There are old-school professional restaurant critics who insist on eating at any given place 3 times before they write their review. That's exactly what I did before this review of Sushi Bar Atari-ya Swiss Cottage. But only because the pace of my cravings outran the pace of my writing.
Atari-ya is the premier sushi-grade fish supplier to many of London's Japanese restaurants. I've made expeditions to their West Acton store to buy fish for DIY sashimi feasts at home, and would've visited their take-away shop behind Selfriges more often, if only it stayed open later in the evening.
So when my foodie pal Melf offered to take me to Atari-ya's newest sit-down outlet in Swiss Cottage the weekend I got back to London after 15 months on the road, I stapped on a jet pack to hurry the process along.
I wasn't disappointed. The £10 chirashi bowl (above) is the most generous one I've tried in London, in terms of expensive-ness of seafood used as well as quantity. And Melf tells me her friends who are regular diners there reckon it used to be even more generous when the eatery just opened this past Spring.
All I know is, I had a bit of seafood left over after I got through all the rice. How often does that happen?
I was still thinking about that chirashi the next day (I'm still thinking about it now), so when I had a subsequent catch-up lunch with my friend Jim -- who used to live in Japan and sent me on a semi-religious quest for jiro ramen when I visited Tokyo this past April -- I was thrilled when he suggested that we meet at Atari-ya. It was another shot at their chirashi, and it was also a reassurance to me that I wasn't going bonkers about the place only because I'd been mucking around in South America (Sao Paolo notwithstanding) for the last 2 months.
My 3rd visit was last Saturday, just as London was starting to properly freeze over. I love udon in any weather, but a bowl of steaming hot udon (preferably a Nabeyaki-style cauldron with a raw egg sitting on top) is one of my favourite antidotes for the Atlantic winter.
Atari-ya sadly doesn't serve nabeyaki udon, and I've never understood the point of tempura udon -- if the prawn's in the bowl its batter gets horrible and soggy; if it's out of the bowl all you have is a prawn and a bowl of plain noodles; no alchemy there -- so I decided to try the usually very simple Kitsune udon, with aburaage, sweetened and deep fried tofu pockets. I didn't have high expectations, to be honest. I figured it'd just be a filler dish so that I could snack on low-carb treats and still leave the place feeling full. But DAMN this simple dish blew me away. Aburaage I've had in most other places tends to be quite tasteless and worse, slightly watery because it's been soaking in a bucket to stay moist. This one was full of a soybeanysaltysweet-mirin flavour. Lovely. And what a deep pocket it was!
The udon noodles -- Sanuki udon from the Kagawa prefecture where Japanese people first started to eat udon -- were a good balance of softness, elasticity and biteyness. I'll be back for more. A lot more.
Other bloggers such as Pig Pig's Corner, London Eater, and Mr Foodie have already written plenty about Atari-ya's sushi and sashimi offerings, so I'll leave you in their good hands. Instead I'd like to share with you a couple of humble but delightful vegetable dishes I really enjoyed.
Ohitashi -- boiled spinach chilled and flavoured with soy sauce, sesame seeds, and bonito flakes -- was tiny to look at, but quite a generous portion when decompressed. We ate this by the metric ton when we volunteered on an organic rice farm near Osaka, and Atari-ya's ohitashi brought me right back to that memory of fresh-from-the-veggie-patch sweetness.
Another gorgeous vegetable offering: miso-grilled eggplant. If satin were edible, I reckon this might be what it would taste like.
My favourite place to sit at Atari-ya, or any good Japanese restaurant, really, is at the bar. It's the best way to eyeball the daily specials as they leave the counter and figure out what you really want to punt on. Tip: If ever you see seared razor clam on the specials board, get it. It's roughly chopped and blow-torched to a springy and sweet medium rare, and seasoned with a subtle yuzu citrus sauce which does a good job of not bullying the natural sweetness of the clam.
Oh razor clam how do I love thee? I love thee to the point of lunatic foodie altruism. When the guy next to me at the bar on Saturday looked at my razor clam with much curiosity, and continued to look doubtful even after I told him it was really good, I actually gave him a little piece to try. Imagine that. The love of shellfish moving me to unselfishness! And I've been known to stab with a fork unauthorised hands which have tried to sneak away some of my food!
So if ever given the opportunity, say ya ya ya to going to Atari-ya, before the mainstream publications catch on and current ridiculously good-value prices adjust accordingly. As it is, pacing and coordination of the waitstaff and chefs feels strained at peak hours -- what more when the rest of London finds out that there is a feast of industry standard-setting ingredients to be had here for under £30 per person. Even when sake and beer get added to the mix.
Sushi Bar Atari-ya Swiss Cottage
75 Fairfax Road
London NW6 4EE
+ 44 20 7328 5338