On the way from Bond Street in central London to the quirky new Japanese tapas and sushi place Taka, to eat pillowy mochi cloud bread with nori seaweed butter, I noticed Marylebone High Street was near-empty. Well, aside from the occasional resident gathering supplies from Waitrose; masked-up, head down, heading back for an evening of telly. It felt comforting to reach Taka, the second London branch of this upmarket sushi and small plates joint, and to spy glowing lights and human life bustling. Taka was definitely open; folk were waiting to greet us. Back in July, I balked at temperature guns held to my person, but these days I rather enjoy it. It is a moment of human contact when one can share gallows humour with a stranger, and how often these days can we do that?
It has long been my view that restaurant columns do not sell restaurants, but instead sell readers a glimpse of another world, which they may not take my advice about, but enjoy the ride nevertheless. For this reason, I’ve tried to steer my weekly epistle away from being one long Edvard Munch screaming session with occasional nods towards panna cotta. But it is increasingly hard because I love restaurants and I love restaurant people; and now winter is coming, and I cannot guess what will be left of this landscape by spring.
In normal times in restaurant-land we’d now be bombarded by adverts for Christmas lunch menus. Party season would be on the horizon – brace yourself, fellas – with these two mad months of semi-lucrative “revelry” carrying businesses through an arduous January and February, when Britain weeps over its festive credit card bills, stops eating decadent food, hides from the cold and watches Netflix.
But this year, party season is cancelled and it is figuratively January 2021 already. As I attempt to book restaurants, I find many venues do not want to take a reservation even for the following week as they cannot be sure they’ll exist. They do this discreetly and elegantly of course, because they are hospitality people and they don’t want to darken your mood: their internal reservation system is flipped to fully booked, their Instagram posts are chipper and full of blue-sky thinking, but they are purposefully opaque about opening hours. And as each of these chefs gives up and hands back the keys to their landlord, I recall the Stevie Smith poem about the poor dead man who, it transpires, was “not waving, but drowning”.
But anyway, I should explain the Japanese small plates. If you go to Taka, which I think you should, this side of the menu is possibly the more interesting. There are excellent bluefin tuna Californian rolls in many Japanese restaurants across London – and Taka is one of these – but it is in the small dishes such as the Loch Duart salmon tataki, seared then served with shio kombu on a pond-green chilli sauce, where this restaurant earns its stripes.
This is where Taka is playful, purposefully odd and ultimately heartwarming. I’d return merely for the nasu dengaku, which is nothing to look at but a bowl of sloppy miso-glazed roasted aubergine, but transpires to be a slick culinary masterpiece loaded with rich undertones of fermented plantain. A humble bowl of sushi rice appears laced with wagyu fat, sukiyaki sauce and sheets of nori so one can sort of load one’s own sushi, taco-style. There is a bowl of Japanese chips called “Lord of the Fries” laced with Exmoor caviar, truffle and parmesan, which feels very much like the last line I’ll type before the revolutionary forces put my head in a wicker basket. I may as well add that I didn’t care much for their miso black cod.
The mochi flatbread is most closely comparable to a large buttery chunk of focaccia. It comes with a jug of runny, seaweed-scented butter and a brush to spread it as if one is sprucing the Forth road bridge. The cocktail menu at Taka is wonderful; I drank the world’s greatest, smokiest Old Fashioned, freshly made but delivered in an apothecary-style bottle filled with bonfire-scented smoke, like a walk home from Brownies in 1979.
It is at moments like this that I thank God for restaurants as they lift us out of our world, just for a short time, and dump us somewhere more affable, where laughing and silliness still exist. For me, every “open” sign along the high street is a good news story. Here’s to everyone determinedly not drowning, but still swimming against the tide.
Taka, 109 Marylebone High Street, London, W1, 020 3637 7677 . Open for lunch Thur-Sat noon-3pm (4pm Sun), dinner Tue-Sat 5pm-10pm. About £75 a head, plus drinks and service.