Sushi Des Artistes, 85 Sloane Avenue, London SW3
The menu is full of amorous-sounding dishes, but does this sushi place inspire affection?
It is a blind date. The restaurant is dimly lit and quiet. The food could not be more romantic. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, it's a damp Tuesday lunchtime, we are the only people in the place and it is, frankly, a little bit bonkers.
Sushi des Artistes, in London's South Kensington, looks like a jaunty Mediterranean piano bar (indeed, its other branch is in Marbella) but is in fact Japanese cuisine. Yet, from the outside, if we hadn't already pored over the website (sushidesartistes.com – trust me, it's worth it), the only reason we wouldn't be confused by the offbeat red-and-blue striped theme is that the awning screams "Japanese restaurant". Well, OK then.
At the start of the lunch, Hugh and I know that we share an appetite for food, so this is a date borne of greed rather than lust. (We've been Twitter buddies up until now.) By the end of lunch, having eaten salmon from a Martini glass, drunk sake out of a box and been splattered by a deep-fried shrimp wrapped in crispy noodles dropping into soy sauce, we stagger out of SDA like two survivors from a disaster movie, not a romcom.
But even if we never meet again, we'll always have Sloane Avenue. Looking at the bill later, we happen to have chosen dishes that sound like a relationship in microcosm. We eat from a menu where every dish has a ludicrously romantic name: Je t'aime, You Are Sensational, Love Never Dies and Just One More. What this has to do with raw fish is anyone's guess. (And it's a million miles from the mouthwatering Japanese snacks that Bill Granger details on the previous pages.)
Sushi des Artistes makes much of its artistry. No dish comes out unadorned by flowers, fruit, blobs, dashes, draping. Every plate is undeniably pretty (even if the salmon arranged over a Martini glass in the You Are Sensational sashimi combination looks a little tired and less than sensational, the rest of it – toro, hamachi – is gleaming and soft). Slow-grilled lamb with fresh chilli and miso is rich and moreish, the meat showing signs of proper marination.
So why ruin the entire enterprise with a vast TV screen showing MOR jazz concerts on a loop? In what way does this add to the romance, fashionability and creativity that SDA boasts of? And is the fact that our waiter looks like Richard Clayderman significant? So many questions – most of which are hissed between Hugh and me to avoid being overheard in the vast room, occupied only by us, our blond server and Michael Bublé (OK, he's on screen, warbling away in Montreux, or somewhere).
We get the giggles trying to negotiate Je t'aime – lobes of foie gras on top of a quivering Jidori hen-egg omelette – with chopsticks. Like us, this is not an entirely natural marriage on paper but it tastes rather fabulous. (Jidori hens are Japan's most pampered poultry.) Likewise the Madison rolls, where crustacean extremities poke out of rice. A bit of a mouthful, but a pleasing crisp-and-sticky combination.
So much work has gone into Sushi des Artistes, from the décor to the professionalism of the waiting staff to the presentation of the food and the sheer quality of the ingredients, but I cannot imagine ever coming back here.
If my blind date was with the restaurant and I was answering the agency's questionnaire, under "What would you change about your date?", I'd say: lose the TV, stop flogging expensive, out-of-season ingredients, divide the room into sections to enhance the romance (and disguise the emptiness) and play up the kitsch. Under "What did you find appealing?", I'd say: some genuinely imaginative flavour combinations and, gosh, such enthusiasm.
Criticising this restaurant feels like shooting sushi-grade fish in a barrel. I feel rotten when the manager admits, as I pay our hefty bill, that it can be rather slow at lunchtime. He says that it will probably pick up now that summer is over (I don't like to point out that autumn is, too).
Perhaps the dish of the day should have been the fresh, spicy cod roe linguine with Oscietra caviar – or, as the menu has it, "Let Me Try Again"… Still, I expect they love it in Marbella.
SCORES: 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK, 4 NEEDS HELP, 5 DOES THE JOB, 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE, 7 GOOD, 8 CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Sushi Des Artistes 85 Sloane Avenue, London SW3, tel: 020 3583 3797 Lunch and dinner daily. About £150 for two, including drinks
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