A few days ago, on the day I turned thirty-six years old, I ate in SUSHISAMBA* for the very first time – proof that one is never too old for boozy nights out in trendy places. We had a booking at six in the evening – the only time I could get table in the dining room with a couple of weeks’ notice – and needed to vacate the table by eight. We certainly settled the bill in advance of the deadline, as a video I took in the ever-amazing glass elevator as we rapidly descended back down to Bishopsgate was time-stamped “20:08”, and we were hanging around up there for a while before that as The European had lost her facemask. We were back home by nine and I was tucked in by half ten… so maybe not as trendy as I would have liked.
SushiSamba is only eight years old but it’s already a London institution; if you’ve lived in London around and since the time of its opening, at the height of the city’s foodie epoch, then you’ll certainly have your own stories associated with the restaurant. Mine involve a few trips to its bar and roof terrace, one of which involved my friend getting accosted by many prostitutes and another where I was ejected from the queue to get in because I was sporting ripped jeans (I’ll leave you to decide which visit was less successful).
It’s almost as if SushiSamba thrives on debauchery tempered with exclusivity, in a Kardashian-esque crusade to be seen and heard (many punters visit for exactly the same reason). It’s especially well-known for the difficulties in securing a reservation, the fight for a table in the window (or any seat in the bar), and the prices; things that, in my opinion, a restaurant should not be famous for. This might be why it’s taken me so long to get there for a sit-down meal – a combination of being unable and/or unwilling to do so.
Covid-19 has turned this hive of hedonism into a very different place. Yes, the elevator was empty, allowing The European and I to savour London as its lights blossomed outwards from our feet, reminding us of all the reasons why we love this city so much. Upstairs, the bar, once permanently packed to the rafters, was empty – another casualty of Boris’ crystal clear “substantial meal” guidelines. Outside, the roof terrace and bar surrounding SushiSamba’s iconic orange tree was also desolate, save for a trio of shivering smokers. The restaurant was not full, but not so quiet that we could get a table at the window. It was always going to be a tall order (no pun intended). A couple vacated one such table, so we asked to be moved, only to be told there was a waiting list.
There’s no denying it – not having a view of West London immediately discards one of the main reasons I wanted to eat at SushiSamba. The food, a fusion of Brazilian, Japanese and Peruvian, is universally lauded as “good”, but in need of a liberal seasoning of alcohol and floor to ceiling windows.
When it comes to the small matter of eating, I was delighted but not surprised. The menu, lurching between those Asian and Latin American choices with a few mashups in between, is surprisingly easy to navigate, yet we still ended up ordering far too much. We concluded that the best thing to do if we return to SushiSamba is to pop in for a quick lunch of sushi rolls, as these were exceptionally good; the California rolls being amongst the best we’ve ever tried. The festive theme of ‘Christmas maki’ was admittedly a little bit lost on me, but its heady mix of fresh yellowtail and salmon, paired with decadent trimmings of caviar and truffle was more than a little addictive. We have always been desperate to try Kobe beef, and tried a couple of pieces of Kobe nigiri and sashimi. Wonderful, but just give me the whole steak next time and I’ll happily live on bread for the rest of the year.
Away from sushi et al., we continued to be pleasantly sustained. A pre-starter of green bean tempura with truffle aioli was fabulous; I could eat a big bowl of those all day long. Yellowtail taquitos with corn miso were sublimely refreshing, in contrast to the earthy wagyu gyozas which were nice enough, but in hindsight best enjoyed with copious amounts of beer and a muddied mind. We made the somewhat idiotic decision to order a main course each as well. My churrasco with chorizo and black beans was the second greatest disappointment of the evening, after the table allocation. Cooked to perfection, the ribeye was of poor quality and very stringy. The European’s first choice of black cod was sold out, so she went for lobster soba noodles with a chilli and coconut broth. Basically, all her favourite things in one bowl. She wasn’t disappointed.
By this stage we were struggling – we had even tried to cancel the noodles as they were the last thing to arrive and frankly, we didn’t need them. We admitted defeat, and doggie-bagged them, plus half the steak. By the time I got in from work the next evening, it was all gone. Turns out that while the cat was away, The European had a bit of a lunch feast.
For some reason, we ordered pudding. The European had mochi ice cream, which she summarised as “pretty much the stuff I can get I the supermarket for a third of the price”. I enjoyed an absolute pantomime of a dessert called ‘Welcome to the rainforest’, which was a rich, stodgy mush of asháninka chocolate, vanilla, coffee and cream, served in a porcelain cocoa bean. There was a pebble-like garnish on it. I took this garnish towards my mouth. The European looked up.
“Mike, that’s a stone”.
I put it in my mouth. It felt and tested stone-like. I spat it out. Now, the menu said the dessert contained ‘macadamia nut’ (singular). To this day, I still don’t know if this pebble was a heavily candied nut or an actual pebble. Surely SushiSamba wouldn’t try to take their rainforest dessert’s theming to the extreme by half-burying a black pebble in amongst a bowl of very dark brown mush?
The drinks – as always – were amazing. Beautifully crafted cocktails and expertly served sake. The service, something I never really took notice of when we were visiting the bar, was surprisingly very good, with a high level of attentiveness and personalisation. The bill came to about £three hundred and fifty, which was less pleasant (£forty had been paid upon reservation as a deposit). Although the whole evening at SushiSamba was fantastic – and I cannot tell you how much of a F.O.M.O.-related catharsis it is to actually eat there – I do prefer its sister restaurant, Duck & Waffle, one floor up. I am not sure we got £three hundred and fifty worth of value, if that makes any sense. Take about forty percent off the bill, and you’ve got yourself a deal… or maybe this is me secretly still seething about not being in the window?
*self-styled in capital letters, but I hate that so hereon referred to as “SushiSamba”.