I do not think Jay Rayner’s few lines of praise for Shiki, at the end of his rather scathing review of Roger Hickman’s Restaurant, does justice to them. While I am sure the critic did find Shiki as good as he said it was, his inclusion seems to convey more about the kind of forgettable experience he had at the fine-dining establishment than it does about the merit of the Japanese one. I suppose it is something, some recognition from a well-known writer that perhaps convinces some to choose Shiki over Soyokaze, the only two Japanese restaurants in Norwich worth considering, but I feel Shiki deserves to be recognised for its own sake, or, at the very least, because of a complete piece of writing designating as much.
Beyond the mechanistic production of sushi trays and bento boxes at places like Itsu and Wasabi, exists a more sinister attempt at monetizing the public’s fascination and desire for sushi in all the supermarkets around the UK. For around £3-£4 you can purchase a tiny tray of about six to eight pieces, with a syringe or sachet of soya sauce and a pea sized knob of wasabi (if at all), comprised of components that look like the real thing but taste nothing like it. Because of how mainstream sushi has become, people who seek access to it are easily deceived into purchasing the cheaply available faux-representatives off fridge shelves.
But real sushi, good sushi, the kind simulated ad infinitum in the media, does exist and is not predominately exclusive. Visit Shiki and you will understand.
Shiki resides at the corner of a red brick building in Tombland, one of the more historic sections of Norwich. Relatively inconspicuous, the bland golden font of its signage and the Japanese lanterns above it are easy to miss during the day, but at night, with the help of the warm lighting that shines through its paned windows, the restaurant is gently alluring.
As you enter, you are greeted by enthusiastic black-clad staff, and are then lead through to a charming dining room adorned with paper lanterns and wall lights, and set with austere wooden furniture from the dark tables and benches to the light bamboo roller blinds and complimentary wood finished flooring. You settle in almost as soon as you are seated, comfortable in an atmosphere that very much contributes towards the relaxed Japanese minimalist aesthetic.
As much as I love large menus and the abundance of choice, it does take some time to decide how best to sample the fare at Shiki. Do you order some light appetisers (otsumami), awakening the palate with some konbu seaweed broth (ohitashi) or piquant Japanese pickles (tsukemono moriawase), and share a diverse assortment of maki and nigiri which sounds good to finish with? Or do you go for the comparatively heavier combinations of deep-fried karaage, tempura and/or gyoza to begin with, and then transition to the beef teriyaki, chicken yakitori and/or yakisoba, ordering fluffy and fragrant rice bowls and onigiri as supplements? You may even get so bogged down with all the decisions that you decide to write down a list of pros and cons for each Dinner Time Bento on offer, only to continuously oscillate between the fried breaded pork (tonkatsu), the chicken katsu and the salmon teriyaki mains. Having experienced this dilemma several times before, I think I was able to successfully navigate the labyrinth of abundant choice, assuaging the minotaur of Maddy’s pescatarianism along the way, whilst simultaneously making sure all was agreeable to the belly in denouement. The suitable alignment of Japanese courses differs from person to person, so it takes some experience to nail down. If ever in doubt defer to the staff at Shiki who are all extremely helpful.
If you order a plate of plump and sonorously crisp tempura prawns, there is usually a conical mound of daikon radish puree that accompanies it. Do not forget to mix it into the dipping sauce, for it does add a mild sweetness that is harmonious. Once dipped in the tetsuyu sauce, a pool of pure umami, made up of mirin, fish stock (dashi), soya sauce (shoyu), sugar, and now the stirred in puree, each prawn became for us a delightful welcome back to one of my favourite cuisines.
The affectionately termed inside-out sushi roll, or uramaki, specifically that of Cromer crab, is one that is required to be ordered at Shiki simply because it is an ingredient indigenous to East Anglia. This certainly comes through in its freshness, for the crab meat in combination with the crunch of cucumber and smooth avocado, elevated by the savoury burst of florescent orange flying fish roe (tobikko) makes for meditative mastication that you never want to end.
