Ever agonized over the perfect place to go on your first date? The right choice can affect on how well it goes; the wrong choice can end up in tumbleweed silences and a polite handshake goodbye. Well no more, because food writer/single girl and Grazia Daily columnist Tess Ward is on a mission to roadtest the perfect restaurants to take your date to. Tess Ward is a food writer, Le Cordon Bleu trained chef and host of West London's exclusive tailor-made cookery programmes. She is also a twenty-something singleton, on the hunt for the best date-night eateries in our new weekly column. If you are looking for a spot to wine, dine, schmooze or snooze, the newest food trends, best rooftops, dark corners and vodka martinis, check here every Thursday for a nibble of the action.
This week I released the reigns for date night dinners and let a friend of mine set me up. It isn't every day one gets set up on a blind date; in fact this was actually only my third ever. My opinion of blind dates is a little like my view towards Tinder, great in theory but almost never successful and very stress inducing. I don't think I am alone in my scepticism in allowing my friends to act as a part-time cupids, but since I didn't have the time to pull the bow on a boy myself, I threw in the towel for this once and gave it a whirl.
My date for the night turned out to be a tall, friendly and charming thespian, (in the nicest possible way). Not my type, but lovely all the same. I was surprised cupid had done so well. An actor as much by nature as profession, there was no shortage of vocal projection, expressive storytelling, and well-timed comedic deliveries to keep me entertained, that's for sure.
The venue for the night was none other than Michelin-starred, Japanese sushi hotspot, Umu. Tucked away in the heart of Mayfair, Umu is one of those serene establishments that you only have to walk into to feel the tendrils of city stress ripple off you. Decked out with a heavy, expensive looking wooden interior, it is plush and polish at its highest. I was also rather taken with its sliding entrance door. Certainly slightly a bit of a juxtaposition to the old-style swank of the restaurant itself, but a novelty all the same.
To begin the meal, we ordered a couple of cocktails. For me, a Dirty Vodka Martini, which tasted like it was laced with ethanol and an Old Fashioned for him. Two sips was all I could manage of my drink, I really should have opted for the sake! We dined on the traditional Kaiseki menu, yet again I was persuaded that eight courses of food post a day of recipe development was a good idea. (I should have learnt my lesson after dinner at the Dairy). To begin was a pleasing little taste of their salmon sashimi with cod roe. It was a lovely light, refreshing start to begin with.
Next came an opaque white miso and sesame soup with fresh seasonal veggies. It was a rich, creamy and rather mellow in flavour, pepped up by the pop of tomato and fresh crunchy mangetout.
Third was the sashimi platter. An vast selection of sea bass (no doubt a lot of it had been delivered that day), two hunks of blood red tuna and a couple of slithers of stone bass. As I understood from the waiter, stone bass is a rare find for sushi, I certainly hadn't tried it before. I found it a little tough, fibrous and lacking in flavour. Most of it ended up either back on the plate or stuck between my teeth. The tuna was superb, as fresh tuna should be, although a little lean for my tastes. I have developed rather a penchant for oily fish in particular fatty tuna in recent months (she says decadently) and wouldn't have minded a bit of that instead.
Following on with the fish theme was the next plate of crispy skinned bass with bonito flake dust and little edaname. The fish was soft, flaky and delightfully cooked with a perfect crisp skin. The bonito too was delicious but the flavour could have been a little stronger, or there could have been more of it. It was lost a little against the plain white fish.
My second favourite dish of the meal was the lotus pond of dashi, serves with baby udon noodles and the most mouth-watering raw and unseasoned prawns I have ever slid over my tongue. Just look at my instagram (@tesswardchef) and you will get the idea! Marinated to within and inch of their life and utterly moorish.
The next dish, (I forget which we are on four, or five), and the true star of the show was the wagyu beef. Four spectacular squares of marbled, fatty, buttery beef, as smooth and silk and finer than wine. There was silence at the table for the next 15 minutes whilst we slipped them down. If I go to Umu again (and I can persuade my date to do so) this is the dish, I will be ordering and not sharing.
The last savoury dish to the table was the lobster chirashi bowl, served on sticky rice, with a light coral sauce. The lobster was delicious sweet, tender and undeniably fresh, but the coral sauce was a little cloying and the rice under seasoned. The beef would have been a better high to end on.
Pudding and petit fours were the final things to come, a rather obscure and unfulfilling crunchy peach salad with little marshmallows, and fruity jelly, madeleines, macaroons and a large green tea to wash it all down.
I left Umu filling full and satisfied and ready to call it a night. The date was fun, enjoyable and the thespian was certainly interesting, but no spark was to be found. Hopefully I have made myself a new friend instead. Not one to miss a lovely summer evening, I decided against the tube, in favour of meander through the back streets towards home, tummy filled with some of the most delicious Japanese food in Mayfair.
Umu, 14-16 Bruton Place, London, W1. 0207 499 8881.
London foodies, if you have any suggestions for dating hotspots you love in London, please do tweet me @tesswardchef