Created by a driven, food-loving first-time restaurateur along with head chef Kyoichi Kai (formerly of Zuma), Kouzu is the latest high quality Japanese restaurant to open in Victoria. Once a neighbourhood not much associated with fine dining, the area seems finally to be coming into its own, with lots of on-going investment and building projects creating ever more commercial space for businesses and restaurants alike.
The team behind Kouzu share a dream of creating a restaurant of which they can be proud, one that uses the best ingredients to create delicious Japanese food in a luxurious but relaxed setting. The menu is, in the main part, traditional but the occasional fusion tweak reveals Kai’s classic French cuisine background.
Just a few steps from Victoria Station, Kouzu is housed in a beautiful 1850s period mansion; the enormous door looking out onto busy Grosvenor Gardens gives way to a small double-height lobby dominated by a fabulous modern art chandelier. One of the staff tells me that the design is based on the pupal cases of butterfly larvae, butterflies being the (understated) motif of the restaurant. Downstairs houses the bar and a restaurant space (as well as a private dining room). Upstairs is an extensive mezzanine floor where the omakase sushi bar and additional restaurant seating are located.
We make two visits to Kouzu in December and January, the better to sample their extensive menu. On our first we sit downstairs, on the second, we visit the sushi bar.
New Stream Sashimi is one of the less traditional sections of the menu, bringing together Japanese and European influences in all six dishes.
As soon as Yellowtail with Truffle Dressing (£15) is served to the table, the heady scents of truffle fill the air. On the palate, the shiso, myoga, ginger and spring onion hit the tastebuds first, and for a moment I’m disappointed. However the truffle flavour asserts itself a few moments later, and leaves a deliciously earthy aftertaste.
Salmon with Yuzu Soy Dressing (£11) is a punchy dish of salmon dressed in yuzu, soy, ginger, garlic, sesame seeds and a ravigote sauce (the latter a classic French vinaigrette with shallots, capers and herbs). For me, the dressing has been applied a little too long before serving, resulting in the salmon being “cooked” by the acid and slightly too pappy in texture, but the flavours are super.
Beef Fillet Tataki (£17.50) is beautifully cooked over charcoal and sliced, and served with what is described as an oriental sauce and julienne salad. The sauce is sharp and the little salad heavy in shisho, which I love. That said, although tataki simply refers to seared and sliced meat, I can’t help but wish for a sesame-based sauce, which I (no doubt unfairly) associate with the dish.
For the price, I expect the Foie-Gras and Spinach with Teriyaki Wasabi (£12) to be far less generous. Instead, I’m delighted with the generous lobe of perfectly cooked liver served with wilted spinach, a light fruit coulis and a wasabi and teriyaki sauce. The combination of flavours is superb, with the bold umami of the teriyaki and mustardy heat of the wasabi complementing rather than overpowering the foie-gras.
Small Dishes and Salads offer a range of little sides that can accompany orders from any other section of the menu; likewise the short and sweet Vegetables section – the two could easily be amalgamated.
There’s not much that can be said about Edamame (£4.50), served with a sprinkle of sea salt as we read the menu and decide what to order. I’d love to see a little inventiveness here, with a couple of options such as a spice and salt blend or even a sticky chilli sauce.
I have to order Agedashi Tofu (£6.50), one of my staple orders when I go out for Japanese food. Kouzu’s version is another fusion dish, the blocks of fried tofu sitting not in the normal soy and dashi broth but in a glutinous vegetable and fish stock sauce. Whilst I like the sauce well enough, what I’m less keen on is how it smothers the tofu blocks, resulting in a lack of the crisp surface I usually enjoy against the pillowy interior.
The Portobello Mushroom with Garlic Butter (£6.50) is firmly in the European camp, indeed I’m unable to detect any Japanese influences at all. Whilst the meaty mushroom, herby garlic butter and thick, glossy Madeira sauce are tasty, I find this dish a little at odds with the rest of the menu.
Items From The Charcoal Grill cover the widest price range, from £12 to a whopping £85 (though that is for 200 grams of high grade wagyu rib).
I absolutely adore the Lamb Chops with Spicy Miso Paste (£12), which are served medium rare, with a selection of grilled vegetables. Lamb meat and fat are both delicious, the miso really works well here. The vegetables are all individually cooked to just the right level of crunch, full of fresh garden flavour and a simply foil to the main.
