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Chef Yoshinori Ishii of UMU of Mayfair

One searches for a striking restaurant, and once found, one feels quietly impressed. Perhaps it’s a collection of elements that combine to offer comfort without showy embellishment, and gastronomic excellence with disarming simplicity. Chef Yoshinori Ishii presides over just such a rare establishment, and that is UMU of Mayfair (see review here).

All chefs, one would hope, have a passion for food and most channel all their energies into culinary excellence. But Yoshinori Ishii is a true Renaissance Man, a talented polymath. His influence in UMU is evident in every corner. His skills take him from the heat of the kitchen (more realistically a set of very sharp knives) to the potter’s wheel, to the calligrapher’s brush and to vases of flowers.

asian restaurant review Yoshinori’s family have had no connection with food but he was evidently nurtured with a taste for the finer things of life. ‘My father was an accountant, my brother a therapist, my mother was an office worker, and my wife is vice-president of a pharmaceutical company.

‘As a child, I used to go fishing with my family, friends, or by myself, whenever I had the chance, to a river or a pond near my house. If I went with my father he took me to the sea, and when I became a high-school student I bought myself a motorcycle and used that to go fishing further away. I started cooking the fish that I caught, and that meant that I had to cook sauces or side dishes to go with them. I learned little by little from magazines, cookbooks and TV. That’s just one of the reasons that I wanted to be a chef.

‘I loved to make things by hand: calligraphy, photography, pottery. Whatever I had around me I used: if I had clay, I made pots; if I had a pen, I would write something; if I had a brush, I practised calligraphy. I loved to see the smile on the face of my mother or my friends if I gave them something that I had made. Maybe that’s the main reason for my decision: if I became a calligrapher I could only do calligraphy; if I became a potter, I could only make pots; but if I became a chef, I thought that I would be able to do all those things together, as indeed I am doing now: the flower arrangements here, the calligraphy. I designed the menu, and I made the hanko seal stamp myself.’ He is in the process of making hundreds of dishes that will, perhaps, grace the tables at UMU for years to come.

‘I wanted to travel, and I was thinking that if I became a very good chef I could leave Japan. Even without other languages I thought that I could find work if I had the skills. I was talking about this with my best friend at high school. I was playing drums with a band, and my friend was a punk rocker. We were sharing a 50-Yen bread roll, because that was all we could afford for lunch – everything else was spent on music. My friend told me that if I wanted to become a chef I should go to Kitcho to work. I didn’t know what this was. Now I know it is one of the best restaurants in Japan, with 3 Michelin stars.

‘I had no connections with the restaurant, but a culinary school in Osaka had associations with it. I was still a bit too young to join such a restaurant, anyway. I wanted to see more before I started work at a restaurant, because I knew that once I joined I would be working from 6 in the morning until late! So I spent a year at culinary school where I learned French and Chinese cuisines, before I joined that traditional Japanese restaurant, Kitcho.’

Yoshinori appreciated the quality of every aspect of Kitcho’s fine-dining experience. ‘For example I learned about pottery. At the restaurant they were using plates of museum quality – just one plate might be worth £500, and the most expensive bowl would buy a castle in this country. It was an unbelievably high-end restaurant! Visiting a museum one can just look at such dishes, but using that plate I could feel the potter who made it 300 years ago. It was very interesting for me.

‘Little by little I learned everything I needed, and in the fifth year I became a sous-chef and was busier, so I couldn’t just say that I wanted to go overseas. The owner of the restaurant was teaching me so much, so I was very happy, but it became harder to leave. By the ninth year at the restaurant, when I was 28, I was thinking that if I stayed any longer I would spend the rest of my life there, and that wasn’t part of my dream.

asian restaurant review ‘I had a connection with the Japanese Foreign Office, and I asked about a chef position with an embassy. I wanted to see Europe, and one day I got an offer from the Japanese ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. I decided to go; everything went smoothly and I spent three years there. I was in charge of his parties at the residence or at the embassy: ten guests at the residence or two or three hundred at the embassy.

‘This was a big change for me. I could not get any fresh fish in Geneva at first. Then I found a fisherman in Lac Léman (I’m still in contact with him), and he gave me his best Arctic Charr – it’s a rare fish, but when he got some I would use it for sashimi and sushi. Even the vegetables I tried to grow at the residence, and served them to guests. Everything was very positive, but at the same time I had to be very flexible.

‘I spent three years with the ambassador there, and then he was asked to move to New York. He invited me to go with him, and I thought “Why not?” I spent three years there, but when the ambassador returned to Japan I had to follow because of my visa terms; but it was my dream to open a business in New York. It’s a very different story from London – I could order any fish from Japan three times a week, good ingredients were always available, and I would already have a good customer base.

‘At this time I had a girlfriend in New York (who is my wife now) and there were friends in Japan who said that they wanted to help me as investors. I returned to New York and met Mr Morimoto, the most famous Japanese chef in America; he enabled me to get an artist’s visa by employing me as a ‘culinary artist’. I spent four years with him in New York. I met a lot of investors, but it would have needed big money to set up a small restaurant. At the same time I had an invitation from UMU, so I came to London.

