Sushi and The Queen don’t often crop up in the same sentence. Perhaps, you might think, because one is quintessentially Japanese and the other about as British as you can get?
But it’s more likely because the Royals aren’t supposed to eat shellfish, since many think it’s a little risky on the food poisoning front. Given the amount of time the Royal Family spends touring the world on tight schedules, there’s simply no time for illness.
Where am I going with this? Well, you might be surprised to learn that Rubens at the Palace, the 5 star Red Carnation hotel located directly opposite the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace, is big on sushi.
So big, in fact, that they offer a personalised sushi, sashimi and saké experience – the omakase experience. Also surprising is that its served in the Leopard Bar, a neat retreat off Buckingham Palace Road kitted out with leopard-print carpets and cushions, brown leather sofas, pine wood panelled walls and a sizeable bronze leopard sculpture by Donald Greig.
Red Carnation’s iconic Leopard Bars can be found in selected hotels around the world – each individually designed to fit its host country – but this one is the last place I expected to find a sushi menu.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not good. In fact, it’s excellent. I adore sushi and spent a few years teaching English out there as a new graduate, so I’ve eaten a fair bit of it. And grabbing a box of sushi from the supermarket for about £5 was one of the things I missed the most when I moved back to the UK (that and the excellent karaoke bars), but London’s sushi scene has come along in leaps and bounds, and a lunchtime trip to Wasabi makes good sushi super accessible.
There’s still no beating sushi prepared in front of your eyes though. That perfectly vinegared rice served at room temperature that will beat anything kept in a chiller cabinet 100 times over. And that’s before you even get to the fish. Fresh off they day boats, sliced by the chef as you watch, and placed under your nose ready for you to enjoy. Gone in seconds.
Omakase translates as ‘chef’s choice’ in Japanese – “It means ‘trust me’,” says Suren Karki, the expert sushi chef at The Rubens at the Palace – and it’s the idea behind his exclusive Sushi and Sashimi Experiences.
Chef Karki came to London from Nepal in 2008 and started working in Japanese restaurants such as Tenshi, Islington’s now-closed celebrity hotspot Gilgamesh and Sake no Hana, before refining his expertise at Engawa under the guidance of executive chef Akira Shimizu, where he became head chef. (Incidentally, it was at Akira, Chef Shimizu’s relatively new restaurant at Japan House in Kensington, that Prince William revealed that he and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, are big sushi fans – looks like they’ve been breaking the Royals’ no-shellfish rule.)
Our omakase experience at the Leopard Bar at The Rubens started with a glass of pink champagne – always a good way to kick start a Friday night – before Chef Karki promised us a procession of 18-25 dishes, depending on how hungry we were. Twenty-five! We repeated, wide-eyed, until he clarified that that would be 25 iddy bites of sushi and sashimi. In that case, we said, bring it on!
Seated at the bar so that we could watch the chef at work, we started with a procession of delicate sashimi dishes, each dressed with little extras to bring the fish to life. We started with kama toro (tuna neck), dressed with ikura, pomegranate seeds, a pretty little shisho flower and a dash of lime juice. Exquisite is the only word.
The parade of perfect bites continued with o’toro (tuna belly), lean tuna with fresh wasabi stems and a dash of soy that was quite sweet, yellowtail with a wasabi dressing and spring onion, sea bream with dashi sauce (a kind of seafood stock made with dried kelp and bonito flakes), avocado and a ponzu and dashi jelly, scallop with sliced grapes and raw egg yolk marinated in dashi soy sauce, sea urchin with shisho leaf dressing and shisho leaf flower, squid on a strip of nori with sea salt and lemon, and salmon wrapped around marinated fish roe.
‘Choosing a favourite would be impossible, but the unusual accompaniments made a few of the dishes stand out – the sea bream with dashi sauce, avocado and the ponzu and dashi jelly was really lovely’
Choosing a favourite would be impossible, but the unusual accompaniments made a few of the dishes stand out – the sea bream with dashi sauce, avocado and the ponzu and dashi jelly was really lovely, and the scallop with the raw egg yolk was highly unusual – the egg yolk having been marinated in dashi soy sauce took the edge off the ‘raw’.
This first round of sashimi was served with Akashi Tai’s Honjozo Kuro sake, a light, easy-to-drink style craft sake made from a superior grain of rice grown north of Akashi, while the second round of nigiri sushi (served on rice) was paired with Koto Premium Plum Saké Umeshu, made with high-quality Shirakaga plums and rich yet mellow with a natural sweetness that was rather quaffable.
On to the nigiri course, and this time a traditional bamboo sushi platter – reminiscent of a wooden geta sandal that would have been worn with yukata or kimono – materialised in front of us, onto which would be placed each piece of nigiri.
We worked our way through seared grouper, dressed with soy and wasabi, o’toro nigiri (that super delicious fatty tuna again), yellowtail, lean tuna, salomn, sea bass, scallop, spot prawn (a type of prawn found in the North Pacific), squid and, finally, an eye-wateringly sour plum (ume) nigiri.
Accompanied by the soothing sounds of live jazz that filled the intimate Leopard Bar, Chef Karki’s omakase experience is a wonderful way to spend an evening, chatting through the courses and sharing our reactions to each dish with the chef. There’s really no better way to savour your food.
If you fancy settling in for the evening, the bar also serves some 200 whiskies and 30 champagnes, all of which are available by the glass, including Cristal and Krug Rosé. Plus, the warm, welcoming wait staff bustle about stealthily in the snappiest of dress, complete with the hotel’s signature red carnation in their button hole. Quite frankly, The Leopard Bar is fit for a queen.
The sushi, sashimi and sake experience is priced at £95 per person
39 Buckingham Palace Road, Victoria SW1W 0PS; rubenshotel.com