When I was at school, one of my brother’s friends used to refer to himself as “having grown up in the Bronx”. With a ponceyness well beyond his years, he was appropriating for himself the role of the poor underdog, making his way in his world of rich kids using only his razor sharp intellect. In truth, his parents were a respected political journalist and a university arts lecturer, so in no way did he grow up on the wrong side of town or in any sort of dysfunctional family – just in a house lacking a swimming pool, really! I smile when I catch myself these days doing something similar and referring to where I live in London as “the sticks” or “the wilds of E16″. As anybody who has visited my house knows, it is close to the station, close to water, and blessed with an abundance of green open spaces. But the fact is that it remains an unfashionable postcode, and we suffer fron a true dearth of local dining options. Unless you want to buy your dinner from Eastern Fried Chicken, Domino’s or something similar, your take-away options are severely limited. Which explains my delight when a Feng Sushi menu was pushed through my mail slot last week, with the hallowed words: “We deliver to E16″.
The reason became apparent a week or so later when I received an invitation to join founder and chef Silla Bjerrum for a blogger’s dinner at Feng Sushi’s latest outpost – in Billingsgate market, which is not a million miles from E16. Ideally situated in the middle of one of the world’s biggest and most famous fish markets, the Billingsgate Feng Sushi provides a sushi delivery and take-away service, with their extensive menu being available from 11am until 10pm. Although there is usually no restaurant on the premises, I was lucky enough to be one of a group of food bloggers to be invited to enjoy a meal at a table in the kitchen, prepared and narrated by Feng Sushi founder Silla Bjerrum. Danish-born Silla founded Feng Sushi together with Jeremy Rose in 1999 and the chain has gone from strengh to strength: there are currently eight branches. From the start Silla introduced seasonality and sustainability to the menu at Feng Sushi, using the best ingredients such as sustainable salmon, line caught mackerel, local crab and hand dived scallops. Silla supports sustainable fish farming and is active in the dialogue about the future of fish and fish farming, as well as being an ative and vocal supporter of te Marine Stewardship Council. Feng Sushi branches source their ingredients as locally as possible and only serve sustainable fish. But as Silla was about to demonstrate to us, eating sustainably does not mean compromising on flavour or variety.
Our evening started off with a Champagne cocktail made with aged brown rice sake. Sake, like tequila, is one of those drinks that you are convinced that you don’t like, but that’s probably only because all the examples you have had up to now have been cheap and nasty! The combination of Champagne and the maltym, almost savoury sake (a little like Amontillado sherry) is quite heavenly. As we sat and chatted, we were also presented with the evening’s menu – nine courses of fishy deliciousness. Evidently, we were in for a treat. first up was a plate of Loch Duart sake-cured salmon sashimi and nigiri with MSC certified ikura (salmon roe). Silla explained that although there is a popular perception that wild salmon is tastier and more environmentally friendly than farmed salmon, this is not always the case as wild salmon consume far more food to reach adulthood than farmed salmon do. Either way, this was up there with the best salmon I have eaten: firm, fatty and full of rich flavour. I also loved the vividly-coloured ikura that provided a salty, briny foil for the fish.
While we were still savouring our salmon, Silla was already busy preparing the next course:line-caught mackerel sashimi. Although some people reject it as being “too fishy”, I have always been a huge fan of mackerel. I love its rich taste and oily texture, and it is always one of the prettiest fish on a fishmonger’s table. And although a couple of people at the table were a little wary of trying such a strong flavoured fish uncooked, the verdict was unanimously positive. I have never had mackerel as sashimi before, but I can’t imagine why more places don’t serve it as it’s heavenly. (Sadly, Silla informed us that campaigns to make us eat mackerel and other more sustainable fish rather than cod have proved almosttoo successful and mackerel stocks are now showing signs of stress too. Let’s hope stocks are sensibly managed and recover because I just can’t get enough of this beautiful fish!)
Our next course was a Japanese salad with avocado, green beans, broad beans and spinach leaves, topped with organic tofu and a miso dressing. The Clean Bean tofu is made by a chap in Brick Lane – fact! Following on from that came a little off-menu extra. Silla had saved the skin from the salmon in the first course and popped it into the deep-fryer. It emerged crispy, slightly smoky and tasting like the “sea bacon” as which it is evidently referred to. This crispy treat was served to us in the centre of California rolls and was a truly remarkable and delicious way to serve something that most of us would have discarded.
