I remember with almost Proustian clarity my first taste of Japanese food. It was 1995, and a new bar called Foundation had opened to great fanfare in the basement of Harvey Nichols, replacing the Sloane Rangers' canteen Joe's Cafe. It was a sleek modern space, all black marble floors and glass pillars, with a waterfall running down the full length of the back bar. As well as swanky cocktails, some rather nice wines and a selection of primo cigars - which of course you could smoke indoors, this being more than a decade before the smoking ban - they served yakitori, wooden skewers of char-grilled meat and vegetables in a sticky, moreish marinade.
The smokiness of the meat, the salty-sweet marinade and pungent onions or peppers combined to create a sensation of taste which I now know to be umami but which back in the nineties I just called 'delicious'; whatever it was, from the first little plateful I was hooked and so began a love affair with Japanese food which continues to this day. (Foundation alas is no more; it's now a Wagamama, which seems rather fitting).
You can imagine then that I was rather pleased to be invited along to Watatsumi, a new-ish Japanese restaurant in the Club Quarters Hotel (nope - me neither) on Northumberland Avenue, just off Trafalgar Square. A noble stab has been made at giving the high-ceilinged, columned room a Japanese feel; paper screens zig-zag along one wall and branches of cherry blossom stand in tall thin vases on windowsills, but the overall effect is more Ikea than izikaya.
It's easy to excuse the room however as the food being served therein is really rather good. Setting out 'to show that there is more to Japanese cuisine than raw fish', Watatsumi offers all the familiar staples - sushi, sashimi, tempura and, yes, yakitori - alongside an innovative selection of hot dishes best summed up as western favourites given an eastern flavour. Thus, for example, US or English steaks are served with spicy miso or wasabi sauce, and sea bass ('pan-fried' of course, as if it could be fried in anything else) comes with shiso butter.
Alyn and I ordered a selection of dishes covering most sections of the menu, starting with some good, prettily-presented sashimi (salmon, tuna and yellow tail) all subtle and smooth and, at £13.50, good value for six pieces. A California roll, from a selection all available as maki (roll) or temaki (hand roll), was excellent, a little loosely packed but of very good flavour and texture, both light and fresh. Watatsumi crispy calamari, deep-fried baby squid dusted with a spice mix, were also splendid, tangy and lip-smacking in that way Nice 'n' Spicy Nik Naks are. This, believe me, is a good thing.
For our main courses we both ordered beef - the prawns and lobster was recommended which of course it would be at £45 a pop - a 250g bavette steak 'marinated in spicy miso and grilled' for Alyn and Fuji burger for me. Alyn's steak was full of flavour and cooked beautifully medium-rare, the best way with bavette, but my 'burger' - actually a bit of a misnomer as what came was two bun-less patties of seasoned beef - was just a little strange. The patties had the same appealing savoury tang as the calamari had had, but the accompaniments - purple potato chips and steamed rice - were fairly bland and didn't add much. We very much enjoyed a flawless dish of vegetable tempura though, and the selection of chilli sauces - sweet, mayo and hot - served with it.
With the exception of mini moshi - lovely sesame or vanilla-flavoured balls of ice-cream coated in pounded sticky rice and served with a shot of lychee liqueur - there was nothing remotely Nipponese about the desserts, and although a cheesecake made with English strawberries on a speculoos base was absolutely gorgeous, I wonder if any restaurant should admit on the menu to using Philadelphia in the recipe.
Overall the meal was very enjoyable and service, for the most part, was good - our waiter was friendly and knowledgeable - but there were a few too many incidences of plates being cleared the second the food on them was finished, wine glasses being topped up after a single sip was taken and once, unforgivably, food being served to an empty seat while Alyn was away from the table, for us to feel completely comfortable. If the staff could just relax a bit, customers will too, and good word-of-mouth, which Watatsumi certainly deserves, should spread - which is vital given that the competition in this touristy part of town consists of the sorts of terrible chain which don't deserve to thrive but, depressingly, do.
I'm not sure that the memory of this Japanese meal will linger as long as that of my first, but it's certainly stayed with me at least a couple of weeks later - not bad as remembrances of dinners past go.
Watatsumi, 7 Northumberland Avenue, London WC2N 5BY Tel: 020 7036 8520 http://www.watatsumi.co.uk