I don’t tend to appreciate fusion food. It’s not that I’m some kind of culinary xenophobe, I just think that often when you take two clashing food cultures and force them into the same dish, it’s too easy to fuck them both up a little bit. Mac and cheese? Heavenly. Tacos? Delicious. A mac and cheese taco? No fucking thank you.
It was for this reason that I was sceptical when I learned we were to visit SUSHISAMBA for a friend’s birthday. A Japanese/Brazilian/Peruvian blend, my concern was that the gimmick of having some godforsaken combo of sushi and feijoada would be on the cards, and I’d be forking out thirty-odd quid for the pleasure of eating it.
However, reassured by good reviews and a few glances at its Instagram location page, I journeyed to Covent Garden a little more confident of what the experience would be. And I’m so glad I did, because it was a dining experience unlike any other I’ve tried.
The moment you ascend the steps at SUSHISAMBA, you’re surrounded by luscious foliage and vibrant colours as luxe tropical decor envelops the entrance to the bar. Even in the middle of the day, the space looks glamorous and inviting, and even sitting at a table in the middle of the restaurant floor instead of one of the plush Art Deco booths tucked to one side, our table of seven feels quite intimate.
The waiting staff are attentive, without being pushy. The suggestion of edamame and tempura green beans as nibbles for the table is welcomed, and my goodness, who could have guessed that the humble green bean could be elevated to such heights with nothing more than a crisp batter and some truffle mayo.
It took a while to decide on an order, as the menu is so varied, but with a few recommendations on portion sizes, customer favourites, and what to get if you’ve gone to a sushi restaurant looking for chicken, I think we managed quite well.
First up for us was the wagyu beef gyoza. Displayed on a vibrant splatter of yellow mustard, these little parcels of meat were oddly a little reminiscent of a cheeseburger. That’s not to say I didn’t like them, by the way – they were rich and juicy, with the exact right amount of give in the dumpling wrapper. But at the price of £16, I did half wonder whether I might as well have sacked off the wagyu and sauntered over to the nearest Macca’s.
Then came the lobster taquito. Now, you may remember my mention of the perils of fusion food, and when this arrived I was a bit worried, to be honest with you. I could see the logic – small, soft flakes of lobster sandwiched between two layers of crispy, carby goodness. But I wasn’t sure that the disparate textures of lobster and tortilla would work with the flavours of their respective cuisines. I needn’t have worried; as soon as I crunched my way through a mouthful of crisp tortilla, buttery lobster and smooth avocado, I was sold. Once I got past the fact that it was served atop a brick, that is.
Our third dish was a true fan favourite. I’ve probably said this before, but if squid is on the menu, you can bet I’ll be ordering it. Whoever looked at a squid and thought ‘let’s deep fry the shit out of that’ is absolutely my hero. And I’m not sure anywhere has done squid quite as well as this place.
First off, the portion size was commendable. When you have a menu containing a beef dish that costs £1000, it can be easy to decrease portion sizes as you inflate prices – all in the name of fine dining. And while there’s no doubt that SUSHISAMBA are making a profit, seeing a plate piled high with squid in a restaurant that could easily halve the portion and charge the same price was really good to see.
Secondly, I have never had squid like this. Each bite was crisp and flavourful, with tangy tamarind and biting red onion offset by a lashing of soy sauce. It was an incredible combination of familiar latin flavours – tomato, lime, plantain – applied to a dish that isn’t always done well when it strays beyond the realm of ‘battered, fried and served with garlic mayo’.
Look, every meal has its highs and its lows, and unfortunately one of the lows came in the form of my all-time-favourite seafood starter: ceviche. I honestly don’t know where it all went wrong with this dish, but it really did. When I think of ceviche I think of freshness and sharpness, mouthwatering contrasts in texture and formidable punches of flavour. But this scallop ceviche was lifeless and limp, underdelivering on all fronts.
It’s a shame, because it looked exquisite: a glossy tigre de leche garnished with a spiralling nest of crispy rice noodle. But it was soft and mellow, sweet and mild in flavour. The subtlety of flavour was lost at a table of genuine delights, perhaps. Or perhaps it’s just a shit take on ceviche.
I cannot describe all the wonderful dishes I tried during this meal, because I would honestly be here all day, but we also ordered some gorgeous maki rolls (soft shell crab, salmon and spicy tuna were among the mix), an unctuous mushroom tobanyaki that left even the carnivores at the table weak at the knees, a skewer of pork belly that honestly melted in the mouth, and a seared scallop dish that almost made up for the ceviche disaster.
Overall, I was insanely impressed with the food at SUSHISAMBA – the consideration of flavour, the technical skills, the exceptional presentation, the surprising portion sizes – everything challenged my expectations. I discovered some new loves (the lobster taquito) and rediscovered some old ones (the squid). Was it perfection? No, but it came pretty bloody close.
If you’ve got a special occasion coming up, I think this would be the perfect place to visit – even during the day! Avoid the ceviche, but devour absolutely everything else.