Lodestars Anthology: House of flavour
In conversation with Akira...
Chef Shimizu Akira is on a mission to create ‘out of the ordinary’ moments for diners at his eponymous restaurant in London’s Japan House: a shrine to Japanese culture on Kensington High Street. Displaying Willy Wonka-style creativity, Akiras’ dishes deliver visual fireworks galore: wooden treasure-troves of jewel-bright sushi, rainbow-coloured concoctions served on volcanic slabs of dark-as-midnight rock, artfully burnished delicacies plucked from the robata grill with just the right amount of char…
The restaurant encourages a dialogue between food and art, with Akira devising new menu items to match current shows at Japan House. For the recent ‘This is MANGA – the Art of URASAWA NAOKI’ exhibition, Akira put a playful twist on fish and chips: serving okra fries with deep-fried breaded eel, topped with umeboshi (pickled plum) tartare sauce, lime and egg-yolk shavings. A matching cocktail, Monster, was inspired by Urasawa’s mystery manga series of the same name.
Explaining this creative collaboration between artist and chef, Akira says: ‘First, I consult with the artists – it helps me to get a sense of who they are, what they’re like and create an image of them in my mind. From there, I’m able to start thinking of ingredients or a specific dish that will best represent them.’
Akira is clearly something of an artist, too. In the kitchen, he relishes finessing his dishes just before they leave the pass: ‘I find almost everything about cooking enjoyable, but I love the finishing touches of presentation most – those last few moments spent with the food, when a dish takes on its final flourishes.’
Known for his ‘trinity of cooking’ approach, Akira places equal importance on flavour, tableware and presentation. He says: ‘When I set a dish down in front of a customer, I want them to feel the commitment made to the balance between colours, temperatures, ingredients and even the tableware on which we serve each dish.’
Artful plates aside, additional eye-candy comes courtesy of the restaurant’s sleek design: a striking interplay of light and dark, starring bleached-blonde wood, pearly walls and partitions as black as squid-ink. Proving a chef’s place isn’t just in the kitchen, Akira teamed up with acclaimed designer Masamichi Katayama to mastermind the fit-out. He also selected ceramics, glassware and tableware, shining a spotlight on artisans across Japan. Shiga Prefecture stone dishes, which open up, oyster-like, to reveal surprise delicacies are a highlight, but there are contributions from south Japan, the mainland, the north and beyond.
Visitors experience a taste of traditional omotenashi hospitality here. Chefs in the open kitchen hail them on arrival with a cheery shout of ‘Irrashaimase!’, meaning: ‘Welcome, come in!’ According to Akira: ‘The spirit of omotenashi is such that, when experienced, it should leave you in awe of this out-of-the-ordinary treatment.’
The hospitality may be authentically Japanese, but Akira modifies the cuisine to suit British tastes: ‘ I tried to create a style of Japanese cuisine that I think is more palatable to people who live here, as well as for those visiting on holiday. I needed to adjust the seasoning a little bit for English palates, so it’s saltier and thicker.’ Many ingredients are sourced from London, but certain essentials are flown in from Japan. Akira says his aim was to ‘make something unique, a new take on an izakaya-style restaurant – hopefully the customers agree!’
Akira’s love of visual wizardry – and obsession with detail – prompted the chef to try his hand at pottery-making. For this busy chef, the process is soothingly meditative: ‘When I am in Japan, I make my own dishes – perhaps two or three dishes a year. I started five years ago. I enjoy the fact that I can just concentrate on making the dish, without any interference, or distraction from any other thoughts. I enjoy the state of nothing.’
From artist collaborations, artistry, reimagined Japanese classics and intricately detailed dishes to ‘the state of nothing’ – Akira has plenty of surprises up his chef’s sleeves…