I always thought chirashizushi was the large, family-friendly tub of vinegared sushi rice studded with a variety of colourful ingredients such as shiitake, cooked seafood, and what ever else you like -- all sprinkled with thinly sliced Japanese omelette and cucumber. My mother would often make it at home and it was an easy way for us kids to eat sushi. NO raw stuff.
So imagine my surprise when one of my Japanese friends took me to a sushi restaurant in London and I discovered that chirashizushi (or just chirashi for short) was nothing of the sort. Or that, in fact, there were two different types. The chirashi I grew up with is often known as gomokuzushi and is popular in the Kansai region in the west of Japan. In the Kanto region in the east including Tokyo, it's apparently known as edomae chirashizushi -- Edo being the name of old Tokyo (thanks, Wikipedia). I discovered this version of the chirashi as an adult and it quickly became on of my favourite things to order in a Japanese restaurant.
One of the best places to have chirashi in London is Sakana-tei. It's a small, family-run restaurant just off Regent Street, with a seriously old school itamae-san (sushi chef). And compared to many a feeble chirashi I've sampled elsewhere, the one they serve here is robust, chunky and overflowing with fresh sashimi offcuts. Each piece of fish is thick and means business. None of that wafer-thin slices served in more high-end restaurants. I'm not a huge fan of sushi-meshi (sushi rice) -- that sweet vinegary taste doesn't really do it for me. But here, it's not too sour and the balance is just right.
Lunch is chirashi with a cup of miso shiru for £14. It's not cheap, but it's worth it because you get a lot of fish for £14 (Nobu does it for £28 and it didn't look as though it would fill me up). And it's the one place where you get a piece of fresh tako (octopus) which I love. And hokkigai (surf clam). There's the usual: maguro, sake (salmon), tai (sea bass), saba (mackerel), hamachi, ika (squid), ama-ebi (sweet shrimp), anago (salt-water eel), crab sticks, tobiko and wonderful tamago (omelette) that is still slightly warm, not too sweet and with just a hint of dashi. The gari (ginger) is spicy and cleanses the palate.
The chirashi at Sakana-tei leaves me feeling completely satisfied and full even though I normally leave half the rice. If you're lucky, you might be able to order one of the daily lunch sets where you get a mini-udon and a mini-chirashi. Trust me when I say the mini-chirashi is more voluminous that some of the full-size chirashi in other places. And although the udon doesn't feature on their regular menu, it, and their cold somen in summer, are excellent.
11 Maddox Street
London W1S 2QF
T: 020 7629 3000