The oddest of avenues opened up after one of the best dinners I’ve eaten in recent times. I just can’t resist researching a bit of arcane back story. So picture a victorious Sumo wrestler, at the end of his bout, typically brandishing a red sea bream – potent symbol of good fortune and abundance for Japanese folk. Endorsed by the ‘Fish God’, consumption of this prestigious ‘celebration’ fish with the coppery red sheen is reputed to ward off evil spirits, too.
Pagrus major is the Latin name for the species; more prosaically the Japanese call their ‘King of the Hundred Fishes’ Madai. A nigiri of which (above) I have just gulped whole, as is the custom at a certain stage of a Kaiseki banquet. Bookended by mackerel and chu toro (tuna back and belly morsels), it is part of a trio of mouthfuls that showcase immaculate sourcing. Attention to detail is everywhere from the flecks of proper wasabi root, the 10-year aged soy with mirin and sake, top of the range hamachi and akami to match the madai quality.
No, I’m not in one of those exclusive downtown Kyoto supper clubs but in Lydgate, hilltop outpost of Oldham. The setting is the home of Vincent Braine co-founder of Musu, an extraordinary restaurant project arriving imminently in Manchester. His chef patron Mike Shaw has brought along his meticulously assembled brigade to cook a preview of the menu promised for the £2.5m transformation of the former Randall & Aubin site on Bridge Street.
No pressure then? Not if the actual 55 cover restaurant can regularly serve a meal as amazing as the one proffered to us, the elite few. Me neither on why I was invited. Just thankful. Maybe it was down to the effusive welcome I gave to the project. Much of it down to my awe at the cultural leap made by Shaw, a chef steeped in Francophile and Modern British cooking. Think a CV that includes Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons via Hambleton Hall and Aubergine, then at Michelin-starred Neat in Cannes.
Now he is charged with curating high end Japanese cuisine, albeit filtered through his own kitchen sensibility. Japanese with a contemporary twist, he’s calling the style. It oddly mirrors his namesake Simon Shaw’s adoption/adaptation of Catalan cooking at El Gato Negro. Fittingly the name Musu translates as ‘infinite possibilities’.
In all this it helps that Mike’s head sushi chef sidekick is Brazilian Andre Aguiar, trained by ‘renowned Japanese Sushi Master’ Yugo Kato. The first six months of his apprenticeship at Kato’s Dublin restaurant were consumed entirely by learning to properly cook rice – the priority in sushi. Cooked rice is referred to as gohan in Japanese. In a broader sense the word denotes ‘food’ or ‘meal’.
Andre will helm the intimate six-cover ‘Omakase’ counter in Musu, one of three menu options; the other are the flexible a la carte ‘Sentaku’ and ‘Kaiseki’, a seven or 11 course tasting menu. We get the latter at Lydgate.
It kicks off with chawanmushi, that savoury eggy custard seemingly ubiquitous at high end UK restaurants these days. This one, intense with garlic and parsley, is as good as it gets with a bijou morel mushroom tart sharing the Instagrammable ‘nest’. After which there isn’t a dud note. Exquisite sashimi to match the sushi; treatments of scallops, black cod and wagyu beef each transcending the Nobu wannabe clichés. Throughout assiduous application of caviar (kaluga and oscietra) feels like the hand of Shaw. Ditto the remarkable final pudding – a fusion masterpiece of iced white chocolate, fennel seed crumble and yuzu sorbet.
So a rewarding culinary experience, but is it true Kaiseki? And does it matter? On my trips to Japan I was never lucky enough to bag a seat at one of those elaborate almost meditative showcases for kyo-rori (traditional Kyoto cuisine), served in ancient wooden villas. Reservation for non-natives are as rare as hen’s teeth (not a dish by the way). This dining ritual has been honed for centuries, yet my it’s-becoming-a-habit research discovers the term Kaiseki wasn’t attached until the mid 19th century. It means ‘bosom’ or ‘stone’ and refers to the practice of monks holding warm stones to their chests to stave off hunger during winter.
I guarantee no server at Musu, due to open on Friday, November 18, will offer you a warm stone on arrival. Warm welcome definitely plus food that should radically upgrade the perception of Japanese food in the city (ramen an honourable exception). Despite a cavalcade of sushi rivals recently it has remained devalued culinary currency. Manc cannot live by California rolls alone.