Other than a quick jaunt to Paris (which inspired my recent sappy ode to Chichibu), most of my summer vacationing has been lived vicariously through friends and family. But with things finally heating up in London, I have slowly relinquished my hermit ways, just in time to join the mob clamouring to witness a match up in the figurative Colosseum – Chichibu Sexy Fish against Chichibu Roka. The restaurant business, particularly in a city like London, is mercurial – one where fortunes change overnight, and the masses get to participate in giving the proverbial thumbs up or thumbs down as contenders enter the gladiators’ arena.
The heart of today’s challenge lies in and around the grassy squares of Mayfair. Catering to the patricians of this fine city, be prepared to show up in style – after all, it’s gathering places like these where one goes to see and be seen, isn’t it (or maybe, just maybe, we’re there for the food and drink). Like retailer-specific bottles, whiskies bottled for certain restaurants, hotels or bars is not uncommon these days. Those who have been out and about in London recently may have seen Claridge’s own bottling of Macallan (don’t worry, you’re not missing much). Chichibu itself recently released collaborations with select Tokyo hotels such as The Peninsula and the Grand Hyatt, producing limited bottlings of its Ichiro’s Malt to be sold exclusively at each of the hotels.
So, first up is Sexy Fish. Opened in Berkeley Square back in 2015 to much pomp and circumstance, the location sees itself as a “new vision in dining: Asian-inspired cuisine, cutting-edge décor and a glamorous destination bar”. Damien Hirst bronze mermaids and relief panel (in blue patina, in case it needed to stand out more). Frank Gehry fish lamps above the bar and a 13-foot crocodile dutifully guarding the high banquette tables. A myriad of other exotic materials (if someone can tell me what esmeralda onyx marble is, I’d be grateful) are noted as being sourced in furtherance of the over the top design aesthetic envisioned for this Mayfair destination. I half expect Commodus to appear at the top of the staircase and shower coins upon diners.
But what about the food – and equally (or more) importantly, the whisky? The food is classic Asian / Asian fusion-esque. A variety of raw fish in sushi, sashimi, tataki and tartare forms make up the cold dish options (along with a handful of caviar options, because why not). Tempura, robata skewers, and a hefty selection of steaks round out the menu. I’ve been known to be a tough critic when it comes to food, but I struggle to remember anything that stood out from what I ate. None of it was bad, much of it was overpriced and I am slightly vindicated that a quick Google search of reviews similarly summarise the offering as “forgettable”, among other more colourful descriptions of the restaurant and its clientele.
Where Sexy Fish does shine is in its whisky selection – over 400 Japanese whiskies on the menu, along with tasting notes put together by, among others, Colin Dunn and Caprice Holdings’ director of bars. The whisky in question today is a seven-year old bottling, distilled in 2011 and bottled in 2018. The cask’s output was a grand total of 254 bottles, bottled and labelled exclusively for Sexy Fish by Speciality Drinks. The whisky is single cask, aged in a Chassagne-Montrachet Pinot Noir cask and clocking in at a hefty 60.2% ABV. For a bit of background, Chassagne-Montrachet is in Côte de Beaune (Burgundy) and yes, you have heard that before in the world of Chichibu – La Maison du Whisky did a similar bottling for The Chronicles series. Bottles are decidedly not for sale, so a 50ml pour of this will run you around £30.
Our second stop is Roka. Flying much more under the radar (comparatively), Roka is the sister restaurant to Zuma, located in the equally high-end London neighbourhood of Knightsbridge. Zuma opened in 2002 and has expanded internationally; the first Roka opened on Charlotte Street in 2004 and now has multiple locations throughout London. Where Sexy Fish is glitz and glamour, Roka exudes the minimalist calm of a Japanese onsen. All stone, glass, steel and wood. And one of the Mayfair location’s best features is their terrace, with a handful of tables primed for people watching.
The food at Roka is not dissimilar from Sexy Fish. But like its decor, the menu is simpler, streamlined even – sushi and sashimi, tempura and gyoza, and robata-grilled meats and vegetables. In my opinion, the raw fish is not where Roka shines and if you’re going to be partaking in whisky you’ll be wanting heartier fare in any case. The whisky menu as well is not as extensive, but care has been exercised in choosing what does appear and there is a heavy Japanese whisky emphasis as you might expect. And here is where we find the Chichibu in question. Now, this isn’t the first time Zuma Group has worked with Speciality Drinks on a limited release bottle. In 2015, a 14-year old single cask Hanyu was bottled for Zuma and Roka bars. This time around, at six years old (distilled in 2012 and bottled in 2018) and coming in at 62.3% ABV, we are offered a Chichibu aged in a first fill bourbon cask. With only 190 bottles available (again only by the dram), this will hit your wallet a little harder at £43 for a 50ml pour.
Chichibu Cask No. 5253 for Sexy Fish – review
Colour: Like an amber ale
On the nose: Satsuma plums – sweet but with a hint of tartness that gives you a slap once in a while. There’s also a dark, woody, earthiness that comes through.
In the mouth: Spicy – the pink peppercorns noted on the menu ring true. But also quite sweet and tannic, evoking the red wine that the cask housed previously. More plum but mixed with other red fruits (ripe strawberries and raspberries). A very dry medium finish to round out the experience.
Chichibu Cask No. 1788 for Roka – review
On the nose: Surprisingly floral – whiffs of heather and lavender, which evolve into a subtle and muted sweetness (honey and dried pineapple). With a bit of time to breathe the sweetness settles into white stone fruit and cereal.
In the mouth: Definitely needs time to breathe – the high ABV hits you in the face, overpowering most of the flavours at first. On a second approach you realise that the sweetness is more pronounced than the nose lets on – like apple or pear cider, with a bit of heat to it. A nice texture (a Clynelish-esque waxiness) almost distracts from the lingering spice. There’s a hint of something astringent at the back of throat as this settles. A medium-long finish where all the bourbon elements come through – a bit of sweet, a bit of oak.
You’re good, Chichibu, but you’re not that good. You could be magnificent. The Roka offering, in both food and drink, far surpassed that of Sexy Fish. But not even that bottling could provide a glimpse of Chichibu at its peak. If my tasting notes on the Sexy Fish bottle seemed short, that’s because the whisky didn’t offer much beyond its pretty label. Riches and reputation can only take you so far without something more substantial to back it up. In contrast, the Roka bottling with all its flavours, lacked the balance to be truly great. Too much like the gladiator – all heart and strength, rushing forward for glory.
With all these new outturns, we can appreciate a distillery as much as we want but the whisky itself has to live up to the billing. Otherwise, all you’re left with is not much more than a faint memory and a hefty bill at the end of the night to commemorate your evening. Given these evenings were about the whisky and, admittedly, the food, I was left slightly disappointed. So today you got two restaurants and therefore two whiskies from Chichibu. The results, and my experience, were almost comical in nature. So, I ask, are you not entertained?
Photographs kindly provided by the respective establishments.