Kurobuta has taken London by storm with its ‘post-Japanese’ cuisine. Alexander Larman chats to its charismatic chef, Scott Hallsworth, about why his new opening’s going to be even better
Japanese cuisine always used to be associated with enormous refinement and precision in this country; an evening eating sushi and sashimi while drinking expensive sake seemed to be one that was normally conducted in near-silence, perhaps only with a small gasp of horror at the inevitable enormity of the bill at the end. Now, a new breed of chefs have moved into what could be described as either ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ or ‘post-Japanese’ cuisine, including Ross Shonhan, whose Bone Daddies and Flesh and Buns restaurants serve up grungy noodles and hirata buns to a soundtrack of ear-splitting rock music, and Scott Hallsworth, whose Chelsea pop-up Kurobuta has proved enormously popular, with celebrities including half the cast of Made In Chelsea and Adele jostling with hoi polloi to get their elegantly manicured hands on Scott’s high-class cooking and cocktails. Not for nothing does his background as head chef at Nobu stand him in good stead to understand what people want from a restaurant.
Now, six months after he initially crept onto the West London scene, he’s opening a more ambitious project close to Connaught Village, also called Kurobuta. (The name literally means ‘black pig’, something fitting given the much-loved BBQ ribs and pork belly that adorn the menu.) It’s a more ambitious and much bigger project, which aims to be an all-day operation, starting at 9am with coffee and pastries ‘with a Japanese twist – yuzu in the lemon tarts, and so on’, and then staying open all day, with the aim of accommodating anyone from casual drinkers who fancy the Kirin beer with a frozen head, one of the house specialties, to those who want a seriously filling meal.
It’s an ambitious project, especially because the area that Scott’s opening in isn’t one known for its hip street food, but the amicable and charismatic Aussie I’m sitting with doesn’t seem at all bothered by the pressure. ‘It’s always been part of our vision to create an izakaya, a traditional Japanese sort of bar where you can come in and relax, and here we’ve got the opportunity to do it properly, on a grand scale. We’ll be more adventurous with our specials and our dishes, with a bigger team and a bigger menu, and we think that it’ll be a fun challenge.’
Although it might be regarded as a spin-off from Chelsea, Scott says that it was always their intention to open in Kendal Street first, but ‘we ran into some planning and investment obstacles, and didn’t want to lose the momentum going, so we found a pop-up space.’ It seems vaguely incongruous that somewhere self-confessedly cool would initially head to the King’s Road, as Scott freely admits – ‘it was the last place we would have thought of, as we thought our spiritual home would be somewhere like Shoreditch, but we went there and thought, ‘Bang! This is it!’ – and it’s been a notable success ever since. He’s the first to play down any idea that he’s been an innovator, claiming ‘I think we’re just reflecting what’s happened in food trends in Japan, rather than contriving a rock ‘n’ roll approach – although my brothers were in bands when I was a kid, so perhaps some of that’s rubbed off on me!’
It’s not just the food that’s eagerly awaited, though. The cocktail list in Kurobuta Chelsea is a thing of beauty, offering delectable drinks with cheeky and unexpected twists, something that Scott says is at least partly serendipity rather than marketing-speak. ‘We invent cocktails depending on what guests ask for, and we hope that our list expands organically. And naming them is fun, too. Someone the other day came up with a green one, and we started referring to it as ‘the green bastard’, a reference to a Canadian TV show that my business partner used to watch, and now that’s its name.’ He smiles. ‘We don’t take ourselves too seriously.’ It’s a welcome admission in an industry where countless chefs behave as if they are artists climbing the peak of a culinary Everest, and woe betide anyone who should have fun at their restaurants.
The charming and modest Scott has high hopes for his new site – ‘we see it as attracting lots of locals initially, and then hopefully word will get out and others will visit too.’ He knows how to woo a celebrity audience from his days as head chef at Nobu – ‘we’d get the Beckhams in, and they’d have to pose for the paparazzi at the most visible table, but then they were being paid to be there’ – and his combination of showmanship, unpretentiousness and plain damn good cooking bode well for Kurobuta establishing itself as as much of a destination in W2 as it’s been in SW3. A mention of local resident Tony Blair coming in is greeted with polite nonchalance – ‘we’d have to watch our for his bodyguards’ machine guns.’ The democratic vibe of a place where the former PM is given no better treatment than anyone else is certainly admirable. And with that, Scott is off to continue his efforts to ensure that people have as much fun at Kurobuta as possible. We’ll raise a glass – even a green bastard – to that.
Scott Hallsworth’s signature dishes
1 Roasted diver scallop with yuzu truffle egg sauce
‘We wanted to put this on in Chelsea but we didn’t have space for it. It’s creamy but not too rich, a quintessential Japanese rich, and then the fresh diver scallops are a fantastic accompaniment.’
2 BBQ pork belly in steamed buns
‘If we didn’t have these on the menu, people would be really disappointed! They’re a massive hit and really popular. ’
3 Nasa Dengaku
‘The producer of Saturday Kitchen was raving about this – it’s a miso grilled aubergine which is becoming really popular. People regularly come in and order two portions of it, and we’re looking forward to getting some feedback when it’s on the TV.’
20 Kendal Street W2 2YE; kurobuta-london.com