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Eco eatery: Soseki

Jemima Roberts

12th April, 2011

A city fish bar that cares more than most about sustainability; Jemima Roberts puts Soseki to the test to find out whether its food is as good as its principles

Tucked away behind an unremarkable City facade, lies the Japanese restaurant Soseki. Dwarfed by the iconic Gherkin, its plain exterior belies its pioneering form. What marks this restaurant out more than anything else is its scrupulous sourcing policy for ingredients, most pertinently, for fish. With Hugh’s Fish Fight a recent memory, 2011’s fish-focused controversies have highlighted the issues surrounding marine stewardship, and Soseki is leading the charge for fish conservation among London’s restaurants. Soseki source their fish from small, UK fisheries including Kernowsashimi in Cornwall. According to Soseki’s owner, Caroline Bennett, they target specific species, and more importantly avoid others, while landing everything they catch. And this mixed catch has made its way onto the menu. ‘We have tried to make use of species that were hitherto barely used,’ she says. ‘The liver from the monkfish, for example, we turn into our 'foie gras of the sea' pate and we have replaced endangered European eel (unagi) with the lesser spotted dog fish.’

If Soseki are guilty of anything, it is that they place greater emphasis on apologising for the areas that could be improved upon rather than playing up the huge strides they have taken. The perilously endangered blue fin tuna has been banned. On the evening we visited, farmed salmon was on the menu – welcomed in some quarters as the answer to our plundering ways in the oceanic wilds – but not without problems. Caroline is the first to point out that there is much work to be done. On a wider level, Soseki's sourcing policy continues to inspire. Unusual Japanese ingredients – daikon and shiso, for example – are grown on UK soil, on an organic smallholding in Sussex. Meat too is organic and sourced from Brindisa.  But what of the most important part? What of the food?

Step inside the sliding entrance to Soseki and all at once, you’re in another world. The air has changed - clean, tranquil, pristine; this could be a quiet Kyoto backstreet rather than central London. Upstairs, we’re greeted with a smile and gracious bow, and gently ushered to our table: a discreet wooden booth partitioned from the rest of the restaurant with bamboo blinds. A paper box lantern hung low over our table, a single orchid – fabric not flown in – created a blossom shaped shadow on the wall. Our booth was on stilts and through the wooden slats, I could see a garden of paper lanterns.

We begin with a glass of De Saint Gall, Premier Cru Bland de Blancs and progress through a series of white wines - Picpaul de Pinet, Macon Boussieres (TVV) - that, true to the logic of polarity at the heart of Japanese cooking, get progressively lighter as the food gets heavier. A masterstroke. Along with these clean, light wines we’re offered the tasting menu and gladly accept. What follows is a stream of courses – five in all – with fish as the centrepiece; left to sing out in its raw glory in simple marinades, citrus sides and sinus-enlivening wasabi.

Dishes are doll's house miniature but each bite packs a heavyweight punch. Flavours are fresh, with hints of familiarity eclipsed by elusive twists on the tongue: tastebuds are left zinging.  From lego-sized cubes of marinated tuna, tofu bedding down on red shiso with a lemon-miso garland to sashimi – including Cornish mackerel, radish 'angel hair' salad – everything is beautifully balanced. We follow this with deep-fried lotus 'sandwiches' of caledonian prawns and mint, crisped up in a paper rock-salt cove with a salad of pickled cucumber, shavings of crab meat, sea vegetables and the delectable surprise that was vinegar 'jelly'. The main sushi course, including dive caught scallops and Cornish mackerel; comes with the light miso broth.

By now, we were thoroughly swept away; delighting in never quite knowing what was going to  appear next. We pause before the final course arrives – a melt in the mouth green tea cheesecake with an azuki bean 'jam'. If this sounds curious, it was – deliciously so. This was clever, creative cooking; closer to precision engineering than a tinker in the culinary 'garage'.

I struggled to find any cracks in Soseki's veneer but if I have any criticism, it’s that the humility of the restaurant's staff is echoed in the whispering of its credentials – in short, this is an establishment that deserves to shout more loudly. True, the all-round taste-extravaganza that we were treated too did not come cheap; £154 for the two of us, although that included five courses, plus wine and dessert. But then, there may simply not be plenty more fish in the sea, particularly when current levels of consumption are taken into account. Soseki's prices reflect this reality and I for one welcome this: fish should absolutely be a treat, not a staple.

Soseki, as well as its sister chain, Moshi Moshi, recently participated in a Fukushima fund raiser as part of a Foreign Press Association (FPA) fundraising event for the Japan Tsunami Appeal. All money raised will go to the British Red Cross Tsunami Appeal. To find out more, go to: www.soseki.co.uk

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