have encountered these things before, but I hadn't and I was seriously impressed.

There's something faintly sleazy about the atmosphere in the bar area which both X and I rather liked. Perhaps it was the hippy-ish cushioned alcove or the fact that everyone was gasping desperately on their fags before entering the no-smoking zone downstairs, but it reminded me vaguely of an opium den. Quite unusual, I thought, for Brompton Cross. What wasn't unusual for the area, though, was the clientele. Most of them were in business suits, all of them were playing with mobile phones and talking loudly about money.

Downstairs though, for some reason, the diners all seemed normal and unhorrible. Maybe they'd been transformed by the jolly communal vibe which results from sitting at bar stools in a big circle and picking out titbits from the same conveyor belt. It should be quite clinical, this mechanistic serving process, but somehow it isn't.

Anyway, to the food. Well basically, it's sushi - as fresh, tender and succulent as almost any I've tasted. Not that I'm the world's greatest sushi expert, but I did once go to a party catered for by a chef from the legendary Nobu restaurant, and the stuff at Itsu compared fairly well.

I do reckon, though, that if I'd been a serious sushi bore I might have been slightly disappointed. You won't find at Itsu, for example, that very dark, slimy, fatty cut of tuna which connoisseurs so prize. Also, there isn't a big enough range of fish varieties: smoked halibut's about as unusual as it gets. And I don't think there are enough variations on the California roll/seaweed theme.

But then, Itsu isn't aimed primarily at hardcore sushi junkies. You can tell from the large number of dishes that would be frowned upon in a serious Japanese restaurant: creme brulee, say, or the beef carpaccio with herb pesto, or the not desperately wonderful chicken and coconut soup which isn't half as good as their properly authentic miso.

Personally, I think this is a mistake. You shouldn't suck up to people who don't like sushi. You should tell them to bugger off elsewhere. But I suppose it makes commercial sense. God knows, if I had the money, I'd be on the phone to Mr Metcalfe's development manager like a shot to discuss the possibility of setting up an Itsu franchise. Like Pret A Manger, Itsu is an ingeniously simple concept brilliantly executed. It deserves to make millions and it will.


Richard Ehrlich's selection

Apparently the folks behind Itsu agree with me that serious wine should not be drunk with Japanese food: their list is packed with poorly described also-rans, from a pack of producers few of whose names are found in either my memory bank or standard wine-reference books. But fear not, because their non- alcoholic fruit drinks sound scrumptious. Drink these instead - or beer or (humdrum) sake if only alcohol will do

Shiso Ringo, pounds 2.95

This one's fresh apple juice with freshly squeezed lemon and an infusion of mint and lemongrass

Shoga Apple, pounds 2.95

This is described as "fresh apple juice with crushed ginger and lychee". A great and unexpected combination

Moondance, pounds 2.95

This is fresh lemonade, iced ginger tea and fresh lime juice. Another winning combo