I’ve had my fair share of unusual dining experiences in my short time covering restaurant openings. There was the chef who insisted on feeding me to ensure I ate the dishes “correctly”, or the the time in Frankfurt where the chef invited his girlfriend’s family to eat my dessert, and the time I powered through six-course menu devised solely of mushrooms despite harbouring a deep fear of – you guessed it – mushrooms.
However, my latest excursion might just top all those prior – and for all the right reasons. On a cold, drizzly October night the last place I expected to be whisked off to was Oldham. Now don’t get me wrong, the borough has some brilliant places to eat, but it’s not the first place I would think of when it comes to high-end Japanese dining.
Accompanied by only a handful of other journalists, I found myself in what was essentially someone’s home, sampling some of dishes from the soon-to-launch menu from MUSU – the new luxury Japanese restaurant set to open in Manchester city centre next month.
Opening in the site of the former Randall & Aubin, MUSU – translated as “infinite possibilities” – will present a contemporary interpretation of Japanese cuisine and will be headed up by chef-patron Michael Shaw, who’s name you may recognise from the acclaimed White Hart at Lydgate – a spot not too far from where I found myself eating on the blustery, autumnal night in question.
On arrival at the property it soon becomes apparent that the six of us are outnumbered by Shaw’s brigade of chefs, sommeliers and servers. The kitchen was a hive of activity as the team prepared for the night ahead, seamlessly putting the final touches on the 11-course Kaiseki menu – a simple multi-course Japanese dinner made up of beautifully prepared dishes.
But there’s a great deal more to this meticulously prepared and elegantly served meal. For those devising the menu it’s vital to make the guest feel at ease and wholeheartedly looked after. In Shaw’s case, the culinary journey that awaits us is a modern interpretation, and is all about the quality of the ingredients on the plate and the precision of the techniques employed.
Shaw is no stranger to the ritual of fine dining having begun his career at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, before moving on to Michelin-starred Hambleton Hall. He later worked as Gordon Ramsay’s pastry chef at Aubergine then as a sous chef with Richard Neat in France.
Before taking up his role at The White Hart in Lydgate, he was also head chef at Gilpin Lodge, where he helped them land a Michelin star. He’s spent the last 18 months honing his passion for Japanese cuisine, with all the respect for the precision, skill and flavours it entails.
Speaking with the man of the hour, I’m interested to know where his passion for Japanese cuisine started and how he went about developing this new craft. “I have a passion for anything food really and I’ve visited Asia quite a bit,” he tells me.
“Eating out was a great way of understanding Japanese cuisine. I was blown away by my dinner at Araki, a three-star Michelin restaurant and Marty the chef was a great inspiration.
“He was talking to me about curing, ageing and all the different techniques. I also chatted with sushi Steve from SushiSushi about all the different ingredients like aged soy sauces, vinegars, mirin, and so on – this was a great help in our development.”
When the restaurant does launch next month, the menu will encompass three separate dining experiences – an à la carte Sentaku Menu, a seven-course and 11-Course Kaiseki Menu, and an Omakase Menu – which will be served at a six-seater counter presided over by Head Sushi Chef Andre Aguilar – who trained under Japanese Sushi Master Yugo Kato.
The menu will feature ingredients sourced from Japan, including A5 grade Wagyu beef, and wild Bluefin Tuna that is fully certified, sustainable, and traceable. On our brief trip to the restaurant, the team tells us that the kitchen will be fitted with specially designed fridges and freezers to keep the Hamachi – also known as Pacific Yellowtail or Japanese Amberjack – and bluefin at just the correct temperature, to ensure the texture is just right.
The chef’s culinary chops were never in doubt – see resume above – but the pivot to Japanese cuisine – albeit a modern interpretation – is not an easy undertaking. As expected though, the food is a knockout, and shows just how far the chef has immersed himself in the intricacies of the cuisine. He kicked things off with a bold chawanmushi – an egg custard dish which uses savoury rather than sweet ingredients – and though it came accompanied with a mushroom tart, I’m pleased to say I overcame the fear and ended up really enjoying the deep and comforting flavours.
It’s quickly followed by a sweet red prawn tartare – some of the freshest fish I’ve tasted in a while. Surrounded by a rich pool of dashi sauce, and topped with granny smith apple, edible flowers and caviar – the latter we’re told is famous for its creaminess – the dish is a vision and we’re only two courses in.
The sashimi, a Japanese delicacy consisting of fresh raw fish sliced into thin pieces, is revealed to us in an egg-shaped receptacle – for an added touch of theatre no doubt – and served with wasabi so fresh it’s literally come in from Japan today.
When I asked the chef about his favourite dishes from the menu, he told me our next three plates of nigiri, which comes from the Japanese word nigirizushi, meaning “hand-pressed sushi”, are some of his favourites to prepare. Rice is moulded by hand and the fish or another topping is pressed by hand atop the rice.
It sounds quite simple, but there’s several layers to the process that need to be right for the strip of fish to fasten to the mound of rice below, namely getting the right stickiness and temperature. Watching the chefs on the other side of the counter prepare the chu toro (a fatty cut of tuna), the madai (thin slice of sea bream) and the mackerel feels like an education in itself, and once you learn about the ageing and smoking processes you can really appreciate the attention to detail that’s been employed.
We’re also treated to a beautiful hand-dives Isle of Skye scallop topped with pickled carrot floating delicately in a pool of miso soup – which I immediately want to put in a flask and save for later – and the chef’s interpretation of black cod, an inspiring reinvention of the dish made popular by Nobu and in this case served with a cloud of cauliflower cream and umami broth, conjuring up an image and taste of the sea.
With the savoury portion of the meal done and dusted, we managed to squeeze in two desserts as well. The first, named Sweet Sticky Rice, is perhaps best described as an Asian fruit salad and there’s a real zing to it with plum-pickled ginger, chewy bits of gooseberry and a Japanese pear soup.
To finish its iced white chocolate with a fennel seed crumble and yuzu sorbet, which is totally moreish and not like anything I’ve ever tasted before – the final sign that the chef has set out to surprise, delight and intrigue his dinner guests.
Fine dining experiences like this can sometimes feel a little bit overwhelming – ingredients you may not have encountered before, wines you can’t pronounce and service layered on thick – but there’s also a certain pinch me element to having the opportunity to sample world-class ingredients and learn about how your food has arrived at your plate.
MUSU has been designed to stand out, to spark intrigue and importantly offer a high-end exploration of Japanese flavours, and when the public finally gets to taste Shaw’s carefully crafted menus in a couple of weeks time no doubt they’ll be pinching themselves as well – something very special is coming to Manchester.