I guess it’s a symptom of the age we live in that I’m suspicious of anything that doesn’t have a Wikipedia page on it. ‘Nikkei cuisine’ simply doesn’t exist. Some rudimentary Internet searches, although not the most fruitful, do give it come patchy context.
Originating from Peru, Nikkei cuisine is a hybrid of Japanese and Peruvian ingredients using Japanese preparation techniques and usually prepared by Japanese descendants. Apparently, this has been going on for the past 120 years and Lima is bustling with Nikkei restaurants, which is perhaps not surprising given Peru has the second highest Japanese population in South America.
Japanese food is forever trendy in the UK, but for the first time ever, a Peruvian restaurant won a Michelin star this September – Lima in central London. Some kind of Peruvian-Japanese hybrid, therefore, seems perfectly timed to cause an explosion in gastronomic gossip.
Chotto Matte is certainly trying to make a statement. It is huge – three-floors of dimly-lit swankiness on Soho’s Frith Street. Its aesthetics range from the polished minimalism of a high-end hotel to the currently hip industrialism with some graffiti-inspired art. The result, sadly, is a little clinical and cold, and doesn’t inspire appetite; when it’s empty, it feels like kind of place where lonely people clutch their drinks in the hope that alcohol might magic company, but warmth and liveliness do seep through once the room fills up.
Our welcome also sent out some mixed messages. My dining partner and I were greeted by the front-of-house who wished us a pleasant meal whilst reminding us that we had our table for two hours only. How subtle. How relaxing.
We were then squeezed onto a tiny table and approached by a waiter who could only be described as a bounding puppy. He greeted us with such a wide, friendly grin and unadulterated enthusiasm that we couldn’t help but smile. That was, until he failed to leave us alone.
We’d barely sat for a minute before he approached us an encouraged us to order. Thirty seconds later he returned. We opened our menus and he was back again. We touched the drink menus and he pounced again. If he hadn’t had looked so eager to please, we might have suspected that we were being forced to order.
We ordered a cocktails – which were both light and refreshing – whilst attempting to peruse the menu. Feeling slightly anxious and pressured, we ordered a ‘while you wait’ – a taco selection for £6.95. Then we hastily settled on Nikkei Tasting Menu I (£35, now listed as £40) and Nikkei Tasting Menu II (£45). Little did we know, we would have no time to relax before the dishes rained down on us with such dizzying speed.
Our waiter approached us and handed us two taco selections. One is included in the tasting menu, he explained, and the other was the extra starter we’d ordered. Laughing, he put them down, until I quite bluntly said that one would suffice!
The taco selection was, fortunately, very tasty, and we worked our way through snow crab yuzu and miso vegetables. The only minor problem was the tune spicy miso – served raw- was quite fishy, which suggested it wasn’t the freshest and so we tactfully left it.
Next up, we got quite excited when a waitress approached the table with a blow torch and cooked the aburi salmón before our eyes. It was delicious as well as gimmicky.
Overall, the dishes varied from really interesting or just plain bizarre. The most successful dishes involved seafood. The seafood ceviche – prawn, scallop, seabass, sweet potato, Peruvian corn, coriander, chive oil, citrus sauce – was amazingly zingy and fresh, and the Bacalao negro aji miso (black cod, yellow chilli miso) was wonderfully subtle. The triumph had to be Corbina shiso salsa (seabass, shiso, chilli, onion, ponzu), which made me re-think my hatred of that potent, citrus sauce and indeed nearly had me licking the plate.
The meat, however, didn’t quite make it as credible ‘fusion’ cuisine. The lamb chop was tasty if minuscule and the gyoza (dumplings) were hardly complemented by aji amarillo (yellow chilli pepper). The greatest sin was was the lomo saltado maki rolls. Lomo saltado is a classic Peruvian dish of stir-fried beef with onions, tomatoes and potatoes, and it should never – I repeat, NEVER – be wrapped in seaweed.
Nevertheless, this dish did provide salvation on our evening. Our over-enthusiastic waiter was becoming so overbearing that we could barely enjoy our dishes. We had a confusingly large number of waiters throughout the evening, who would explain every platter they brought us. Our main waiter, however, seemed oblivious to the practice and painstakingly went over each dish in rather poor English. He regularly popped up and asked us how our dish was before we’d had a chance to sample it!
It got to the point where my co-diner and I were so on edge and stressed out that we were hardly conversing. Our waiter approached again and we both winced.
“How were the maki rolls?” he beamed.
My polite customer veneer cracked and I told him that, unfortunately, the lomo saltado ones just didn’t work at all. He nodded keenly until my words began to sink in, and slowly, very slowly, the smile began to slide from his face. He made a half-grimace and hastily retreated without another word.
I looked at my co-diner. “I think I just kicked a puppy.”
After this incident, we were able to enjoy a much more peaceful meal and were given a free choice of dessert. I quickly polished off a salted caramel chocolate fondant with great relish.
We finished the meal in high spirits. The tasting menus were undeniably fun and the flavours definitely intrigue and amuse even if they don’t always seamlessly blend. However, the service and cramped tables detracted from the experience. At upwards of £50 a head for a meal and a drink, Chotto Matte needs to sharpen up. With these issues sorted, we’d happily give Nikkei cuisine a second chance.
Chotto Matte 3/5 – So trendy, quite tasty, but just a tad mixed up.
Food 3.5/5 – Some of it was really good. And some of it just was just… strange.
Value 2.5/5 – Priiiiiicey, but decent quality.
Service 2.5/5 – So polite and well-intentioned, but such a car crash!
Atmosphere 2.5/5 – Stressful, if popular.
Where: 11–13 Frith Street, Soho, W1D 4RB
When: Mon – Sat 5pm – 1.30am; Sun 5pm – midnight