It's the critic's version of performance anxiety: inviting someone to dinner at a restaurant you haven't tried yourself first. If it's rubbish, it can be a long, embarrassing evening (not least because your conversation needs to be pretty damned dazzling to distract from the food).
So it was with some trepidation that I booked Yashin Ocean House for dinner with Andrea, an extremely powerful, clever, well-travelled and discerning woman I'd met just once before. I do know Andrea loves food, likes Japanese food – the way-cool Kurobuta is her favourite London joint – and is intrigued by the reviewing lark. I also know Yashin has a sushi bar in Kensington which (although steep in price) is excellent, so its newer sister, which bills itself as "head-to-tail fish", should be worth a look.
Ocean House sits on a quiet stretch of the Old Brompton Road looking cool and inviting on a hot summer's evening. Inside, it's all Edwardian tiling and wood and bentwood chairs – rather stately – but for a central hub where sushi chefs flash their blades. That's all once you're past the extraordinary cabinet facing the door in which fish hang on hooks to dry-age, eyeing the customer balefully. There are also some fishy skeletons contorted into odd shapes, which will appear later.
The founder/chef Yasuhiro Mineno and his team have Nobu, Yumi and The Fat Duck as their collective pedigree, so everything from knife skills to inventive presentation is expected and the menu on a large sheet of tracing paper over a fish's anatomical drawing ramps up the anticipation. It's only at this late juncture that I realise that jousting over sharing plates with chopsticks might not be entirely appropriate for a first encounter, but Andrea is excellently game.
With a carafe of crisp Hirsch Grüner Veltliner (from Austria, £22), we begin – although it takes a couple of attempts to understand how much to order: the idea of my guest being turned off by heaps of food or going home hungry is not ideal.
A small dish of mackerel bone and fish skin (£5) comes first, a lip-smacking snack, the full spine crisp and complex in flavour, not just salt, and puffs of skin that almost float off their wooden podium. The dish is rounded out with sea vegetables and sweet-potato crisps.
Next, tuna with truffle-infused ponzu jelly (£11). Any reserve my new friend and I might have had is now abandoned as we eat the first slice, which has an infinitesimally thin sear. It is fondant-soft and its fishiness delightfully countered by the rich, deeply savoury jelly and a herb (lovage?) oil. Thank goodness there are an even number of slices. Could've been awkward… The next two dishes are, we think, less successful. Cod cheek with chilli amazu (£7.80) is pearly fresh but swamped by its sweet'n'sour sauce. And "instant-smoked dry-aged sea bass with baby spinach" (£8.30) is a lesson in anticipointment: a glass dome brought to our table (rather modest for sharing plates) is filled with smoke, and lifted to reveal *puff*, a harmonious-looking fan of young leaves with bass arranged on it and more salad leaves above. The dry-ageing is not the problem – it gives a chew to the flesh – but the instant smoking makes it acrid, and the leaves taste like something pulled out of the garden bonfire. Nope.
By now, the room, more or less empty when we arrived, is bustling. Some folk have taken up the terrace tables out front, but smoke from a car's exhaust on my food is even less appealing than that stuff under the dome.
Then, the show-stopper: yellow-tail kama and daikon stewed with truffle-infused soy (£11.80). It's a rather lumpen arrangement that arrives at the table in one of those daft deep bowls with huge rims. But beneath the big chunks of yielding radish are soft clods (ugly word, sorry, but accurate) of tuna collar, a prized bit of the fish. It may be more of a winter dish but, oh my, it's delightful – sweet and juicy.
There are many other dishes, many more adventurous (seared live eel) and some more oblique (foie gras and sea bass with miso). But I think our first "date" went well: we agree to come back, as there's also dry-aged octopus, rice in bone soup, and an entire grilled dry-aged sea bream to try. This last is billed as Head to Tai-l – a groanworthy pun, but maybe that was what inspired the whole plaice – sorry, place. OK, now I'm fin-ished.
Yashin Ocean House, 117-119 Old Brompton Road, London SW7, tel: 020 7373 3990, £90 for two, with wine
Four more foodie notes from the week
A swift beer before tattoo parlour (not me!): this bar/restaurant was ace, so returned for tip-top Caesar salad and fried chicken.
Imperial War Museum
Don't need another reason to visit the revamped treasure trove, but Oliver Peyton's taken over the café, so now firmly at top of list.
This tiny NW London Japanese never fails to be stunning. Early family supper with sashimi, udon and tempura a big hit.
Interestingly different opinions from restaurateurs on whether to name and shame those who don't turn up. Where do you stand?Reuse content