Friday, 3 July 2009

Café Japan

Ideally raw fish should be served at 18°C and the vinegar rice at 21°C (that’s room temp peeps). So that makes 19.5°C an absolute reference for sushi to be served and savoured.

Café Japan is a hallowed destination place in North London. Like Sushi-Say and Sushi Hiro ('ere and 'ere), CJ has its own established and fiercely dedicated group of patrons. For any London foodies who claim to be in the know about all things Japanese, are in fact misleading themselves if they haven’t been to any of the above three restaurants. The restaurant in ‘posher by the minute’ Golders Green is located between one of the oldest funeral directors in the world and Lie Hi Sushi (strategically astute emplacement as CJ is always packed!). CJ in restaurant years is old, about fifteen I hazard to guess and it’s still run by the same people. Together with the equally old Daruma San in Finchley Central, this part of Tory North London is well served by the two stalwarts that provide genuine and traditional Japanese cuisine. CJ are only open from Wednesdays to Sundays, these folks are serious about their trade and they’re only ready for you when the fish come home. When I tried to make a dinner reservation on a Sunday the phone was either engaged or not answered; beware of this insidious tactic, it’s enough to drive anyone bonkers. We turned up anyway without a booking, and as bloody usual the place was already jammed at 6pm. We were lucky enough to have secured a table for three by the front (lucky for photography as well but not so to have passers-by ogling at your dinner from the outside!). From that vantage point it was also quite unnerving to witness prospective diners being turned away despite their protestations of attempted but failed phone calls. My reiteration of this fiasco to the front of house/proprietor only resulted in a Cheshire Cat grin. That grin lingers incessantly with or without her, I suppose it’s a way of dismissing any trauma caused.

The last time I came here was four years ago and I was blown away. The experience then was so overwhelming that I fell into the usual trap of denying to myself that there were other sushi places of equal standing or better than CJ. My expectations were high, perhaps too much so…
The familiar Irasshaimase is yelled when you walk in. I can well imagine that a lot of Japanese suits would be peeved off with the lack of basement dining. Service was assured and welcoming enough.

Brown sea veg marinated in soy sauce, can't go wrong with this appetizer.

Chicken Karaage
Decent enough nuggets, not to be shared preferably.

Ebi Tempura
Faultless prawns let down by batter that lacked crunch, too lumpy and a little chewy. The batter had been over-mixed methinks.

Assorted platter of Makizushi

Soft Shelled Crab Roll
I'm getting tired of this dish by now, but it tasted pretty good.

Foreground of Age-Hama Roll and California Roll at the back.
The Age-Hamachi (crispy Yellow Tail inside-out roll) was created back in 1996 by chef/owner Konnai at CJ. It was perhaps the only highlight of the evening, the spicy sauce oozing out of the roll like a soft centred truffle was a perfect match for the delicious tuna.
As for the California Roll, I have my reputation to uphold, I don’t touch crabsticks; for me they represent one of the lamest excuses for substituting the real thing. The other two thought the roll was above average. For the ultimate California Roll I think Dinings provide the answer for that.

The Deluxe Sushi Platter
This was what we came for. Every morsel was beautifully constructed and the fish were suitably supreme. It was the rice that put a dampener on the evening. The essential quality of stickiness had gone awol and the clumps broke away all too easily. One of the companions wondered if filtered water was omitted from cooking the rice. You see folks, our hard water doesn’t bode well with cooking any types of rice; the rice has to be rinsed and steamed with soft water in order to achieve a perfect result, otherwise it’ll always end up either mushy or not cooked enough. And there’s the temperature of the sushi rice, warmer than lukewarm it’ll start to taste impaired. We’re a fussy lot us three, but we do acknowledge good sushi when sampled.

My favourite kind of sushi. Show me your yellow tongue please. Uni or Sea Urchin.

Conciliatory scoop of Green Tea Ice Cream to please one of the companions.

The whole episode was thus disappointing. Both my dining companions were unimpressed and stressed that it wasn’t worth the trek. I begged to differ and declared that I will come back when the weather gets cooler (or CJ could switch the aircon on). There’s nothing wrong with the freshness of the fish or the technique of how the fish was cut and implemented, it was just a matter of the plus a few degrees that deflated all expectations. My own summary is that sushi should be eaten when the temperature of the room is cooler than the 26°C or so that was checked during this meal. Eating one’s hat is second nature to me by now, but I’m confident that when I do come back here the hat will sit firmly on my head. Recommended by myself but not by my dining companions.

NB I came back here after being inspired by one of my Flickr contacts. Hi Purple Cloud!

626 Finchley Road
London NW11 7RR


meemalee said...

Oh noes - now whenever I look at uni I'll think of jaundice - thanks :(

I've never been to Café Japan, Sushi-Say and Sushi Hiro - bad meemalee.

Btw, did you go for a free hug??

bellaphon said...

Mee- I love hugs, so of course I did.
Give Dinings a go, it's more central.

Helen said...

Wow, how mych does that urchin look like a yellow tongue?! WOuldn't out me off thought. Another place to try then. I loved sushi hiro as you know. I'd never had properly cooked sushi rice before. Shame this place hasn't got it quite right but I'll give them a go nonetheless.

bellaphon said...

Helen- Yup, Hiro next! Thanks.

Yummy Co said...

Although the fish is very fresh, I feel obliged to point out that the vast majority of their sushi is machine made and most of their "chefs" are Japanese students. (My father was replaced by said machine and students).

Although traditional(ish) and suitable for Japanese tastebuds foodies should be able to tell - it can't beat sushi made by traditionally trained chefs.

bellaphon said...

Yummy Co- Oh my word, thank you for putting things straight. I'm still quite shocked1 Hope to hear from you again or even better if you can recommend which joints that are fit for sushi connoisseurs to go to in London.

Anonymous said...

This place is not worth the trip for me. The first time I went there for lunch and it was very good so I decided to go again, this time for dinner.
It was like being in a different place altogether. The rice was all wrong (both temperature and texture wise) and the fish was not as fresh as it should have been. It wasn't off by any mean, but it didn't have the lustre, taste and texture of the super fresh fish I expect from my sushi. As soon as the plate landed in front of me I could see it: the sheen had gone and that tell tale mattness took hold.
I have since found the best sushi joint for people who know what sushi should taste like (eg. people who tried it in Japan), and a good value to boot. But I am not telling here, hehe, sushi lovers will surely find it themselves, if they haven't already (and it's not Sushi Hiro which I also find inconsistent).