Cardiff’s latest Japanese restaurant is getting rave reviews – but does it live up to the Godzilla-sized hype?
I remember a time before sushi. Not 1300s Japan, obviously. I’m not Connor Macleod (if only). No, I mean back in the mists of time, during the hazy, crazy days of the early 2000s. When Nu-Metal riffs were big and jeans were even bigger. Back when sushi was a punchline to a joke in this country – an excuse for sitcom characters to pull a face, or take the piss out of posh people. Raw fish? Ugh. What am I, a dolphin? No thanks.
And then, thank god, we woke up. Sushi is fantastic – fresh, healthy, and really, really tasty. Or at least – it can be. It can also be bloody awful (see Exhibit A below)
The supermarket sushi pack remains an office lunch staple, but god knows how. Hard, oddly fetid rice filled with fish factory floor sweepings of dubious origin. One whiff is enough to have an actual Japanese person silently eviscerating themselves over by the photocopiers.
The problem with the prepacked stuff is that it’s doomed to fail. Sushi has to be eaten so fresh that it’d still have a fair chance of Finding Nemo if released into the sea. No, if you want to actually enjoy sushi, you’ve got to make the effort to find a decent restaurant. Enter Wellfield Road’s new Japanese joint, Sushi Life.
The buzz around the place has been impressive. Fellow blogger-types Gourmet Gorro and The Plate Licked Clean have had more than a few good words to say about the place, and many a Cardiff twitterer seems to have fallen in love with Sushi Life overnight.
But, to quote the surprisingly prescient Super Hans from Peep Show, “People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can’t trust people” – recommendations and buzz are great, but they only go so far. I thought I’d best have a look in person. Completely selflessly, like.
It takes a lot to get me over to the other side of The ‘Diff (quite literally as it happens – @ScruffyDuke and I visited on Valentines Night, so an Uber cost us in the region of £15, while Dragon Taxis couldn’t be arsed to answer the phone), but upon arrival, all signs are encouraging. It’s busy early doors without being over-full, and judging by the steady stream of knackered looking Deliveroo riders arriving for pick-up, things are going pretty swimmingly (pardon the pun) for Sushi Life so far.
Without further ado we took a deep dive into the phonebook-thick menu that is the staple of Japanese restaurants everywhere, and ordered up some starters.
I always find that you need something to counterbalance the appalling healthiness of sushi, so starting with something deep fried is a sensible way to go – at Sushi Life, Chicken Gyozas are a fine way to kick things off. Generously filled with herby minced chicken, these semi-crisp little golden parcels were made for dipping in Asia’s second greatest contribution to world sauce, sweet chilli (Sriracha being number one, obvs.), and a fine example of the breed.
Starter number two – good old fashioned Tempura King Prawns served with a spicy mayo – is also a no brainer. They’re chunky and sweet, coated in an impressively light, grease free batter. Stomach suitably lined with deep fried goodies, it’s on to the actual raw fish.
Salmon Hosomaki were our first stop on the sushi train. They’re a staple you’ll find in your Tesco sushi pack, but while the unpleasantly dense, miserly little prepacked kind are more suited for use as ad-hoc shotgun ammunition in the impending zombie apocalypse, these are a totally different ballgame. Soft, delicate rice with melt in the mouth chunks of salmon actually big enough to taste – the complete antithesis of their supermarket brethren.
Sushi is always a good excuse for a honking great piece of tuna, so the Spicy Tuna Maki is another easy choice to make. Portion size is nice and generous at 8 pieces, and while these are not especially spicy, there’s plenty going on – crisp, fresh cucumber, an onion-y hum from the garnish and a welcome tang from the dressing (wasabi mayo, I think?), all playing to the rich, velvety fish that’s the star of the show.
As mentioned before, one of sushi’s few drawbacks is that it can all feel a bit virtuous – but that’s ok, you can have it deep-fried here too. I first came across deep-fried sushi at an utterly mental Vancouver restaurant called The General Public Sushi Lodge (like, ‘stuffed’ and mounted heads of pop culture characters from Yoda to Mickey Mouse on the walls mental) and I was a bit skeptical – the whole idea seemed like a bit of an oxymoron. But we’re not talking Glaswegian-Mars-Bar levels of deep-fried here – there’s a bit more finesse to it than that.
Sushi Life’s take – the cucumber and surimi (fish paste, but not that nasty stuff you used to get in a little jar) filled California Crunch roll – is given the lightest dusting of panko breadcrumbs and a quick dunk in the fryer for a delicately crunchy coating. Sushi is as much about texture as taste, and this adds another level.
Our final sushi dish was the Green Dragon roll, and what a way to finish. I hate to trot out that hoary old chestnut about eating with your eyes, but my god it looks gorgeous – all neon pinks and greens, like a Shinjuku shopping mall from the near future. You won’t know whether to eat it or hang it on your wall. I’d recommend the former, because otherwise you’re missing out. Also, it would smell after a while.
The whole concept of ‘clean eating’ is dangerous pseudoscientific guff, but ‘clean’ is the best way to describe how this tastes; the combination of creamy avocado, crunchy cucumber and meaty, yielding tuna together with the wasabi mayo is like a spa day for your taste buds.
You are of course going to need something to drink; the house wines are very decent, and ludicrously cheap, but if you can, do get yourself a bit of sake to complete the experience. The last time I had a serious quantity of the stuff was at Masa, a cracking, sadly now defunct Asian restaurant that was just around the corner from Brewdog in Bristol. Ritchie from Sushi Life describes it’s effects best – you drink it, then when you get up to go to the loo you find that your legs have mysteriously disappeared.
But you don’t need to get legless on disconcertingly warm rice wine to enjoy a meal at Sushi Life – it’s a real breath of fresh air, serving generous portions of great quality, beautiful looking seafood that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg (a fin and a flipper?!).
Is Sushi Life the plaice to be or a red herring? Let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter at @fuudblog.