It’s been two long years since Sushi Sora at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo ruined Japanese cuisine for me. It was a transcendental kind of evening. Every piece of raw fish I’ve sampled since then has felt so humdrum that I’d almost given up. So what lured me to give it another go in Leatherhead of all places?
The Japanese Grill at Beaverbrook is a rather unlikely cocktail: Japanese fine dining, in a quirky country hotel – once the private home of press baron Lord Beaverbrook – set in swanky, safe Surrey. Head chef Taiji Maruyama of Nobu and Kiru fame comes from three generations of sushi chefs. His other badge of honour is that he was one of the youngest chefs in Tokyo to gain a blowfish licence. Disappointingly, there’s no deadly blowfish on the menu in Leatherhead though – its banned in the UK.
Beaverbrook sits surrounded by hills and woodland just inside the Surrey commuter belt, a speedy 40-minute train ride from Waterloo and a totally doable dinner trip. We were going there for supper, but enticed by the unfamiliar spring sunshine, had elected to make an afternoon of it too.
The stage was set for further, albeit less welcome, meaty treats
Heading straight to the Parrot Bar, past a massive and impressive Gerhard Richter tapestry, with sunlight flooding the lavish 1920’s style interior, we ordered two champagne cocktails. Many of the drinks are in keeping with the Japanese theme of the restaurant – think shiso leaves, saké, matcha green tea – which feature in a variety of drinks. As an aficionado of Japanese whisky I was totally game to try it in the yuzu champagne cocktail. “Grape or grain, but never the twain” popped into my head for a hot second … but after two sips, I was hooked and tipsy. It set us up rather nicely for a gallant around the hotel’s grounds and rugged woods in our borrowed Hunter wellies.
As the sun set, we settled into the art deco screening room that is available for the private use of guests. It was the first private home cinema in the country, where regular visitor Winston Churchill spent weekends with Lord Beaverbrook watching Pathé films sent back from the war. We opted for a Wes Anderson.
Being “mostly pescatarian”, I hadn’t eaten meat in a while, but I’d heard great things about the wagyu. Although the menu billed it as grilled, it comes more raw than cooked. For my first taste of mammal flesh in a while, it was challenging, but combined with the heavenly taste of hoba miso, it had the melty texture of lightly cooked fish. I didn’t chew it, it just fizzled away on my tongue.
The stage was set for further, albeit less welcome, meaty treats.
As a compromise to not ordering either of the two set tasting menus, we decided to at least order the omakase appetisers. We made it clear that while I will eat meat (when it’s fancy and I’m in the mood), my partner is a strict pescatarian. A pretty array of Japanese morsels arrived, including salmon with a smoked soy crust, fatty tuna with fresh summer truffles and sea bass sashimi with crispy ants. However, there was one piece of sushi topped with the numero uno culinary adversary of any non-meat eater … foie gras.
While the foie gras sushi came without any way to differentiate it from the rest of the platter, there was no camouflaging the crispy ants. A small colony of them covered a glistening piece of sea bass sashimi. With my eyes firmly closed, the two textures perfectly complemented each other and the ants brought a welcome salted crunch. I could have happily eaten more ants, which isn’t something I thought I’d ever find myself thinking.
Standout appetisers were the yellow tail tiradito with the most divine taste of yuzu soy, kizami wasabi & aubergine and the miso seafood ceviche with a kick of Peruvian chilli amidst the citrus. The only disappointment with the chef’s selection was not getting any tempura to try as promised by our server. Well, that and the foie gras faux pas.
Head Chef Maruyama stepped out the kitchen to work the room. Most of the salad and herbs, he told us, were grown in the hotel’s kitchen gardens. We then had an interesting chat on the sublime quality of his sashimi. As a Londoner, I always think that the greatest fish market in the nation is Billingsgate, so I was surprised to hear Maruyama say that he wasn’t happy with the freshness and quality on offer there. Apparently, Brixton Market is much better and so orders his fish from there.
Really? I had a flashback to years before, when I didn’t get what that north/south divide was and I lived near that very market. I walked down Electric Avenue every morning jumping out the way of the fishmongers sloshing water out onto the street and usually my shoes. Visibly flabbergasted at this revelation, my partner was quick to call me an idiot: “He means Brixham!” Of course he did: the famous fish market in Devon.
I’ve always found black cod miso too sweet and too sticky
I went on to order the black cod, hailed as one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. To date, I’ve always found miso black cod too sweet and too sticky. But Beaverbrook’s is spot on – large chunks of cod slathered in den and yuzu miso, cooked to perfection. It was becoming obvious why yuzu, the Japanese citrus fruit, is popping up on menus all over London right now. I even have some in my flat at home, but the most adventurous I’ve got with it is chucking it in with my fizzy water.
A sweet finale of green basil sorbet underneath fizzing lemonade foam was followed by an inventive selection of plum, lemon and chocolate desserts – all ridiculously good.
We could have easily made our way back home to London that evening but decided to stay over. Each room in the main house is named after a famous house guest who has stayed on more than one occasion, and decorated with them in mind. We stayed in the Rudyard Kipling room, situated above the front door. It’s ideally placed for hearing every restaurant patron leave a little drunkenly and very loudly. If it’s available, I’d recommend the Elizabeth Taylor suite, for the views and Rudolph Nureyev’s bath in situ, or the Churchill suite with original desk for history buffs. Or, just be the last one to leave dinner. C
Beaverbrook, Reigate Road, Leatherhead KT22 8QX, U.K.
01372 571300; beaverbrook.co.uk