DINING OWL AWARDS: 5th – for standout dishes; 2nd – serving staff; 5th – for feeling healthy
When I visited: October 2015
Location: London, near Oxford Circus
Team: Mitsuhiro Araki (Head Chef and founder)
Rating in the Michelin Guide: 2 stars
What to wear: Men – jeans or nice trousers and a shirt; women – jeans and a smart top or a smart dress
Ambience: Awed, excited, appreciative
Course of the meal: Tuna belly nigiri with white Alba truffle
If I could change one thing: Price
The Araki is garnering quite a lot of interest for several reasons:
- It went from not being in the Michelin Guide at all to having 2 stars, which is almost unheard of.
- The head chef, Sushi Master Mitsuhiro Araki, had 3 stars in Tokyo.
- Mr Araki only uses rice obtained through his father-in-law.
- There are only 9 seats in the whole restaurant.
- There is one menu.
- It costs £300 per person.
Happily, for me and my partner Owl, The Araki lived up to all its hype and its new coveted Michelin rating and the food was among the best we’ve ever had in a single meal. The setting is of course minimalist, reminiscent of Momofuku Ko, as it can only seat 9 guests, and the staff are all very helpful and polite, often bowing as is traditional in Japanese culture. There were in fact only 3 serving staff for the food, including Mr Araki himself, and a few other people who served drinks and greeted you at the door.
After being invited to choose our seats, we were given a hot hand towel each and the drinks menu, and selected a glass of Champagne (Mesnil Blanc) each, then a bottle of white Viognier (Condrieu) to accompany the meal, which was really delicious. The minimalist approach to the drinks meant that the wine list was actually one of the smallest we’d ever come across, a refreshing change from being handed a phone book-sized list as we often are.
The restaurant isn’t open every day and has two serving times when it is: 6pm and 8.30pm. We went for 6pm. We got a call a few days beforehand to ask if we had any dietary requirements and we were asked again by Mr Araki before they started serving the meal. The menu is called ‘Menu Omikase’ – which apparently translates as “I’ll leave it up to you” (i.e. we leave it up to Mr Araki!).
Each course was prepared in front of us by Mr Araki and his two assistant chefs, and his perfectionism showed as he would amend their presentation here and there. The three chefs would then bow simultaneously to 3 diners and serve the course to them, and once all 9 had been served, we would have a detailed description of the course from Mr Araki’s assistant, who was very friendly and happy to answer questions.
The plates used for some of the dishes were not all matching which only added to the slightly rustic charm, and often had beautiful patterns or engravings on them. The first course was broth consisting of bones from sea bass, with plenty of seasoning, which was bursting with flavour. This was followed by ribbons of sea bass with a dot of wasabi and albino sturgeon caviar, which was beautifully balanced. The next course was Scottish diver scallop torn apart (to release the flavour) with other shellfish such as abalone.
We had heard in advance that The Araki is generous with its truffles and we experienced that from the next course – tuna tartare with white Alba truffle. White truffles are not as common as black and before this the most we had seen within a meal came from Milan’s Il ristoranti Trussardi alla Scala. The gorgeous umami taste of the truffles cut through the fatty tuna very nicely. The last of the ‘starters’ was ginger salmon wrapped in seaweed with sardine coated in sesame seeds, in a fish-shaped dish. Sardines are one of those foods which you read about in Enid Blyton books but don’t see much these days – they have such a strong flavour and smell – but here they were prepared perfectly and didn’t overpower anything else on the plate.
Then came the sushi proper: we got a series of delicious nigiri to eat with our hands (we also got a napkin to wipe hands on in between each piece). Some pieces had lime or lemon on and some had other embellishments: we had tuna, tuna belly with white Alba truffle (AMAZING), sardine, Scottish salmon, squid with Beluga caviar, eel and medium-fat marinated tuna. Mr Araki and his assistant chefs showed us how to pick up each piece and turn it upside down (except the one with caviar on the top!) in the best way to get all the flavours onto the tongue. There was only one ‘dessert’ course – traditional egg cake with abalone and scallop – which was gorgeously light.
While Mr Araki and his assistant chefs were serving the meal, one of the other guests got talking to an assistant about her back and the assistant recommended a Japanese chiropractor that would “instantly fix” them if they mentioned Mr Araki’s name(!). One of the other guests asked Mr Araki about his ambitions and he said that he used to want to be a baseball player, then a basketball player, then Prime Minister, and then a sushi chef – he said he liked being good at what he did and said he preferred London to Tokyo, apart from the food!
It was really interesting to talk to the head chef, which is a rarity in posh restaurants (there are limited other examples, although we did meet Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance and Claire Smyth at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay), and Mr Araki clearly wanted each of his guests to feel engaged with as he personally said goodbye to everyone and put my coat on for me! He also checked that every guest had enjoyed their dinner.
The Araki is a great advert for having a smaller space, more chef-to-guest engagement, and a focus on quality, specialist food. Each dish had deep, complex and satisfying flavours, we felt full but not bloated afterwards, we got to watch a master of his craft in action and the whole experience was so special that it kind of put me off supermarket sushi and heavy food.