I believe a neighbourhood restaurant should be judged by how it stands up to repeated visits, because that is how it's likely to be used. Anyone other than an oligarch or a superstar is unlikely to become a regular at fancy-pants city-centre restaurants, so a one-time once-over is fine.
It's with that in mind that I go twice to Sushi-Say, a Japanese place in my neighbourhood. I've been told about it by friends, who gush about the freshness of the fish, the mouth-meltingness of the tofu and the no-nonsense service.
I first find a local couple who haven't yet been to, or even heard of, Sushi-Say. Booking a table takes some brinkmanship – I want 8.30pm on a Friday night, but the silence at the other end of the phone is so long, and so pointed, that I fear I won't get anything at all. Then, muttering. Finally, I'm allowed in at 7.45pm, "before it gets busy".
The unprepossessing venue is nestled in a parade made up of pound shops and closed-down sportswear emporia. Inside, a long, narrow room accommodates a traditional bar at the front, behind which a tall, bald sushi chef straight out of central casting wields a knife over gleaming piscatorial pieces. Further back, plain wooden tables sit against a concrete-y wall upon which hang beautiful Japanese paintings that pop with colour.
From a short list of hot, warm and cold sakes we have Junmai Daiginjo "Jun" at £11.50. Terrifyingly smooth, it is hard to stop myself from letting the liquid slip down too quickly. It offsets the punchy starters of kimuchi (spicy pickled cabbage), £4.60; agedashi dofu (silky tofu dredged in potato flour and deep fried, but still enchantingly light, served with an intensely savoury soy broth), £5; and kabocha no netsuke (cubes of sweet pumpkin given an oriental makeover, very toothsome), £4.85.
We're already sighing with pleasure when our pretty little embossed plates are taken away, to be replaced by other pretty ones. It's an elegant touch that defines the entire experience. The place fills up with, yes, regulars, and soon the two ladies at the next table are extolling the virtues of the wasabi ice-cream.
Whoa. We start to regret what is a monumental case of over-ordering. Sashimi mori awase (£18) is an array of perky raw fish which, unfettered by rice, is soft and, um, moreish. Yasai tempura (£9.30) is mixed vegetables in feather-light batter, served with a light dipping sauce. Tendon, a sticky rice pot topped with prawn tempura with a slick of dressing, is a dish too far, delicious though it tastes.
We are defeated. A scoop of home-made wasabi ice-cream sits melting, untried. My guests, meanwhile, declare themselves ready to sign up to the local fan club.
Then I go back, with my two children. I'll admit it's a calculated risk. Amateur review websites have blazed with comments on how Sushi-Say either bans/ welcomes/barely tolerates kids.
The booking is another stand-off, with the emphatic silence of my hosts forcing me to say that yes, 7pm is fine, even though it requires me to leave work early.
It is a source of some pride that my kids will try anything and they clash chopsticks over the agedashi dofu, gyoza (deemed far superior to Wagamama's) and even saba no miso-ni – mackerel fillets in a thick miso sauce. The energetic young waitresses, in black with zingy headscarves, nod approval.
The kids decide to play it safe with California maki, an inside-out roll of rice with avocado, cucumber, crab and flying-fish roe. OK, so I leave that last bit out while reading the ingredients. The 10- year-old has a wobble when her fingers get coated with vibrant little red eggs, but is clearly enjoying the fresh, sticky ensemble.
I've noticed that the delicate tableware isn't being replaced as each new dish is brought to the table... Is this the fabled prejudice against children in action? If so, I can't say I'm bothered, and they're busy with prawn tempura the size of marker pens (but infinitely more succulent) at £11.70.
The chef sends out a bowl each of coffee and cocoa ice-creams to say thank you, after reports of my daughter's lip-smacking approval reach the kitchen. Now that's what I call service. If they're not careful I'll be in twice a week, with kids, friends and, yes, neighbours.
Second helpings: Sensational sushi
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Sushi-Say, 33b Walm Lane, Willesden, London NW2, tel: 020 8459 2971
Lunch and dinner Tuesday to Sunday. About £65 for two, with sake
Sushi-Hiro 1 Station Parade, London W5,
tel: 020 8896 3175 Still London's best place for sushi; this tiny fixture, stuck out near Ealing Common Tube, may look grim, but compensation comes from dishes that are almost too good to be true
Little Tokyo 24 Central Road, Leeds, West Yorkshire, tel: 0113 243 9090 Reliable and well-priced, this genuine-feeling little Japanese offers a good choice of soups, noodles, sushi and bento boxes; look out for the interesting Saturday night entertainment!
The Straw Hat Oriental Harrow Road, Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, tel: 01279 722 434 A lively and friendly venue tipped for its good oriental menu (and excellent sushi)
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'
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