ANDny restaurant with a “concept” makes me slightly nervous. “Do you understand the concept?” I’ve been asked many times over the years. Sometimes, if the staff are being jollier, it’s merely a “Have you dined with us before?” as a lead-up to explaining that everything is served “family-style”, “in no particular order” or “is made only from things rescued from bins”; in one place, I was allowed my next course only after I’d indicated I’d finished my current one by holding up a specific paper flag on a cocktail stick.
Thankfully, Dai Chi’s only concept is that almost all its dishes come on skewers, Japanese kushiage-style (ie, pub food). That said, most of these skewers are deep-fried and often breadcrumbed, so they’re instead describing the restaurant as a kushikatsu, which is big in Osaka. At Dai Chi, that means you get the likes of a single, top-quality black Iberiko tomato, breadcrumbed, on a skewer, with one meaningful anchovy draped over the top. Please eat it all in one go, chomp, down the hatch, because any attempt to nibble on it will result in some serious mopping of your décolletage. Another notable skewer is a large, breaded eringi mushroom with a solo carabinero on top.
There are non-skewered items, too, and all are just as delicious – and brief: a titchy tuna tobiko taco and a winter leaf filled with burrata and dotted with wobbly, pink salmon roe. You can plump for the £ 38, six-course omakase menu or go rogue on the à la carte, which would involve attempting to work out how many skewers you need of each item to ensure that dinner feels like it actually happened.
I watched, with some anxiety, as other tables tried to do just this, and it made me wonder if kushikatsu isn’t perhaps better suited to informal picking and sipping in a bar, rather than to a proper dinner in a fancy restaurant. Mind you, every time I quibbled about something or other, another mouthful of something gorgeous on a stick turned up and I couldn’t fault the love, care and skill at play. One of the first courses, a small plate of hamachi (amberjack) with truffle soy and furikake, came garnished with delicate shiso flower and was one of the loveliest, most fragrant, moreish plates of this particular fish I’ve ever had.
A second course was a tiny segment of glossy Hokkaido milk bun with two slices of sweet, especially good tomato. The presentation is artistic, alluring and makes picking up the item in question and dispatching it in two bites feel almost crass.
Dai Chi is the second London restaurant from the people behind Angelina in Dalston, where the concept is Japan meets Italy – mortadella with nasu dengaku, say, or crab with wasabi tobiko. From the outset, Angelina has been quietly respected for slightly skew-whiff notions that it pulls off with aplomb – you’d never call these people boring.
At Dai Chi, the mood is similarly delightfully odd. I arrived to Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince blaring out across the room, which then merged into Don’t Break My Heart by UB40. There are far too few floor staff, and no non-alcoholic options on the cocktail list, despite them stocking a lovely array of ginger, plum and peppercorn shrubs. Moreover, once we’d had our first round of drinks, there was no further offer of any more. Then again, all the front-of-house were spending an awful lot of time at each table, hand-holding customers through the concept.
By the time we were five courses into the omakase, I began to feel that I was destined to be slightly hungry by the end. Charles, on the other hand, has one of those ever-present hungers that makes me feel as if I’m living with an anthropomorphised, coal-burning locomotive that constantly needs new bags of fuel shovelled into its ever-demanding furnace. Seven skewers and some sashimi with petals is an amuse-bouche for his type of appetite; yes, even though one of those skewers featured the most incredibly tender tuna, crumbed and dotted with wasabi, and another – and the star of the entire show – breaded aged beef showered with sea salt.
At this point, you could elect to add Kagoshima wagyu with wasabi onion ponzu for an extra £ 55 for two, but I found that out only after analyzing the menu once I’d got home, because no one bothered to mention it at the time . Pudding was a slice of delightful poached pear in miso ricotta, with genuinely wonderful, rich, dreamy ricotta and an inch or so of perfectly soft, purple pear steeped in some sort of sweet wine – heaven.
Dai Chi is clever, unusual, exciting and strange, and it’s offering some of the most fantastic cooking in London, although things could get very expensive for larger groups going à la carte. Like all the best things, it left me wanting more.
Dai Chi 16a D’Arblay Street, London W1, 020-7734 1449. Open evenings only, Tues-Sat, 5.15-11.30pm (midnight Fri & Sat). From about £ 35 a head à la carte; six-course omakase menu £ 42, all plus drinks and service