A small pile of cuttlefish bones on the prep table gave us a hint of what the next course was going to be: tempura cuttlefish with a creamy spicy dip. Cuttlefish is one of those ingredients that can go either way: it might be tender as butter, or it may be as chewy as a flip-flop. Thank heavens that on this occasion the former was true! The tempura batter was as light as a feather and beautifully seasoned, providing a nice contrast to the fresh sweetness of the cuttlefish flesh. I also loved the creamy spicy dip – overall the dish reminded me a lot of the rock shrimp tempura dish at Nobuu that I loved so much (but at a fraction of the price!)
While we were crunching our way through the cuttlefish, Silla was already at work behind us, wielding a rather large knife and some even larger scallops. These were MSC certified diver-caught scallops, meaning they were not caught by boats dredging the ocean floor, damaging and destroying coral reefs and ocean life. What astonished us was how small the usable flesh of the scallop is in comparison to the shell – rather like a fishy version of broad beams, there is a lot more “packaging” than actual product! Silla deftly flicked the shells open and retrieved the scallop flesh and used thin slices of it to top vegetarian California rolls. If you have ever had an overcooked and sad scallop in a restaurant, this is the perfect antidote: wobbly, nearly translucent and delicately-flavoured.
Up next was the one course that I was convinced I could happily eat every single day for lunch and stay perfectly happy (and healthy!): a warm mackerel salad with edamame and tahini dressing. Although the tahini dressing is obviously not a traditional Japanese addition, it’s creamy savouriness worked really well with the rich and lightly tempura-coated fish draped over a plate of mixed salad leaves and avocado. Superfood at its simple best.
The following dish was also one of the prettiest: a mini hand-picked crab donburi. For those who don’t know, a donburi is a Japanese “rice bowl dish” consisting of fish, meat, vegetables or other ingredients that are usually simmered together and served over a bowl of rice. Silla’s version topped the rice with a mixture of super-sweet crab meat, tiny cubes of Japanese omelette and tiny popping flavour bursts of golden fish roe. A feast for both the eyes and the tastebuds
Our last savoury dish was described by Silla as “fish and chips, Japanese style”: lemon sole tempura with remoulade and fries. Silla also showed us how to fillet a raw lemon sole (hint: carefully!) and how little flesh you actually get off it. Again, the secret to the success of this dish lay in its simplicity and in the freshest ingredients. The tempura was almost weightless (and grease-less!), allowing the freshest flavours of the fish to shine through. I aso loved the pickle-studded remoulade which made a great dip for the fries.
Last but not least came the dessert course – which was wisely kept small and simple, given the seafood feast we had just consumed. These chocolate mochi filled with chocolate ganache are made by London-based Little Moons. I have had mochi before and kind of felt I could take or leave them – with their springy texture (described by Euwen as “eating a squash ball”!) they are not to everybody’s taste! But that was before I had these chocolatey babies filled to the brim with rich chocolate ganache. They are wonderfully decadent and quite delightful washed down with slightly tart, amber-coloured Japanese plum wine (a fruit-infused sake rather than a wine).
In summary, it was a wonderful evening and Silla was a warm and impressive hostess. She is clearly passionate about both Japanese cuisine and how to make it accessible to Western palates, as well as about sourcing quality ingredients locally and sustainably. It was fascinating to see your food progressing from the whole fish to a completed dish on your plate before your eyes, and for those wishing to try their own hand at sushi, Silla runs regular sushi-making classes at the Notting Hill restaurant. As I said, the Billingsgate branch is only delivery and take-away, but Silla mentioned that there are plans afoot for a pop-up roof terrace restaurant there for the summer – surely a good enough reason to apply for a job in Canary Wharf at once! In the meantime, if you live or work in the vicinity of Billingsgate, do yourself a favour and try one of Feng Sushi’s menus – or even their 3-day healthy diet plan meals, delivered to your door. You’ll be doing the planet (and your tastebuds) a favour.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Feng Sushi
Unit Q9 Trafalgar Way
Billingsgate Market, Poplar
Tel: 020 7537 9160