Sushinho was the first whiff of the trend for Japanese-Brazilian cuisine we got on these shores. It sounds like a hopelessly fraught marriage; one that could have been pulled out of a fusion food tombola (“the next new opening will be Italian and… Dutch! Icelandic and… Australian! Samoan and… Swiss!”). There is, however, a precedent for it: Brazil has a large Japanese population following a wave of migration between the turn of the last century and the start of the second world war. The first Sushinho (pronounced like a portmanteau of sushi and Ronaldinho) opened in 2009 and was followed last year by Sushisamba, which also threw Peruvian food into the mix, just for the hell of it.
Now Sushinho has opened a second restaurant in Devonshire Square, just across the road from Liverpool Street; a place that tends to be packed for lunch and dead by 7pm. So it was when I went on a Friday evening; staff quite comfortably outnumbered diners, not that you would have guessed by the quality of the service.
I had invited El Pye, who is both a make-up artist and a piss-artist. She was in a rotten mood and in serious need of a cocktail. The drinks menu has an air of the Alan Partridge to it, beginning with a quote from Brazil’s cod-philosophising Dan Brown equivalent Paulo Coelho. It is also written in papyrus, which anyone in the font community – yes, there is a font community – will tell you is only a small step up from comic sans. It was almost enough to dissuade me from ordering a cocktail in the first place. I wish it had.
The staff were apparently reluctant to take our drinks order and Pye looked like she was going to have a meltdown if someone didn’t fix her a cocktail sharpish: we could have swum from Japan to Brazil in the time it took for someone to notice us. Through a combination of persistence and luck, I finally caught someone’s eye and ordered a pair of champagne cocktails. The waitress then whisked away the wine list, sending a look of panicked confusion across El Pye’s face: “That’s not all we’re having to drink, is it? I’d have stayed at home”. It brought to mind the time my auntie tried to wrestle a wheel of cheese from my cousin’s alsatian.
Ten minutes later, our cocktails were regarding us haughtily from the edge of the bar, with nobody showing the slightest interest in bringing them over: instead the staff had formed a kind of huddle in the corner, like penguins trying to conserve warmth against bitter arctic winds. Eventually someone responded to our improvised semaphore and delivered them. They were flat.
I told the waitress but she wasn’t convinced, bending over and peering quizzically into the flutes like a seer searching for meaning in an empty cup of tea.
“Look alright to me,” she said dubiously, before agreeing to fetch a new one.
Service this bad does not bode well for the quality of the meal to come.
The scallop sashimi, though, was excellent: plump and tasty, and the octopus nigiri was decent too. The butterfish tataki with truffle jelly was even better – perfectly seared; slightly charred around the edges and still raw and flabby inside, with just a subtle hint of garlic and truffle to keep things interesting.
The “Rio rolls” – essentially a maki roll with added strawberry – are better than they sound, but they sound pretty bad so that’s not saying much. They taste a like someone has dipped a perfectly good maki roll into a pot of jam. Strawberries are a popular fruit in Japan but you don’t catch Japanese chefs putting them on sushi. This is why. The spider rolls (crab and chilli), though, were seriously good: closer in quality to Nobu than Yo! Sushi.
The picanha steak – the only dish we ordered that borrowed more from Brazilian cuisine than Japanese – is cut from the uppermost layer of the cow’s rump, so it comes with an intensely flavoursome layer of fat. At Sushinho it is served on a wooden board to make it look a bit more Japanese. It’s as good a steak as you can hope for in a sushi restaurant, although at £18 for 6oz, it doesn’t come cheap. I would tell you what the jumbo prawn was like but it didn’t arrive. When I pointed this out, the waitress looked incredulous and denied I’d ordered it.
Desserts were a step down: the churros (a bit like a doughnut sausage) were a bit too greasy and the chocolate, amaretto and brazil nut crunch somehow didn’t taste of anything at all. Still, you don’t go to a Brazilian-Japanese restaurant for dessert.
Sushinho gets a lot right – you can’t argue with the quality of the food – but that final leg, from kitchen to table, needs some serious work. You could almost, maybe, possibly forgive service like that in a provincial outpost of Bella Pasta. In central London, not so much.
First published in City A.M.