I asked if it was very difficult for a traditional Japanese chef in London to find the quality of ingredients needed. ‘I think so, but it depends on what level of Japanese food the chef pursues. The quality of fish that I am buying is the best in this country, even in Europe, because most of the fish comes directly overnight from Cornwall. They catch 100 or 200 fish every day, but select maybe ten to send to me. They are packed correctly, as I have taught them, and I only accept fish that are undamaged, and that means line-caught, not farm-raised as far as possible, and sustainable.

‘I have a lot of fishmonger friends in this city, and I know that 95% or more of Japanese restaurants are using farm-raised fish. It is easy: same quality all the time, no need to think about the weather, no need to worry about the cost.’

Yoshinori is not only a chef but an educator. He is concerned about fish stocks, sustainability and freshness, and he teaches fishermen techniques that address all those issues. ‘Most of the fishermen in this country just put the fish into a bucket or container, pile more fish on top, and then back in port they put them on ice. The bigger boats sometimes stay at sea for 5 or 6 days, and at the market the fish are sold as ‘just caught’, but they might be 5 days old already. I was surprised when I saw that. The first time I went to sea it was April, but a warm day, and yet the fish were not put in ice. They explained that if they took ice to sea it would make the boat heavier, and they would not have anywhere to store the ice on board, either.

asian restaurant review ‘So I decided that I should buy from fishermen who went out only for a day, on a small boat. I found a fishmonger in Cornwall, whose father is the main fisherman for the shop, and they have a big ice store. They provide fishermen with the ice free of charge, and will then buy the fish at above market price. Having found this fishmonger, I needed to teach their fishermen how to kill the fish. The best way is to sever the spine immediately with a knife, just as it comes on board. Then I ask them to put a wire through the spine, from head to tail, to remove the spinal cord. This way the fish lasts longer at the highest quality, because the flesh is disconnected from the brain. This technique is well-known in the Japanese food industry and among restaurateurs and fishmongers. In Japan the fish-markets are equipped with an air-gun to remove the spine instantly.

‘Since I started here, I have asked more than ten fishermen to use this technique for me, but only a few will do that regularly. I have seen for myself how busy the crew are as the net is hauled in, and it is a lot of effort to kill the fish in the way that I want. I offer to buy these fish at a 50% premium, but even so, only a small proportion can be processed this way. The rest are put straight into ice, and this is so much better than nothing.

‘If we look at sea-bass as an example, a 2kg to 3kg fish is enough for us for one day, but if several fishermen go out and catch sea-bass I might receive two fish, which is too much; but when the spine is cut the fish changes colour, so the fishmonger cannot sell it elsewhere. In Colchester we have a fishmonger from whom we buy when the weather in Cornwall is bad. I asked if someone there could provide sea-bass or Dover sole, and some fishermen were interested in my work. I offered to come any time, to teach them the technique.’ Yoshinori is still waiting for that call.

‘Bringing live fish to the restaurant would be the best way. In Japan, I can call my supplier and order, say, one live Red Snapper from Kyushu Island tomorrow morning, and tomorrow it arrives! But I don’t want to keep a fish in a tank for long, as the taste begins to change. In Japan they have developed a process of using an acupuncture-type needle to render the fish unconscious; when the fish gets to the restaurant the needle is removed and the fish becomes active again. In this country I suspect that I am the only one talking about that, so no fishmonger is going to do it for me.’

UMU is celebrated for its fresh fish but Chef Yoshinori is just as dedicated to presenting the best quality meat and vegetables. ‘From June to October we can get wonderful local produce from a farmer who is running a 100% organic farm. His wife is Japanese so they can bring in some very rare vegetables that they are growing in Kent. They deliver at least once a week directly to the restaurant, and we use it for green salad, for garnish, and for vegetables. Today we got some yellow Caesar mushrooms from Italy, so some special ingredients come from outside the UK, but we always try to source our vegetables locally.

asian restaurant review ‘As to the meat, the lamb and beef, I get these from an organic farmer in Wales. I visited to check their organic system. They have devoted one big field to producing the compost that they spread over the rest of their land, and when I tasted the soil I found that it had a very natural taste, not chemical – and all their animals were smiling at me! They are very good people, as well, so I decided that I would buy all our meat from them.

‘Being a Japanese restaurant many customers expect Wagyu beef, which, sadly, is difficult to get from this country. The only sources that export to the UK are Australia and Chile, and it’s very expensive, but that’s what our customers ask for. For myself, there are two kinds of beef that I like: one is from the farmer in Wales; the other is dry-aged beef, which I love – it’s not too fatty and has a fantastic flavour. Wagyu beef I find too fatty for my liking. In Japan a small piece might cost £100 but for me it’s too tender, too soft. Some people will spend that much, but I love British beef!’

UMU is in skilled and dedicated hands. Chef Yoshinori Ishii is easy company, has a ready smile and understands the Kaiseki philosophy of making customers happy and content. He has a regard for seasonality and a passion for quality of ingredients. His talents are many and he has used them to complement marvellously this fine-dining restaurant.

14 - 16 Bruton Place
London W1J 6LX
Phone:+44 (0)20 7499 8881
Fax:+44 (0)20 7016 5120

Monday to Friday
Lunch 12.00 - 14.30
Dinner 18.00 - 23.00

Dinner 18.00 - 23.00

Visit UMU of Mayfair here

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