Kouzu

Kouzu say they seek to offer the experience of Japanese dining as an art form; in fact, the word kouzu 構図 is the Japanese word for composition. Care is taken with the composition of the dining experience here, from the moment you enter the front door—possibly even before. In choosing its location, Kouzu has done very well. Situated amongst the impressive white stucco facades of Belgravia in an old National Bank building, and just across the street from the famous Goring Hotel, its imposing Doric columns make a statement of grandeur. Given that this is a Grade II listed building, it isn’t surprising. But what you find on the inside is. Far from the huge, cold, empty rooms one might expect from a former bank, the restaurant has been beautifully designed and decorated to give a feeling of understated sophistication. The most ostentatious thing in the whole space is a gorgeous two-story hanging paper lamp structure reaching from the moulded ceilings of the mezzanine to add a soft glow to the foyer.

When my friend Jasiminne and I arrived for lunch on a quiet Friday afternoon, the impeccably polite host and hostess greeted us, took the name for our reservation, hung up my coat (Jasiminne is a rebel without a cause, rolling around in this weather sans woolly coat), and showed us to our table near the front. Our waiter, who proved to be wonderfully attentive and knowledgeable throughout the entire service, gave us our menus and left us to decide our starters after asking us if we wanted still or sparkling water. They brought us a bowl of salted edamame, a simple but delicious appetizer that seems almost integral to any sushi restaurant experience. There’s not much you can do to go wrong with edamame, save serving it cold, and thankfully this edamame was nice and warm.

As we polished off pod after pod, we decided to order a variety of sashimi starters, forgoing the hot appetizers and salads. Far from being ordinary plates of sashimi, these have been combined with a variety of sauces and toppings that compliment the differing flavours of the fish rather than overwhelm them.

We had limed-cured sea bass with a super-fresh salsa and green pepper sauce. The plump little tomatoes and micro herbs offered bursts of flavour on top of the base of the bass, and even thought I might normally push aside the garnishing greens on a dish, these combined so well with the other flavours that I ate every last sprig.

Our favourite dish was the nearly flawless tuna tartare, tossed with a chilli sauce and sesame seeds. I only say “nearly flawless” because in this case, I found the peppers and other salad on top of the tuna to be needless. The fresh fish combined so perfectly with the mild nutty flavour of the sesame seeds and the slight sweetness of the chilli sauce—it would be such a shame to mess up that balance with more peppers. To be completely honest, though, I really dislike fresh bell peppers, so if you like them, it probably wouldn’t bother you so much. Either way, this dish is one that you have to order when you visit Kouzu, as is the salmon with yuzu soy dressing, pictured below right. In addition to being the prettiest dish we received, it was also my favourite, tied in first place with the tuna tartare (at least until our main arrived, but more on that later). The yuzu, present in both the dressing and in pickled form on top of the sashimi, offered a zingy tang to the dish that, when paired with the pink peppercorns, conspired to form piquant flavoursome fireworks with each bite. I gladly would have eaten two or three of these to myself along with a cocktail and called it lunch.

Last on our line-up of starters was the yellowtail with a truffled ponzu dressing. The dish was a mildly flavoured mélange of shiso, spring onion, myoga ginger, and the dressing, piled atop slivers of yellowtail. The spring onions added a subtle spiciness to the dish, and the truffle came through in a slight umami-ish aftertaste. Not really the overwhelming truffley extravaganze I was expecting, but pleasant nonetheless. When I say that this was our least favourite starter, I only say that because it didn’t stand out as much as the tuna and salmon. It was still delicious and very much worth ordering if you like yellowtail (for me one of the less flavoursome sashimi fish) but the flavours were not so bold as in the other starters.

We decided then to order a selection of nigiri and a main to share. The only one we really had our eye on (well, besides the Wagyu beef, which we fantasized about ordering for 0.0001 second) was the miso-and-fennel-marinated roasted black cod. From a modest-sized selection of nigiri, we chose the o-toro (fatty belly tuna), eel, scallop, and ikura (salmon roe in a seaweed wrapper). In the interest of surveying all the sushi on offer, we also ordered a salmon and avocado roll.

The nigiri were wonderful—as fresh as you could hope for, and presented elegantly on an asymmetrical black ceramic plate, an element of wabi-sabi amongst the curated perfection of everything else. The roll was as good an example of a salmon and avocado roll as you can find. I think it was a mistake on our part to order it, and the only thing we didn’t coo over as we ate. When put up against the big flavours of every other dish we ordered, how could it stand a chance? If you are going to order a sushi roll at Kouzu I’d probably recommend going for the spicy rolls that would pack more taste. Or, even better, just order another black cod.

What can I say about the black cod besides the fact that it was perfection on a dish? Jasiminne summed it up more simply in her review when she said that she never eats cooked fish; yet actions spoke louder than words as we fought passive-aggressively with our chopsticks to divvy up larger portions of the dish for ourselves. The buttery soft cod slid apart at the first sight of a utensil, held together only by the umami-rich crisped skin. Our ongoing conversation came to a standstill as we snapped up every last bit from the plate, ignoring the celery salad and clementine garnishes in favour of the utterly exquisite main. The only thing wrong with our cod is that we only ordered one to share when clearly we would have been much better off not having to deal with the politics of sharing a dish that amazing.

Instead of desserts, we finally ordered some cocktails. Being sensible about the early hour of the day, Jasiminne ordered a yuzu bellini; not at all mindful of the knees-up birthday party I was attending later, I ordered my usual Negroni, fortified at Kouzu with Bowmore 12-year-old Scotch and aragoshi umeshu. It was a bold choice for lunch, perhaps a bit too bold, as I am not at the best of times a fan of smokey Scotch. But after some wandering around to take photos upstairs on the mezzanine, where those looking for a more authentic experience can find the sushi bar, I came back to a slightly diluted drink that allowed the nuanced flavours of the umeshu and Antica Formula to come through.

We left Kouzu with our cheeks warmed against the cold wind and pleasantly, not excessively, full from our long lunch. I can highly recommend Kouzu for anyone who enjoys sushi and Japanese food with a modern twist. For the traditionalist, the sushi bar upstairs will satisfy all their nigiri and sashimi dreams; for the fusion-lover, dishes such as the cod and the “new stream” sashimi like we ordered will keep your palate thrilled with the array of flavours. It isn’t cheap—our meal would have amounted to £115 had we not been guests of Kouzu—but the quality of the food, attentive and knowledgeable service, and overall experience make it worth it.

We dined happily as guests of Kouzu, but all opinions remain my own.

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