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8th Floor, The Helios,
101 Wood Lane,
London W12 7FR
BY NEAL MARTIN | OCTOBER 16, 2020
“My Business Card” (three types of tuna served with a leaf of Japanese nori)
Line-caught brill sashimi with Spanish winter truffle
Seared tuna with a soy and brown sauce reduction
Cornish red mullet nigiri
Cornish monkfish tempura with Pied de Mouton mushroom broth
Yamadanishiki “Kunkou” salmon nigiri
Cornish mackerel nigiri
Miyazaki Wagyu beef served with a white miso sauce
Homemade sea bream sandwich served with Spanish winter truffles
Seasonal fruit with yuzu cream
|2015 Louis Michel & Fils Chablis Forêts 1er Cru||89|
|2015 Domaine Mittnacht Frères Riesling Rosacker Grand Cru||91|
|2011 Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile||92|
Endo At The Rotunda is the hottest ticket in town. Three friends already had reservations for the following fortnight when I visited in mid-February – word of mouth travels fast among epicures. Opening in April 2019 to rave reviews, Endo At The Rotunda gained a Michelin star in their latest prize-giving ceremony. Reservations and advance payment must be made one month in advance, and since this old romantic had Valentine’s Day in mind, I had no option but to book from my hospital bed 10 minutes before surgery with a cannula sticking out of my left hand. Needs must!
Inside the Endo At The Rotunda restaurant.
The location of Endo At The Rotunda must be highlighted, as it will chime with those my age and nationality (apologies to non-inhabitants of this Sceptred Isle). The restaurant, self-described as “sushi in the clouds,” perches on the eighth floor of the iconic original BBC Television Centre in Wood Green atop the affectionately nicknamed “doughnut” building that surrounds the Helios statue. Growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, life revolved around television, and television revolved around the BBC. My fervid young imagination pictured BBC Television Centre as a hive of household names, creating programs to educate and entertain the population down the cathode ray tube. Peering down upon Helios, I was whisked back to 1977 and all-around entertainer Roy Castle orchestrating a 500-strong dance troupe in an attempt to break the world record for the largest tap dance (incidentally, several participants were trained by my mum). This Busby Berkeley spectacle, beamed directly to teatime TV, instantaneously transformed BBC Television Centre from a rather utilitarian studio complex into a magical kingdom. Alas, the premises were vacated in 2013 and the nation shed a tear as its studio lights were switched off for the last time. Our beloved doughnut building was predictably reincarnated as luxury apartments. No television is made here anymore, or at least that’s what I thought, but I’ll come back to that later.
The ingenious setting for Endo At The Rotunda is exploited by its inspired design. The lift opens up into a spacious room lit by floor-to-ceiling windows that afford views down onto Helios and across West London’s rooftops. To impart Japanese ambiance, reeds blow in the wind outside, bonsai decorate workstations and above your head are suspended large sheets of white paper – all very Tokyo minimalist chic. The single room accommodates two interconnected L-shaped tables made from 200-year-old hinoki wood sanded as smooth as a baby’s bottom, one for diners and a second serving as a bar. The team of chefs, smartly dressed in full whites, work behind the table and prepare each dish in front of you from scratch. Diners are served a set “chef’s choice” or omakase menu simultaneously, so prompt arrival is necessary lest you get left behind, though our tardy neighbors who arrived a couple of courses late were graciously allowed to catch up.
You need steady hands to be a sushi chef.
The head chef is Endo Kazutoshi, a third-generation sushi master who previously worked at the fabled El Bulli in Spain and as executive head chef for the hugely successful Zuma Group. Endo was not present at our lunch sitting; apparently he was in Devon inspecting the local fish, a task that he undertakes himself every week. Of course, there is a bit of theatre, watching the chefs slicing and dicing, meticulously constructing dishes with chopsticks at close quarters, but also heralding each new serving with a hollered chorus in Japanese. I like this touch. It adds a bit of drama and noise to what could otherwise be quite an austere ambiance.
