There’s no easy way to make a million in the restaurant business. It’s a Sisyphean struggle, an endless, mostly thankless, battle against astonishing odds. Every year is the year it could all come tumbling down around your ears, whether you own a chain of fine-dining restaurants or a greasy spoon in Slough.
Restaurants are a bell-weather for the economy, tied mercilessly to the whims of you and I; they have to navigate volatile chefs, food safety boards, trends, cliques, obnoxious critics and spiralling rents. In the five years or so I’ve been reviewing restaurants, hundreds have opened and dozens have closed again, the latest being the ill conceived UK outpost of Hotel Chantelle, which pulled down the shutters for final time after only six months; my abiding memory of it was being asked to eat a starter out of an ash tray. Own a restaurant over a long-enough time period and its chance of going under rises to one.
If I were trying to make a million in the restaurant business, though, I’d sell sushi. Somewhere down the line, sushi went from a simple way of preserving fish to sell to peasants in feudal Japan to the food of choice for blowing your load in front of clients. Nothing says “I’m ready to do business” like a plate of nigiri (it’s popular for dates for the same reason).
In Moscow – the undisputed capital of gauche – every second restaurant sells sushi. If chicken tikka masala is the UK’s national dish, then maki rolls are the Russian equivalent (although the top three cities for sushi restaurants per capita are Tokyo, New York and Tel Aviv).
So when I heard Oliver Maki, a sushi group with restaurants in Bahrain and Kuwait, was opening its first London branch, I expected a glittering, opulent palace, decked out in mahogany and gold, with nightclub lighting and show-girl front of house staff.
It’s not like that at all: it’s tiny, split over two floors of a Dean Street building the width of a deck of playing cards. You have to breath in just to get through the door. The décor is ostentatiously understated, lavishly grey, magnificently muted. If Oliver Maki’s designers set out to create the least blingy sushi restaurant in the world, they can consider the exercise a roaring success.
The most profligate thing about it is the way it substitutes menus for iPads, which is annoying in theory and infuriating in practice. When space is at a premium, the last thing you need is a pair of iPads cluttering up your table. You can’t even order directly from it, like you can in nearby Inamo.
Its head chef, Louis Kenji Huang, used to be a sushi chef at Nobu Las Vegas (Nobu is a conveyor-belt for sushi chefs – name any high-end sushi joint and chances are they’ll have a smattering of Nobu alumni), and like Nobu, Oliver Maki is not adverse to taking liberties with its cuisine. I’ve never, for instance, seen spicy shrimp tacos in a Tokyo sushi bar, but they do go nicely with beer on a Thursday evening in Soho.
The signature Oliver Maki selection features eight rolls made up of more than 30 ingredients, including foie gras, truffle and quinoa, and while that sounds like a head-on collision between food delivery trucks, it all left the table without complaint. A transparent perspex box of “sushi jewels” – made using brown rice, which is anathema to purists – is blow-torched at the table, leaving a mist of cedar apple smoke. It’s all perfectly nice.
But despite all that, I can’t imagine the set of circumstances that would conspire to bring me back. It’s not flashy enough for showing off, authentic enough for the gourmand crowd or cheap enough to make it a regular post-work destination. I fear that in London’s bustling Japanese restaurant scene, Oliver Maki may be destined to fall between the cracks.