Maru review: the expert’s guide to good sushi
The restaurant’s omakase menu - in which the chef makes all the decisions for you - blends British ingredients with Japanese tradition
Unless you know what you’re looking for, you could walk past Maru a dozen times without suspecting that its understated facade belongs to a restaurant of any description, let alone one serving a 20-course celebration of Japanese culinary tradition.
The contrast with its neighbours in Shepherd Market is striking. The post-pandemic recovery is well under way in this convivial corner of central London, its bunting-decked pavements lined with people enjoying an evening drink. But behind Maru’s dark blue door, which is unlocked to admit just six diners and locked again behind them, the mood is quiet and studious.
Furnished with pale timber and white cotton, the minimalist dining room directs attention to the food - and to the chef. Guests sit side-by-side, facing the counter at which Taiji Maruyama will prepare their meal.
He works, where possible, with produce from the UK. The tuna served at Maru may come from Spanish and Portuguese waters, but the rest of the menu - with scallops from Orkney, trout from Hampshire, mackerel and shellfish from Cornwall and squid from Devon - is a tour of the British coast.
Each ingredient plays its part in the omakase service, a Japanese concept which translates literally as “I’ll leave it up to you”. The idea is that the diner empowers the chef to choose the best produce at the peak of its season, and to prepare it in the most fitting way. The written menu - a compendium of species, cuts, techniques and sourcing - arrives only after the meal is finished.
We rely therefore on Maruyama himself to present and introduce each course. A few are prepared in the kitchen, particularly if they require heat: a deep-fried Cornish rock oyster emerges, crisp and inviting, on its shell. Most, however, arrive at the counter as a box of ingredients, from which Maruyama creates little bites of perfection before our eyes.
His performance is not a flamboyant one - there is no teppanyaki-style juggling and flipping - but a quiet, methodical exhibition of skill. For a selection of tuna nigiri, he slices elegant strips from different parts of the fish, scoring them so they unfurl and retain a trickly of soy sauce in their shallow grooves.
Other courses depend on fingerwork as much as knifework, a devout shaping and sealing of sticky rice and slick fish. The Brixham squid is one such example, its unctious flesh seasoned with a generous spoonful of Exmoor caviar.
The shellfish and mackerel are as fresh as one would expect, but the other fish are described by a word not often paired with sushi: “aged”. The tuna, for example, has had seven days to mature, a process that tenderises and enriches it, bringing out the umami flavours. The choicest cut, the fat-marbled fillet known as o-toro, has the texture of chilled butter.
Maru’s commitment to omotenashi - “wholeheartedly looking after a guest” - extends to the drinks menu too. It includes a paired selection of wines, sakes or Japanese teas - or a combination of all three, chosen by the sommelier. The latter, which seems most in keeping with the spirit of omakase, delivers not one but two pairings for the nigiri courses: a fragrant sake to match the lean akami tuna and a glass of barbaresco, a rich Italian red, for the fatty o-toro.
Throughout our meal, the trio of chef, sommelier and assistant wear their knowledge lightly, inviting questions - and granting permission to lift and drink the truffle-infused soup from the bottom of a bowl of noodles, an unvoiced urge Maruyama had read in our eyes. He sent us on our way with a deep bow, the chopsticks we had eaten with, wrapped and presented as a gift - and an infectious reverence for good food treated with respect.
Maru’s 20-course omakase tasting menu is available for £170 per person, with seatings at 5.30pm and 8.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday.