Kaoru Nakamura could give lessons in aloof dating techniques. The owner and head chef of HanaMatsuri, a Japanese restaurant in Leeds, knows how to play hard to get. He turned down an interview with me for a full six months before I finally broke him, has no website, uses a landline for reservations, and doesn’t spend a dime on advertising.
HanaMatsuri thrives entirely on reputation and word of mouth, Nakamura explains. There’s something decidedly Japanese about his stubborn streak that prizes integrity and authenticity above all else. “When we first opened we had the blinds down like they do in Japan. Somebody told us, ‘Everybody thinks you’re shut,’” he remembers with a rare chuckle. “In the first few months, we had no customers!”
I arrive at the restaurant on a Saturday afternoon to open blinds and a little slice of Tokyo in Meanwood, a suburb on the outskirts of Leeds. A Japanese football strip hangs from pine shelves lined with Japanese whiskies and high grade sakes, and a mini perpetual-motion plastic sushi chef chops manically among Japanese trinkets atop a dinky bar. At capacity, there’s room for eight people across two rooms, each bar manned by a chef making every dish to order. Jazz drifts over the hushed chatter as the space fills.
Before we talk, we eat. Nakamura is a man of few words, so it’s fitting that he allows his dishes to speak for themselves. From behind his eye-level counter, he sends out a dizzying three-hour conveyor belt of HanaMatsuri’s greatest hits. There’s a green tea made with roasted brown rice to be drunk with salt-flecked edamame and a beefy deep-fried aubergine topped with sticky brown sweet miso paste and Padrón peppers. Other classics are the salmon sashimi that gleams like a Kardashian's engagement ring and a sushi platter so pretty it could be framed and hung in your living room.
The less Anglo-friendly dishes are just as exciting. Buttery soft-grilled wagyu comes with a paste made with bitingly fresh wasabi. An innocuous-looking steamed egg custard—chawanmushi—turns out to be a diving expedition of ginkgo nuts, shiitake mushrooms, fish cake slivers, cold meats, and prawn. Nakamura pours cold sake throughout with the pride of a Parisian sommelier.
After we have finished eating, I remain upright just long enough to chat to Nakamura and his wife Claire, a Yorkshire local who acts as part-translator, part-ambassador for the restaurant. I want to find out how the hell they ended up in the Leeds suburbs serving Tokyo-standard sushi.
The couple met and fell in love 17 years ago when Claire was in Japan on an exchange programme. Nakamura joined Claire in the UK back in 2007, but not before spending some time working in Japanese restaurants in Australia. This is where he established his sushi skills, honing them later via that post-millennial leveller, the YouTube tutorial.
His Leeds sushi story began back in January 2013 when he started a home delivery service from his domestic kitchen. This wasn’t the stuff of hungover carb cravings, but high-end, occasion-standard sushi offerings—Valentine’s Day was big business.
“All of my customers know me from when I did deliveries,” Nakamura explains. “They bring their friends. It spreads that way.”
So, there’s a big Japanese community in Leeds, I assume. No, laughs Nakamura. But he's educating locals to the joys of authentic Japanese cuisine. And everyone appreciates a job done well. His fanatical perfectionism will be familiar to fans of Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Nakamura describes the rigorous processes involved in maintaining standards at the restaurant. There are annual research trips to Japan to keep abreast of what’s happening in the food scene there, regular London visits to pick up obscure ingredients and Japanese ceramics, and a fish-sourcing process that leaves Hartlepool’s fishermen quaking in their waders.
“I’m always fighting with suppliers,” says Nakamura, po-faced. “There’s a standard that must be reached. I’ve turned lots of fish away from this door. I go to the factory in Hartlepool on a regular basis to check up. This is my way of getting the service standard that I want.”
Plus, HanaMatsuri is no novelty or token Japanese spot—it is a dynamic and ever-evolving vision.
“We introduced an authentic tasting menu in November,” beams Nakamura. “Tasting menus are available in lots of contemporary restaurants but have a very old history in Japan. It takes you through the four seasons and from the sea to the mountains. Everything has meaning—even down to the arrangement of the plates.”
Nakamura has future dreams of adding an extra ten seats and maybe opening a specialist Japanese shop. But for now he’s happy.
“This is a unique place. Outside it’s Yorkshire and then you open the door and you’re in Japan. From the food to the sake to the beer to the staff. If the customers feel Japan—in their eyes, their mouth, the smells—then I’m happy.”