Kurobuta, restaurant review: Scott Hallsworth serves up taste-boggling Japanese cuisine
17-20 Kendal Street, Marble Arch, London W2 (020-3475 4158). £150 for two, with cocktails and wine
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 05 July 2014
Say hello to Scott Hallsworth. He's a 39-year-old chef-restaurateur from western Australia, and he's been forging a mighty path in Japanese cuisine since his mid-twenties. I say Japanese, but if the average Shinjuku salaryman wandered into one of Hallsworth's eating houses, he'd be bewildered by the liberties taken with classic Nipponese ingredients.
Mr H learnt his craft the classic way: he joined Nobu London, the Michelin-winning Park Lane shrine to sashimi and tempura, as chef de partie in 2001. He worked his way up to head chef before decamping to Nobu Melbourne, followed by his own place in Dubai. Last year, in one of those apple-falling-on-your-head moments, he came up with the Kurobuta cooking concept, presented it to thunderstruck Londoners at a pop-up, and now runs two restaurants of the same name.
Kurobuta is part of Connaught Village, a rampagingly trendy milieu, west of Marble Arch. It is an instantly appealing restaurant: a buzzy, bustling and hectically youthful room, with half a dozen waiting staff dashing about. One's a surfer dude with blue hair, another a boardwalk babe in black shorts and vest. You're practically on the Edgware Road but you'd swear there must a beach nearby.
Behind a grey slate counter, the chefs busy themselves with the origami of presentation. The main décor statement is the score of halogen bulbs in wire cages hanging from the ceiling at different heights. The tables are small, the seats feel flimsy, the music is loud, but the conversation's louder. There's a canteen feel about it.
The menu is divided into Snacks, Cold-Raw-Salad, Robata BBQ, Japanese Junk Food, Maki, Sushi, Something Crunchy (ie, tempura) and Significant Others. While your eye takes in the usual procession of Japanese terms – miso, daikon, wasabi, ponzu, shiso, yuzu – you're intrigued by the Western ingredients. Under 'sushi' comes fresh salmon with Bearnaise salsa and fries. Under the 'significant' heading is Kombu roasted Chilean sea bass. How Japanese are these dishes? Hallsworth apparently takes his cue from 'izakaya' – after-work, 'red lantern' sake bars. He's sexed-up the idea of bar food into an exciting new fusion cuisine.
We devoured a plate of flamed and salty edamame, and long sweet-potato and soba-ko fries in kimchi (fermented cabbage) mayo and jalapeno sauce. Encouraged by the amazingly knowledgeable and enthusiastic Innika (another West Australia export) we ordered six sharing dishes: each was a blissful discovery. Yellowtail sashimi crouched modestly on a wasabi salsa, each lump surmounted by a jalapeno slice; scooped up in chopsticks, they were miracles of lepping freshness. A tuna sashimi pizza (more a big taco) with truffle ponzu, red onions and green chillies offered four big mouthfuls ablaze with warring flavours; the tuna was soft and substantial, sublime against the crunch of corn and the attack of onions. Trace elements of spongy green stuff turned out to be flying-fish wasabi, a foodie treat. And I admired the blokeishness of having jalapenos on every thing.
We hurtled onwards, unstoppably, as more dishes arrived at speed. Black pepper soft shell crab tempura had to be eaten with the fingers. Truth to tell, there was more tempura than crab here, but the batter was fabulously delicate, burnt with a soy and honey sauce. The oddest dish by far was (deep breath) Nasu Dengaku sticky miso grilled aubergine with candied walnuts – six fat, boiling-hot aubergine wedges cooked with miso, murin, sugar and sake in a bain-marie until their insides had melted almost to liquid. It was weirdly sweet.
"If I didn't know better," said my wife, "I'd think this was banana fritter." I thought it was an interesting thing to do with that bitter, hard-to-love vegetable. The chefs had thoughtfully supplied some daikon radish, thinly sliced to resemble a small, cold towel to wrap the aubergine in and save your mouth from burning.
Barbecued baby chicken was simply grilled with spicy lemon garlic sauce, served on a banana leaf, weep-makingly soft inside, charred outside. Last to come was a favourite of the chef's: barbecue pork belly served in those steamed buns, that are like eating small clouds, served with spicy peanut soy sauce. I found the pork insubstantially charred to put up any fight with the sauce. But the puddings cheered us up. Yuzu compressed pears with sake kazu ice-cream and matcha meringue combined Japanese lemon syrup (yuzu) and green-tea meringue with heavenly pear poached with raspberry and ice-cream. Wonderful.
I was entranced by Kurobuta: the inventiveness of Hallsworth's dishes, the profusion of flavours, the eagerness of the staff. Only a slight relentlessness of salting and chilli-ing let it down. It's the most appealing and taste-boggling restaurant I've found this year. I urge you to try it.
Kurobuta, 17-20 Kendal Street, Marble Arch, London W2 (020-3475 4158). £150 for two, with cocktails and wine
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