Yakitori chicken (£12) is offered shio or tare – the first is served with smoked sea-salt, the second basted in a special soy sauce. I’m expecting it to come in sticks, as that’s how I’ve usually enjoyed it but here the tender pieces of chicken thigh are simply piled on the plate alongside grilled spring onions, peppers and chinese cabbage.
Tempura has a menu section of its own.
We ask for a mix of the various different vegetables, each available to order separately. Batter is super light and crisp, just as it should be, and each vegetable is perfectly cooked inside.
The Specials section might be mistaken for main dishes, based on the prices, but as they’re not significantly larger than many of the previous dishes, I’d be wary of ordering a traditional two or three course meal and expecting to be satiated.
Roasted Black Cod (£28) is almost a given on high end Japanese restaurant menus these days. Marinated in miso, it’s perfectly cooked – the signature soft and silky texture that is a trademark of this species of fish is shown off nicely. The white miso sauce is a thing of beauty, and I like the orange and fennel salad, to cut through the richness and lighten the dish.
Duck Breast with Sansho (£25) is described as being served with a Japanese pepper sauce. However, this is another of the dishes that strikes us as more French than Japanese, with that classic, glossy sauce. The duck is superbly tender and beautifully cooked, as are the vegetables served alongside.
Lastly there is the extensive From The Sushi Bar selection including sashimi, nigiri sushi, sushi rolls and a few more nibbles.
For these we dine at the sushi bar, served by our personal sushi chef, Voy. He is happy to talk to us about the ingredients and I enjoy watching him as he works.
We run through the fish and seafood we would like to enjoy before Voy starts creating our nigiri sushi, moving from lighter white fish to stronger and fattier ones.
After forming the rice (in a small sized block, just as I requested), all the fish are painted in nikiri, a thin sweet of soy, dashi and mirin, before being grilled with a blowtorch, topped with a garnish and served to individual dishes on the counter.
First is yellowtail (£6 each) with pickled jalapeños and a tiny dribble of truffle oil.
Next is scallop (£5 each), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with a cherry tomato and ume plum compte and thinly sliced fresh shisho leaf. The shape of those blow torched browned cracks is the cause of much hilarity on my instagram feed!
Third is salmon (£4.50 each), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with avocado and some minute slivers of katsuobushi.
For nigiri sushi four, we have a split. I have ikura gunkan nigiri (£4, so named as the shape of the nori wrapper suggests a warship) filled with juicy salmon roe.
Pete has instead chutoro (£7 each, medium fatty tuna), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with a puree of sundried tomatoes, chopped chives and a couple of bright yellow kiku (edible chrysanthemum) petals.
Next, Otoro (8.50 each, the fattiest tuna), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with daikon, Japanese mustard cress and a tiny dusting of ichimi togarashi (chilli powder). The balance of rice, fish and garnish is excellent in all the pieces we have, but particularly so in this one, for me.
We finish our initial selection of with a spicy tuna roll (£8 for six pieces) includes tuna, tobiko (fish roe), crab “miso” (the brown goo from inside a crab), avocado, spicy mayo, cucumber and probably a few more I’ve missed! Again, this has a great balance of flavours and textures.
Voy asks us if there are any we’d like to have again, or any new ones we’d like to try.
We pick the salmon and the chutoro to have again, plus I ask if tamago is available.
Voy rings the changes by changing the garnishes second time around, thus the salmon, once painted with nikiri, blowtorched and topped with daikon is finished with ikura and shiso leaves.
Chutoro is served with the same garnishes as previously, at my request.
We finish with fat slices of nori-wrapped tamago (£3.50 each), astonishingly light and fluffy. It lacks the tree-bark layers of the traditional cooking method but however it’s made, it’s fabulous.
At the end, desserts.
On our first visit we are too full, but accept a plate of mini macarons served with our tea. Flavours are super but texture of shell enormously inconsistent.
The next time we finish with a scoop each of sorbet, mine a puckeringly sharp yuzu and Pete’s an unexpectedly creamy chilli cacao. Both are super smooth and served with a stick of light crumbly biscuit.
Both of us agree that although Kouzu is not a budget dining option, the majority of the dishes are really excellent value for their quality; this is a restaurant we are very keen to return to, albeit most likely for special occasions. My top tip would be to skip the specials, which will quickly ramp up your bill, and select a feast from the new sashimi, grill, small dishes and vegetables sections which are very reasonable. For sushi lovers, an omakase visit to the sushi bar is certainly recommended, our deluxe sushi selection above came to exactly £97 (without drinks, desserts and service).
Service, incidentally, is helpful and friendly without being obsequious or overfamiliar and location is excellent for public transport.