We commenced with a white miso soup. It was dinky but sublime. Eschewing the use of nori (seaweed) or tofu for enoki mushrooms, the miso itself consisted of a dashi broth - a simple mixture of water, kombu (dried kelp) and bonito flakes. I love miso soup and eat it regularly at home. It should always be simple and comforting, cleansing the palate and readying it for the following course – which in this case was the curiously titled “My Business Card.” I’m still not quite sure of the reason for the name, but it was oishii. It consisted of a sheet of special nori, a handed-down recipe from Endo’s grandfather in Yokohama comprising two types of seaweed seasoned with an eight-year-old Japanese vinegar. This was rolled but not completely closed so that you could examine the three kinds of tuna: otoro (belly), the less-fatty loin and the cheek. This was outstanding in every way, to the point where I might suggest it should have come at the end of the meal.
The exquisite sashimi dish came with miniature radishes, each meticulously placed with chopsticks on the plate.
I inquired about the source of the fish, and most appear to come from Brixham in Devon. The line-caught brill sashimi served with Spanish winter black truffles worked well, the truffle, unlike at The Araki, judiciously shaved so that it did not overwhelm the subtle flavors of the fish. Next came a flurry of sushi that were served not on a plate, but just like at Araki, placed into your palm and eaten whole, coronavirus notwithstanding (make sure your hands are clean before taking your seat). The seared tuna came with a soy and brown sugar reduction that made it a sweet delight. This was followed by a Cornish red mullet nigiri and otoro nigiri sourced from Spain, the latter just a little heavy on the wasabi for my liking.
Oishii desu! Delicious belly tuna sushi.
There was a break from the sushi in the form of a Cornish monkfish tempura with a sauce made from Pied de Mouton mushrooms. Now, I love tempura and this was excellent, but I personally would not have served it with the sauce, which quickly saturated the tempura and turned it into a soggy though tasty swamp. I would separate the two and use the Pied de Mouton sauce elsewhere.
The tempura dish. Wonderful, but the sauce would have been better served separately.
Returning to the sushi, one of the highlights of the meal was the Yamadanishiki “Kunkou” salmon nigiri. Yamada Nishiki is a highly regarded short-grain rice that is the base for many of Japan’s top sake wines due to its efficient absorption of water, and here it is used to smoke the salmon. A wooden box is ceremoniously passed among diners so that they can inhale the salmon before serving. The smoky taint was less pungent than I expected and the salmon itself had a melt-in-the-mouth texture. The final fish dish was Cornish mackerel nigiri. I am a massive fan of this most underrated fish on the planet, not to mention its cholesterol virtues. This had just the right amount of saline tang that might have been missing from the run of sweeter nigiri that preceded it.
Then came another highlight: Wagyu beef sourced from the Miyazaki prefecture, A4 grade. Readers should consult my previous Vinous Table, Yakiniku Futago, where I present some background information on Wagyu beef. The meat itself was precisely sliced into small squares and drizzled with a light green sauce made from white miso. Sublime. We were told that the miso is incredibly rare, just 300kg produced in the city of Kobe each year, and Endo is the only restaurant beyond Japan to have access. Maybe instead of drizzling it over the meat for aesthetic reasons, it would have been better served separately?
I love the almost vitreous luminosity of fresh mackerel skin.
I added one dish from the à la carte menu: a homemade sea bream sandwich served with winter Spanish truffle. Our chef told us that Endo-san had gone to Japan for six months to learn how to make proper bread, so maybe I would have liked a little more than the inch-square morsels, mouthwateringly delicious as they were. Coupled with the sea bream, the bread was wonderful, and it combined beautifully with the truffle and the splodge of mayonnaise. To finish, a bowl of seasonal fruit was served in a Japanese yuzu cream with tiny spheres of chocolate that I initially mistook for small berries. This was an exceptionally fine finish, the fruit sweet and subtle in flavor and marrying surprisingly well with the chocolate.
