Gaijin Sushi, 78 Bristol Street, Birmingham B5 7AH (0121 448 4250). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £60
I think I’m in love, in that sweaty-palmed, unhealthy way; the sort that makes you think you’re going down with the flu. The object of my desire: Ugly Delicious on Netflix, which I have binge watched until images of bronzed and shiny Peking duck, golden-carapaced fried chicken and plump, taut-skinned soupy dumplings were flashing through my tortured mind each night as I drifted off to sleep.
American-Korean chef David Chang and the food writer Peter Meehan had already disrupted the cosy, hugging-and-learning school of food media with their magazine Lucky Peach. Chang has never cooked anything with love; it has always been with filthy lust. Now, across a set of themed episodes – fried chicken or pizza, tacos or fried rice or crayfish – they have done the same for television. They travel the world, with suitable guides – our own Fuchsia Dunlop makes repeated, bemused appearances – in what feels like a gloriously haphazard set of jump cuts, interrogating issues of cultural identity. Deftly, they put to death notions of authenticity in food. Chang compares the latter to a nation state run by a dictator. All that matters, they say, is whether the food tastes good.
Sometimes they make grandstanding statements; Chang has always been a champion provocateur. (He once gave me a kicking over what was essentially a positive review; God knows what he’d have done if I’d hated his restaurant.) But he does it with a clear-eyed sense of self and the ridiculous. What and how we eat is such a part of who we feel we are, that inevitably it leads us to emotional outbursts. Chang is reliably emotional. If he didn’t seem to hate me, I’m sure we’d be friends.
I thought a lot about Ugly Delicious as I booked in to Birmingham’s Gaijin Sushi, which appears to be getting its apology in first. Depending on who is using the word, Gaijin is either an aggressively offensive word for non-Japanese people, or a self-mocking term used by non-Japanese people to signify their otherness. Either way it applies here, because this is a sushi joint run by a tall Polish chap with a shapely beard called Michal Kubiak. Previously he cooked at Sushi Passion in the city, where he developed a following among the city’s chefs. Before that, he cooked in a Japanese restaurant in Poland.
So no, he has not laboured with some ancient Japanese sushi master for decades before being allowed to even wash the rice. He has not been forced to stand outside by the bins practising his knife skills until he can turn a whole turnip into an unbroken single ribbon. He’s a Polish guy who loves Japanese food. And if any of that bothers you, because you just adore a cultural stereotype, then please go somewhere else. Gaijin Sushi is an utter delight. Is it the very best sushi in the world? No. It probably isn’t even the best sushi in the Midlands. (There’s a place on a back street in Derby called Ebi that people mutter about in hushed tones.) But it’s very solid and does its thing with grace, humour and enthusiasm.
Gaijin opened in March. It’s a tiny space, on a slightly brutal shopping parade next to the A38. The room is dominated by an L-shaped blonde wood counter seating just 12. Currently they are unlicensed, but they’ll let you bring your own booze for a small corkage fee. (Note to Birmingham locals: they are also on Deliveroo. Please support. It’s not like most of the food will get cold.)
Hot steamy bowls of fragrant miso soup – is that sesame oil I smell or something else? – come with pieces of salmon bobbing in their depths. There are two tempura options, salmon and prawn, though as both are panko breadcrumbed rather than battered and lacy, I’m not sure they quite qualify as tempura. But as with the arguments on authenticity, I’m really not that inclined to give a toss. They can call them new wave tempura, or Japanese fritters or Keith for all I care. Let’s just describe them as very fine deep-fried things. Discs of salmon are soft beneath their crisp overcoat as if they have steamed in just seconds (the steaming of breadcrumbed foods being the whole point of most deep frying). These are also both extremely good value. Just £8 brings you six big prawns, each longer than my middle finger and trust me, I have big hands. It’s a steal.
The same applies to the nigiri sushi, which are about £4 for two pieces. Slices of sticky, grilled eel are blowtorched until the oils are just starting to run, then dribbled with a little more teriyaki sauce. There are sweet, glossy translucent prawns, and surf clams, running from a deep crimson to white, like the petals of a variegated rose. There is the deep purple of tuna, and salmon with the lines of fat ribboning it in white. (A perfect example of the pointless debate over authenticity. Up until the 1970s, Japan imported very little fish, which meant salmon was not a part of the sushi repertoire. It took an enterprising Norwegian trade delegation, looking for new markets, to change that.)
We have spicy tuna rolls, with a proper late-blooming kick of heat, and seaweed-wrapped rolls of crispy prawn and eel, an endlessly pleasing call and response of soft and crunch. They’re the Baptist church of uramaki rolls. Crab rolls come topped with bright orange beads of tobiko, the roe of the flying fish, like a comedy nod to Donald Trump’s combover. The eggs burst satisfyingly beneath our teeth. There are tight prawn maki rolls and, most outrageous of all, a tempura roll, tightly filled with prawn, salmon, tuna and avocado, then lightly battered and deep fried before being sliced up. The rice in all of these is perfectly fine: very lightly vinegared, a degree or so above room temperature as it should be.
We have run up a bill just shy of £90, but much more out of a sense of professional duty than appetite. I’ve always been one to take one for the team. At Gaijin you can feed yourself properly for £30 a head. One thing to be aware of: they don’t open for lunch until 2pm, which may be a way of controlling trade in such a small space or may just be because it’s their place and they can run it how the hell they like. I’d like to think it’s the latter.
Jay’s news bites
Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie are British cooks who, like Michal Kubiak at Gaijin Sushi, became fascinated by a culinary tradition a long way from them, in their case that of Thailand. The resulting restaurant, Som Saa in Spitalfields, is an antidote to over-sweetened green curries. Go for a black-pepper stir fry with lamb sweetbreads and oyster sauce, soy braised pork belly, or grilled aubergine salad with egg and prawn floss (somsaa.com).
This year’s National Festival of Making, held in Blackburn on 12-13 May, will reveal the results of the Reg Johnson Young Chef Schools Competition, held in memory of the vastly influential Goosnargh poultry farmer who died in 2015. Finalists have been challenged to make a dish using duck. The winning dish will be available at the festival.
Great news for fans of xiao long bao, the soupy dumplings of Shanghai. Din Tai Fung, which has 135 outlets worldwide, is soon to open its first British restaurant on London’s Henrietta Street.
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