db eats: Wabi29th January, 2013 by Marinel FitzSimons
Wabi, meaning austere beauty in Japanese, is the brand new London-based sister to Wabi in Horsham, founded by ex-Nobu chef Scott Hallsworth.
It’s been up and running for a couple of months now, which means that it’s still easy to get a table in there, but if the quality of food and service is maintained, that might change.
The venue is sleek with dark wood and a low lighting, and from the bar area, it feels like you’ve wandered into a super sophisticated and very spacious futuristic bunker. We arrived a touch early and kept ourselves entertained at the bar, accompanied by a couple of cocktails and some delicious popcorn flavoured pork scratching – this boded well for the 10-course tasting menu.
As for our drinks, my plus one opted for the ‘aki erikshiru’ (or the ‘autumn elixir’), while I had my heart set on a Martini-style concoction. As it happened, the bartender had been playing around with one using shochu shiso. Shochu, explained our extremely knowledgeable bartender, is a base spirit made in Japan that is often infused with a range of flavours. Shiso is a nettle variant that has a delicate vegetal/floral flavour, and slightly purple hue. The overall result was an unbelievably thirst quenching Martini that had a hint of opalescence. The aki erikshiru was equally impressive, not to mention ingenious, using a milk by-product to lend the drink some added texture.
We gave the menu a cursory glance, but knew ahead of time that we would be going for the 10-course tasting menu – a great way to see the full scope of the chef’s skills, and also makes life easier than picking out a range of different dishes.
One problem that arises from this kind of menu, however, is what wine to have. Thankfully, the resident sommelier has done all the hard work, picking a range of wines that not only work with the food, but also cater for a wide range of personal tastes – and budgets. We settled on a glass of Riesling Schoenenbourg, Dopff Au Moulin, Grand Cru 2008, and a young and sprightly Greco di Tufo – very different, but both worked well with the food. These were followed by a chilled sake. While the wines were excellent (especially the Riesling), the most interesting pairing was the sake, which demonstrated extraordinary diversity of flavour with each of the different courses.
I could talk at length about the food, waxing progressively more lyrical with each course, but it might all get a bit repetitive, with praise heaped upon ever growing praise, culminating with a fevered state of food fanaticism by the end. Instead I’ll pick out some of the highlights.
While every course had an incredibly distinct set of flavours, where Hallsworth really showed his genius was in the selection of different textures that each dish offered. The second course was a crunchy Temaki cone with toro, wasabi cream and charcoal onions, which both exploded and melted in your mouth when you bit into it. The dehydrated seaweed wrapping offered a brittle crispness which contrasted starkly with the gossamer light wasabi mascarpone which again was contrasted by a slightly spicy liquid at the bottom. The onion charcoal was served in a small, dark green glazed dish next to the cones, and in the half light of the restaurant, the fine black powder was almost impossible to see, even when you spooned it onto the cone – visible only when on top of the mascarpone. It seemed a little bit like an illusion, having to trust that you were indeed scraping some powder from the little bowl – a sensation that was only heightened by the mix of flavours and textures in the cone that pushed the boundaries of culinary experience.
The two sashimi dishes couldn’t have been more different, with sweet floral flavours accompanying the sea bass, then a more nautical set of tastes with the smoked yellowtail. We had moved onto the sake at this point, and the change in the spirit with each dish was staggering, from spring flowers to mint and sap.
Another exceptional course that seemed to have impossible flavour combinations was the warm Loch Duart salmon with lemon miso, green chilli salsa and burnt cedar which had the texture of sashimi and the flavour of cooked salmon – yet another example of a mental mismatch in standard taste expectations. Here smokey bitterness gave way to the heat of the chilli, grounded by the fattiness of the salmon. Delicious doesn’t come close.
For our dessert courses, we moved from the main restaurant area towards the kitchen at the back so we could watch pastry chef Sergio Del Castillo Mora create the last three courses of our epic culinary journey, accompanied by a palate cleansing Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato d’Asti 2011 and moreish Saint Clair Awatere Noble Riesling 2009.
Watching Del Castillo Mora and his team at work gave us a real insight into the love and devotion that has gone into every single piece of food that had been set in front of us over the three hours that evening; every scoop of sorbet was individually fashioned to have precisely the right shape, the lavender macaroons were each stuck onto an artistically placed pebble, with sprigs of lavender carefully placed for maximum effect. Del Castillo Mora played with traditional Western desserts, such as the deconstructed tiramisu and the lavender macaroons; while not adding much in the way of a Japanese twist, he injected delicacy and artistry to create light and airy (tasting, at least) variations of well-known classics.
Food aside (and that’s a big aside), the service in the restaurant was exceptional, with friendly, knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic people at every level. It felt a little bit like being treated to something special by a group of your friends (who have all suddenly learnt how to cook to celebrity chef level) who really honestly care about how your evening goes.
This is one of the most exciting new restaurants in London providing all round entertainment for a full evening. For £75 (for the tasting menu without wine), you would be hard pushed to find anything as fulfilling as that for an evening in London. I will definitely be back to Wabi.