One letdown was the brevity of the wine list. The choices are commendable but will not give oenophiles much to choose from. I counted 11 choices of white and around the same for red, though of course there is a variety of sake and a sake-matching option for an additional charge. I opted for three whites, each served by the glass. The 2015 Chablis Forêts 1er Cru from Louis Michel & Fils is well defined albeit just a little conservative on the Muscat-tinged nose, lacking the pizzazz of the two accompanying Rieslings. The palate is balanced and displays a fine bead of acidity given the vintage, though I was seeking a little more mineralité and persistence on the finish. The 2015 Rosacker Grand Cru Riesling, which comes from 40-year-old biodynamically cultivated vines not far from Clos Ste. Hune, courtesy of Domaine Mittnacht Frères in Hunawihr, shows well and represents the best value of the three. Bright scents of pear, nectarine and melon on the nose, a well-balanced palate with particularly good attack toward the finish, and fine length all combine to make a very satisfying Alsace; I ordered a second glass. Keeping to the same region and grape variety, I chose a 2011 Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile from Domaine Trimbach. The nose is driven by Granny Smith apples that intermingle with yellow plum and subtle jasmine aromas. It is nicely defined, though it was given a run for its money by Mittnacht’s Riesling. The palate is poised, with fine acidity and bite, moderate length and a mineral-driven, slightly petrolly finish. This is not the greatest Frédéric Emile I have encountered, but it is maturing well, if at its own leisurely pace.
The solitary meat dish was this A4-grade Wagyu from Miyazaki.
Dinner at Endo is £180 per person, which is expensive compared to the capital’s finest restaurants, including those with one and two Michelin stars. It’s not just the food you’re paying for but also the limited covers – in other words, the exclusivity. For that reason, I booked lunch at a wallet-friendly £60 per person. At that price and quality level, Endo represents a pretty good value for those who demand impeccably sourced ingredients, prefer to see sushi prepared in front of them, and desire a Japanese-themed setting with theatrical accoutrements. One niggle is that the service was completed in approximately 90 minutes of our allotted two-hour sitting, whereupon a supplementary menu was presented. It’s a slightly cheeky way to wangle a bit more cash from diners, but then again, that additional course was delicious. I would prefer to pay an extra £10 upfront and be served it free of charge.
Homemade sea bream sandwich served with Spanish winter truffles.
There is no doubting the quality of ingredients. The sushi was uniformly outstanding, quite rich compared to others. The menu could be improved by interpolating one or two non-pescatarian dishes to mix things up. Having dined at both Endo At The Rotunda and Araki within days of each other, I felt a comparison must be made. I found little difference in terms of the quality of sushi. Araki demonstrated a little more flair and perhaps gustatory adventurism, though I prefer the location and ambiance of Endo. Factoring in cost, I would choose to return to Endo. On the other hand, neither restaurant alters my ambivalence toward the ceremony that surrounds these top-tier sushi-ya, nor do I get a kick out of being fortunate enough to occupy one of its in-demand chairs at the counter. I am fully aware that for some, these factors are as important as what you eat, but for this writer, it is not the essence of Japanese cuisine and pales against my most memorable dining experiences in Japan.
Seasonal fruit with yuzu cream.
Exiting BBC Television Centre, I looked back and imagined what it must have been like in its heyday. Now it’s yet another urban rash of spruced-up, soulless luxury flats that look as if they lie empty most of the year. How sad that the magic of television is just a memory.* I could almost hear the sound of 1,000 tap shoes clicking in unison around Helios. Approaching the front plaza, I noticed a small crowd and a camera crew. Lo and behold, the UK’s most famous TV duo, Ant and Dec, were filming a sketch for their new Saturday night show. Watching them redo the scene dozens of times, I was taken by their perfectionism, an ethos shared by the sushi chefs whose skills we had just savored. The only difference is that while the chefs’ talent can only be appreciated by 15 people at a time, Ant and Dec’s is enjoyed by 15 million.
* In fact, I later learned that three studios continue to operate here.