Back in the late 1990s, a friend took me to Matsuri St James. It was a fair bit pricier than the restaurants we more commonly visited, but he’d heard good things about the food and was keen to try. Most of the clientele were Japanese and virtually all of them were men, probably a factor of its location within walking distance of the Japanese Embassy, the authenticity of its cuisine and the suitability of the teppanyaki experience for corporate dining, when Suits with expense accounts entertain groups of Important People.
We enjoyed it immensely. The food was excellent and the teppanyaki spectacle both entertaining but understated. I dropped a business card into a box and was delighted to win a meal for two, which gave me the opportunity to enjoy another fine meal there a few weeks later.
Somehow, after that, I never made it back. It wasn’t wholly a factor of price – even then, in junior roles with junior salaries to match, Pete and I regularly splashed out for special occasions. And it wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it. I think it just fell off my radar. Out of sight, out of mind. Always more restaurants to discover.
And that’s the problem Matsuri continues to face; well known within the London Japanese community and particular the Japanese business and diplomatic sector, it hasn’t really caught the attention of a wider clientele.
After enjoying some drinks in the upstairs waiting area, we took our seats at the horseshoe teppanyaki tables for a welcome from the restaurant’s President, Yoshinori Hatta. He gave us a brief introduction to the restaurant, during which we learned that it was launched in 1993 as a joint venture between JR Central and Kikkoman soy sauce company; indeed Mr Hatta was originally an engineer with the railway company – now that’s a career change and a half! He introduced the rest of the team including restaurant manager Cristoforo Santini, sommelier Tommaso Riccardo Guzzardo and new head chef Ryosuke Kishi and told us they had recently launched a sushi bar within the restaurant.
Assorted Sushi – Head chef Kishi-san making sushi for our starter plate. The selection was a little staid, but the quality of the fish was excellent.
Prawn and Vegetable Tempura – Prawn, sweet potato triangle, shishito pepper, baby sweet corn in a delightfully crisp and light batter.
Alaskan Black Cod Marinated in Ginger – Our teppanyaki chef Marvin made us smile when he referred to the beautiful cloche as a Japanese microwave! The silky cod was richly flavoured by the soy and ginger marinade. This dish was a favourite for many of our group.
Txogitxu Galician Beef T-Bone Steak – From a Japanese breed of cattle (prized for wagyu) raised in Spain, this steak had a high fat content that made it rich and melting. Though not a match for true wagyu, it was very good indeed. I particularly liked that our chef cut and served the wobbly fat as well.
For those who didn’t eat fish, an alternate course of Foie Gras, Smoked Duck and Mushroom was provided and they kindly let the rest of us have a taste. I didn’t detect any smokiness but the richness of the foie gras, moist duck and umami mushrooms was an excellent combination. Also pictured, is the gorgeous Virgule knife that I desperately covet and the fresh white and green asparagus, served with both the duck dish and the steak.
Garlic Butter Egg Fried Rice – Though it was impressive watching this be fried, it lacked the depth of flavour I expected.
Fire-Ball Ice-Cream – Dessert was the exact same one served when I first visited, almost two decades ago. There’s something rather charming about sticking to such a signature dish, and of course, it’s fun to see ice cream being cooked and flambéed on the teppanyaki grill. Decent, but would have been far more delicious had the restaurant sourced properly ripened and sweet pineapple.
One of the key aspects of the teppanyaki dining experience is your teppanyaki chef, who explains the dishes as he’s cooking and adds to the experience by answering questions and injecting occasional humour. Marvin, who manned our grill, made us smile many times so I was irritated when a member of the management team gruffly admonished him to smile more, as though he were a performing monkey. It was, for me, the only sour note of the evening.
Dishes were matched with sake and wine. With the exception of dessert wine, I’m not a wine drinker, so asked for a sparkling sake. This sweet bubbling option is enormously refreshing, with a floral peachy flavour that I particularly love. My dining companions made appreciative noises about the white and red wines served. I really loved the sweet umeshu (plum wine) served with dessert, Umenoyado Aragoshi.
Of course, all this comes at quite a cost. Our menu was specially put together to showcase the restaurant’s signature dishes but I asked Cristoforo to cost it up for me and he came back with a price per head for a group of 6 of £63, comparable to their cheapest set menu, The Matsuri, at £65 per head. However, be aware that The Matsuri Set provides only one main course against our two of black cod and steak, and there is a supplement to upgrade to garlic fried rice in place of steamed. More generous is the Aoi Set, which features both a seafood (lobster) and steak main dish, at £100 per person or the Okagura Set at £145. You can also order à la carte, and comfortably enjoy a nice selection for around the same price as the Matsuri Set. Plus drinks, of course.
Once upon a time, the quality and authenticity of the Matsuri St James offering was more than enough to justify the prices. Today, the popularity of Japanese cuisine has soared and there are more and more and more authentic Japanese restaurants for Londoners to choose from. What’s more, the Japanese concept of restaurants that specialise in a particular type of cooking or ingredient has reached us too and we can visit restaurants offering yakitori, ramen, udon noodles, okonomyaki and even kaiseki ryori. Older Japanese restaurants have stepped up their game by offering more adventurous Japanese menus. Newer ones are often enthusiastically geeky about their chosen area of focus. While Matsuri continues to do what it does and do it very well, it’s competing in a much wider field and many of those in the race are more affordable. That said, it still excels at fine dining for groups of 6-8 and sharing a teppanyaki table with a group of friends remains a great way to celebrate a special occasion.
Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Matsuri St James. First two images reproduced with kind permission.