What I liked about their sanshoku-agedashi tofu, a dish with three different colours and flavours of tofu: earthy seaweed, spice tinged paprika, and one ascetically plain, is the clever way in which the broth was poured in to complete the portion. Instead of it being decanted all-over the crisp encasing of the soft, custardy tofu causing it to disintegrate, it is instead transferred along the sides and is halted just when each piece is evenly submerged. This allows not only for you to enjoy the subtle crunch preserved on top, but also the enrich softened sections that arise like a lady’s skirts in water. A glorious dish in every sense of the phrase.
Since Maddy and I could not make up our minds as to which nigiri we wanted, we decided to ask for the moriakase omakase, which was a range of nine nigiri chosen by the chef. I sometimes wish there was an omakase option in every restaurant; it would make life a lot easier.
The line-up commenced with my mum’s favourite, unagi nigiri, which is roasted eel in nitsume sauce (a thickened version of the tetsuyu that creates a glazed sheen) that surprised Maddy, who is not much of an eel fan, with how delicious and succulent eel could be; then the familiar boiled prawn nigiri (ebi), which helped cleanse the palate with its unembellished simplicity and innate saltiness; the seabass nigiri, with an evident chew and lighter flavour; the spot prawns nigiri (amaebi), sweeter juicier cousins of the much larger ebi; the yellowtail nigiri (hamachi), light, soft and slightly oleaginous in texture, easily distinguishable from the seabass and the scallop; the eponymous tuna nigiri (maguro), which, on the spectrum of otoro (fatty), chutoro (medium) and akami (lean) was definitely chutoro, slightly sweet in way unique to bluefin tuna with the faint bitterness of its leaner sections – beautiful; the pearlescent scallop nigiri (hotate), which had an almost gelatinous smoothness with an understated sweetness; and finally, the most common protein seen in sushi places all over the West, salmon (sake), a nigiri with whose familiarity was a good way to end the course. It must be said that the rice used for each nigiri had that perfect lilt of vinegar and had settled gently at room temperature, exactly as it should.
If you desire noodles, an urge that sometimes comes over people when in an Asian restaurant, you can’t go wrong with a yakisoba. Maddy’s was tasty, with noodles both unctuous and perfectly consistent, and infused with that exquisite sweet savouriness that one should expect from a successful interpretation.
If it were not for the onigiri that we ordered towards the end (not because we were still hungry, but because we could), the meal would have been perfect. While the eel in the first onigiri was as delicious as it was in the nigiri, the salmon in the second one tasted closer to dry chicken breast than it did to actual fish, let alone salmon. I was still able to enjoy the rice balls though; wrapping it in umami-saturated nori seaweed, and then dunked in leftover tetsuyu sauce still made for an enjoyable bite.
For pudding, yes, there is always space for pudding, we shared my brother’s favourite dessert and one that is undeniably close to my own heart: mochi ice-cream. Mochi, which is a Japanese confection consisting of pounded sticky rice, is wrapped around a ball of ice-cream to produce a combination of textures that it fun and rewarding to eat. The flavours on offer, each one spectacular in their own way, were citrusy yuzu, decadently sweet mango and the roughly coated coconutty coconut. Maddy hates coconut so I got to have one to myself – woo!
I think one would be hard-pressed to find a place in Norwich that has better value for money. Not only are you treated to great food with an unassuming and charming ambiance that is difficult to come by, but there is a certain attention to detail, hidden behind its informality, that deserves all the appreciation it can get. Since Shiki has been around for a while now, a Japanese institution in the heart of Norwich, I do understand that the sentiments conveyed here are ones echoed my hundreds of people shouting Shiki’s praises unintelligibly on TripAdvisor. What I would like to propound, in a way perhaps more intelligible and diligent, is that quality of the experience at this Japanese restaurant is still of the highest order, worthy of more than an afterthought.
6 Tombland, Norwich NR3 1HE
Otsumami £3-£12; Sushi and Sashimi £2-£35; Shime £2-£9