A decade ago there were few Japanese restaurants in the UK. It was partly due to the fact that we hadn’t had the close ties with Japan, as have the USA and Australia; but it seems that a corner of London has a history of Japanese cultural exchange and now it’s developed to include all things culinary as well.
From 1885 to 1887, as a result of the opening of trade between Britain and the Far East, there was an exhibition of Japanese culture at Humphreys’ Hall in Knightsbridge. The event showcased a traditional Japanese village. Japanese craftsmen demonstrated the art of their homeland. A break for a cuppa at the Japanese tea-house was evidently popular.
The Knightsbridge branch of Chisou opened in November 2010. It might not replicate that tea-house but it does have a lot more authentic charm than many other Japanese restaurants in London. Most of the current restaurants have a focus on contemporary design and sushi. Very nice, but there is more to Japanese cuisine than rolled rice, and there is more to décor than bright vinyl and chrome.
Chisou Knightsbridge is cosy and unmistakably Japanese. I rather like dark wood, a few booths, stealable crockery (I didn’t) and an assumption that you know how to use chopsticks. Everything at Chisou is refined but not at all intimidating. There is also an upstairs sake bar to get you in the mood.
This branch has the same basic menu as one would find in the Mayfair and Chiswick branches but it offers a different selection of Chef’s specials. There are hot dishes as well as the expected sushi and sashimi. They are unsurprisingly fish-based but there are meat and vegetable dishes, too. This is a restaurant that will introduce you to a greater variety of traditional Japanese food than will other restaurants of the same ethnic persuasion.
There is a creditable drinks list here, including seventy sakes from all over Japan, some of them being exclusive to London. Sake is regularly described as rice wine but, unlike the wine that one would make from grapes, sake is produced via a brewing method similar to that of beer. The difference in alcohol content between wine, beer and sake is that table wine usually has 8 to 14% alcohol, beer has 3 to 6%, whilst sake has 12 to 18% alcohol. It’s strong but can taste deceptively mellow.
In Japan sake is served chilled, at room temperature, or warm, depending on the custom of the drinker, the quality of the sake, and the weather. Chisou offers sake to try at all temperatures. The best quality sake is never consumed hot because it’s considered that the flavour would be impaired; and there are some very good sakes at Chisou.
Sake is usually drunk from traditional small cups called o choko. These are stemless and usually ceramic, and many have become collectors’ items. They were preferred as there was less chance of them being upturned by the swinging sleeves of those wearing elaborate kimonos. OK, we were wearing blouses with no droopy bits but our sake was poured from a glass decanter (integral ice holder) into low, shallow glasses – elegant, practical and adding still further to the classic ambiance. If you don’t know much about sake then ask for assistance – it has a very particular flavour so it might be wise to select something fragrant and mild. The server will recommend a sake to complement your food.
It’s a large menu that will give the diner an opportunity to try something different, and it would be a shame to stick to the regular Japanese standards, though even those are very good here. Thin-sliced octopus with fresh pickled wasabi was the first of our starters. A generous portion of cephalopod mollusc that was spiked with real wasabi rather than the more usual reconstituted powder. This is dynamite and a dab ’ll do ya unless your sinuses need serious clearing. Be modest with your wasabi smearing and you will be able to appreciate not only heat but a fresh and unique flavour.
Sushi and sashimi are on every Japanese menu but they are presented in fine fashion at Chisou. Each plate has impact and the fish is sliced in substantial tranches to allow the diner to savour both flavour and texture. The marinated eel and mackerel are unmissable. They are mahogany-lacquered nuggets that act as an agreeable foil for the sweetness of many of the other fishes.
Grilled Butter Fish served in spicy yuzu pepper sauce and topped with shredded cayenne pepper is a meaty plateful. You will likely have been introduced to butter fish as sushi or sashimi where it truly shows the origin of its name. The texture is silky and, yes, almost buttery; the same fish becomes flaky like cod when it’s cooked. The pepper sauce adds much to the flavour of the whole dish.
Wagyu Steak Teriyaki is a must-try meat dish at Chisou. They use Chilean wagyu rib-eye steak, pan-fried in teriyaki butter sauce served with shiitake and shimeji mushrooms. The meat from wagyu cattle is known worldwide for its characteristic marbling, a natural flavour from that well-distributed fat. It’s tender and juicy and memorable.
Chisou in Knightsbridge is special. I haven’t eaten in the Mayfair and Chiswick branches but I would hope that they would be of the same high standard. This is Japanese food over which to linger. Appreciate the quality and freshness, and sip some sake.
31 Beauchamp Place
London SW3 1NU
Phone: 020 3155 0005
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018