Kushi-Ya, 1A Cannon Court, Long Row W, Nottingham NG1 6JE. No reservations for lunch. Snacks £3.50, plates and skewers £5.50 to £14, desserts £5 to £7, wines from £24
It would be easy for lazy readers to describe Nottingham’s Kushi-Ya as a hidden gem. Admittedly, it is very well hidden. The first time I visited the site was virtually, thanks to Google Street View. I made my way through a main road, past the outposts of Maryland Chicken and Mega Munch, and found myself studying the digital view of a hard-packed urban alley; the kind that could accommodate groping couples who can’t wait to get inside after the pubs close.
But hidden treasures must be found. Just because a London-based restaurant reviewer like me never found my way to this wonderfully good place celebrating the flavors and methods of Japanese izakayas doesn’t mean it’s just begging to be discovered. Early midday on weekdays, it quickly fills up with locals who obviously know it’s there. As I ate from one course to the next that was totally smashing, beautifully crafted and perfectly priced, two thoughts came to mind. The first was that I really have to thank my Nottingham-based friend, the terrifically witty and intelligent novelist Mhairi McFarlane, for the recommendation. (Consider yourself thanked, Mhairi). The second thought was: why, except for a small mention in olive magazine, had I not found anything else about it in the national press since it opened in 2018?
It all started, as so many big food companies do these days, with a supper club. This was run by Simon Carlin, then head chef of Nottingham’s Iberico World Tapas, and Tom Clay of The Railway, a pub in Lowdham, a few miles east of the city. Tickets would sell out quickly. Finally, they invested this space upstairs, in the attic of a listed building, formerly the seat of a vegetarian café. (It is reached by a steep staircase and as the building is listed there is no lift so it is not wheelchair accessible.)
There’s little vertical blond wood paneling and a splash of blue tiling to the side of the bar where there’s a counter with additional seating. A few slightly austere Japanese jackets hang on the walls as decoration. Otherwise, it’s a clean white space of bare wooden tables, under the arched roof with exposed beams. There’s an open kitchen on an elevated level, occupied by intense young British men with beards to match.
What emerges is a deft collection of wonders. The menu is divided between snacks, small plates and kebabs, complemented by a few specialties. Most of them are priced around £6 or £7 per plate, with a single dish reaching the dizzying heights of £14. We’ll get there. We start with their sweet and sour and crunchy marinated daikon, baby turnips and cucumber. So far, so good. But now comes the first sign that something intriguing is going on here. Their shrimp toast is a sweet reversal. The golden fried bread is the wrapper of a thick spring roll encased in a tight package of fresh, squeaky shrimp. There’s a squiggle of umami-rich Japanese mayonnaise and, through that, a generous dash of furikake seasoning, that potent flavor bomb of nori, sesame and bonito. It’s both delicious and funny.
Next are the tempura shishito peppers in a lace batter coat, like the padrón peppers that were taught the dance of the seven veils, with a soy-based dipping sauce. Among the specials, for £8.50 we get a beautiful piece of Japanese ceramic filled with sautéed wild mushrooms in a brown butter ponzu sauce. There’s a candied egg yolk, the color of the setting sun, to mix with the mushrooms, and through that handful of watercress for a micro touch of spice. Now I’m in love.
Equally fun is the kebab menu. New potatoes are barbecued until smoky and bursting from their skins, then dipped in a creamy green-flecked vinaigrette of dried seaweed. They call it a nori ranch. But why stop there? Because here comes big dribble of their thick chili oil full of roasted notes and power. These are potatoes that have shown tremendous love and affection. Follow that up with specials with thick glazed duck hearts grilled so they still have bite, then sprinkled with yellow flecks of nose-tingling mustard. Or make chicken tsukune, the meat minced and seasoned, and formed on skewers like pointed ovals, before being grilled and glazed, along with another of their egg yolks. Maybe you want something a little brighter next to all those dark, caramel and soy frostings? Maybe you need a little break. Welcome to the table, then, a bowl of greens, just steamed, in a yuzu-ginger vinaigrette designed to gently massage your back.
Right. Back we go. Their contribution to the cult of sando, that is, outrageous things between thick crustless slices of the finest white bread, plays like a happy riff on the prawn cocktail. Chopped prawns are formed into a thick patty that has been breaded and fried. It’s slammed into bread and coated with a thick layer of gochujang-boosted marie rose sauce. Yes, of course, there is shredded lettuce. Besides being delicious, it’s a thrill in texture.
Finally, before (almost) admitting defeat, we are treated to a large piece of pork shoulder slowly braised then caramelized with sweet soy. The thickly glazed meat comes off. It comes with ginger and spring onion relish, a bowl of leftover golden tempura and a small bottle of sweet sauce, plus crispy lettuce leaves to use as wraps, a bit like a Korean ssambap. It’s both clever and a massive amount of serious entertainment for £14. The dessert menu includes a Tira-miso, a Japanese version of the Italian classic. We have the super sweet frozen black sugar parfait with a thick golden sesame crisp.
Sweeten that sugar rush with a sake or yuzu margarita or try one of their Japanese whiskeys. The beer list goes beyond Asahi’s usual offering. At some point, probably while I was wrapping one of those adorable pieces of melty pork shoulder in lettuce, I mumbled under my breath that Kushi-Ya was my restaurant of the year. A few days later, and I’m sticking with it. Maybe something will come in the next few months to prove me wrong, but in terms of wit, skill, delights, prizes and utter joy, I can’t imagine that happening. It’s not a hidden gem. I didn’t know it was there. I’m happy to do it now.
Good news from Sheffield. In May, shortly after reviewing my very enjoyable lunch there, Juke & Loe announced that the lease was in effect at their Ecclesall Road site. Brothers Luke and Joseph Grayson had been unable to negotiate a suitable renewal and therefore had to close. Now they’ve posted less-than-subtle clues to their Instagram account — a photo of the street sign, with the offer of a free meal for two for the first person to guess the location — that they’re taking over the site of what was Milestone on Ball Street in Kelham Island. No date has yet been announced for the reopening.
Elsewhere in Sheffield, Joro owners Luke French and Stacey Sherwood-French have coined the truly dreadful word ‘grocer’ for what sounds like an interesting business: a combination food store and restaurant, set to launch in spring 2023 as part of the redevelopment. of the town’s Oughtibridge stationery.
And this week’s ‘read the room’ special: an email arrives from three Michelin-starred Core by Clare Smyth in Kensington, London. On November 1, they’re hosting what they say is a “must-do dining experience.” It is a five-course menu, each of which will be associated with “different expressions” of the Dom Pérignon champagne house. You know the kind of thing. A white truffle caviar sandwich to accompany the 2012 vintage; Scottish lobster to accompany the 2008. Are you tempted? Why not reserve a seat or two. It’s £850 per person, even if that includes service (corebyclaresmyth.com).