Friday, 2 May 2014
Kurobuta, Marble Arch
I know, I know. I'll give anyone accustomed to the usual standards of photography on this blog a second to pick their jaw up from the floor and mop their fevered brow. The reason for this startling new turn of events is an email out of the blue from Olympus cameras, who offered an E-P5 with 40mm lens to play with, which I accepted thinking that, deep down, not even the most expensive kit in the world could improve my photography skills. I don't consider myself to have an artistic bone in my body, and after all isn't all good photography down to skill, rather than whichever bit of kit you happen to be using?
Anyway, I think you'll agree the difference is quite something. Admittedly it's still taking a bit of getting used to. Not just remembering to take the damn thing out of the house with me, but the fact that the powerful lens they gave me means I have to stand a good 6-8 feet away from the food while photographing it, which in any normal restaurant environment is, well, distracting at best.
But blimey, it's still a small price to pay and even after the first week I feel stupid for resisting getting a proper camera for so long. I've still got some tweaking to do with regards technique - I need to get higher to see more of the food, for one thing; some of these shots are quite good for advertising tableware but not the skill of a chef - but even this hopeless amateur has managed some pretty impressive results. Certainly as compared to the dross that appeared on these pages beforehand.
And what better advertisement for this brave new world of food photography than Japanese cuisine, which even on a bad day has the potential to be quite staggeringly beautiful. Even a bowl of edamame beans, hot and buttery, came spilling out of a little bamboo cup, like a miniature zen garden.
There's no shortage of options on the drinks front at Kurobuta, either - there's beer and wine, obviously, but also a short and interesting sake list, and as well as a selection of suggested house cocktails they were quite happy to knock up a Negroni or gin martini. This was some sort of gin-based lime thing with orgeat. Very nice.
Oh and they serve the otherwise rather bland Kirin lager with a 'frozen head', not something I'd seen before. It was like a beer sorbet floating on top.
Soft-shelled crab maki proved we were in safe hands with regards to the food offerings, too. Lovely soft, warm sushi rice hugged crunchy morsels of fresh crab, and a glossy kimchee mayonnaise added another layer of texture and spice.
Duck with confit watermelon and daikon pickle displayed a willingness for experimentation and an impressive command of textures. The duck was beautifully cooked, all soft and bouncy, and though I wasn't completely sure the watermelon was a perfect match, I had to admit it was at least something different.
Scallop sashimi with kimchee butter and tobiko (fish roe) was my least favourite dish overall, but that's not to say it had no merit. It certainly looked pretty enough, all those bright yellows and greens, and the roe was great fun to pop in the mouth. But something about the flavour was a bit underwhelming - perhaps the scallops weren't particularly good, or it needed a bit more kimchee. Still, not bad.
Yellowtail sashimi were rolled into neat tubes, each topped with a slice of green chilli and resting in a sharp yuzu soy sauce. These were genuinely lovely, a great showcase for some stunningly fresh fish. Nicely presented, too, wouldn't you say?
If you think "Roasted scallop with truffle egg sauce and tobiko" sounds good on paper, I'm happy to report the actual dish lived up to the billing. With a golden crust on the scallops (have any scallops in history really ever been better raw as sashimi? Really?), and a heady scent of black truffle in a marvellously light egg sauce, this was an enormously satisfying plate of food. £12 for two scallops could, I suppose, be criticised as being a bit mean, but when it tastes as good as this I'll forgive them.
I didn't get to try the BBQ lamb - with only three chops between five people, I selflessly offered to stuff my face with second helpings of the other dishes instead - but I believe nobody had any issues with them. The bones were licked clean.
Squid kara-age would have been tasty enough on their own, but a jalapeno dipping sauce brought more of that clever cross-continental experimentation and worked incredibly well.
Pork bulgogi were just - just - short of a triumph thanks to a strangely flavourless chilli oil which didn't really add much to proceedings. But with a generous slab of beautifully moist pork, and naan-bread-like buns which had been toasted somehow instead of the usual steamed style, this was soon forgotten. Again, a willingness to play with accepted norms (toasting the buns) producing some very interesting results.
And finally, some miso chicken wings could have done with a bit more crisping up but had a good flavour and at least weren't overcooked to mush like so many places manage.
A brief chat about Kurobuta on Twitter the next day highlighted the danger of crowd-sourcing opinion before writing up a place instead of after; a group of friends had what sounded like a nightmare battle with the front of house staff at lunchtime, 45 minute waits for a glass of water, that kind of thing. But I can only tell you that the service on Wednesday evening was faultless - friendly and efficient and worth every bit of their 12.5%. So who knows what's going on there; perhaps the lunch team need a bit more training.
We didn't hold back on the booze, nor did we leave feeling we could have eaten any more food, and so for all the above a price of £50/head is, I think, eminently reasonable. Japanese food is never going to be a cheap option, but here, not only is all the cooking of a very high standard but there enough twists and variations on the classic format to provide quite a bit of extra value for your outlay. Kurobuta is not perfect, but where it fails it is at least because they're trying a bit too hard, not being lazy, and it's a nice bright room in which to enjoy it all happen (though why the staff have taken it upon themselves to scrawl ugly messages in coloured marker on the windows is beyond me). I look forward very much to returning, sans the distractions of my fancy new camera, to try it all again.