HanaMatsuri might be small and unassuming, but this is a taste of Japan that is big on flavour and ambition, writes Jill Turton.

HanaMatsuri, Leeds
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There are countless sushi bars in Tokyo, a few in London and no doubt others elsewhere in the UK, but none that I know of in Leeds that are exclusively sushi except for HanaMatsuri, the sushi bar you may never have heard of.

Hana Matsuri, Meanwood Road, Leeds

It seats only seven pre-booked diners and a notice in the window tells you they don’t accept walk-ins. There’s an à la carte menu that starts at £2.50 for a maki roll and three Omakase menus – the chef’s tasting menu – variously priced at £50, £75 and £100. So not cheap but as far as I can judge, quality sushi.
Six years ago, owner and chef Kaoru Nakamura began preparing sushi for home delivery. He gathered a following through word of mouth and in 2016 opened what he describes as an authentic fine dining, sushi bar. With a basic website and no advertising, HanaMatsuri is slowly building a reputation.
What’s more surprising is that this sushi bar is in Meanwood, a northern suburb of Leeds, among a scrappy row of shops. I’ve nothing against Meanwood, dear reader, as I lived there for many years (well on the cusp in Headingley). I’ve hunted for bargains in Trash & Treasure, pushed a pram round Meanwood Park and fed the goats at the urban farm, but even the arrival of Waitrose has not gentrified Meanwood.
HanaMatsuri is discreet, so discreet it looks as if they want to keep it to themselves. The blinds are down, there’s no menu on display and, apart from the name over the door, there is no indication that it’s even a restaurant. The inside is as basic as the outside: white walls, a light oak counter that seats four diners, behind which the chef works his magic. Shelves hold beers and sake, a decorative plate or two. On the walls Japanese hieroglyphics, some paintings for sale and that’s the extent of the decor.
We’ve pre-ordered the £70 (since increased to £75) menu which is made up of eight nigiri pieces, four maki rolls and three small plates. Disappointingly we are seated at a counter in a back room, so we can’t watch chef Nakamura at work, which is all part of the theatre.

Never mind, our table is prepared with precision: a square rustic plate, a saucer of soy sauce continually topped up from a little teapot, an origami folded napkin, a plate of pickled ginger and beside it a cup of green tea, also topped up throughout. There is wine and sake but we settle for Sapporo and Suntory beers.
Our first dish is a prettily arranged plate of beautifully fresh sashimi: raw trout from Hampshire, Cornish sea bass and blue fin tuna.

Fattiest Blue Fin Tuna

There’s spiralised cucumber and finely shredded daikon, a spot of fresh and fiery wasabi and an aromatic shiso leaf. It looks a picture and is simple, fresh and elegant. Next Cornish squid tentacles that have just seen the flame of a blowtorch, giving it a hint of smoke, then our third plate of blanched leaves topped with the sweet meat from lobster claws, finished with white miso.
Then come the nigiri: a pillow of sushi rice topped with a strip of raw fish. They are delivered by hand, piece by piece and by the sushi master himself, a shame that in our back room we can’t see him shaping the rice by hand nor the precision carving of the salmon, the seabass, the tuna belly or the Cornish turbot garnished with kombu seaweed. We do not see him blowtorch the squid or prepare the vinegared mackerel or roll the seaweed collar around the rice for the maki rolls, but this is neat, refined, sushi using top quality fish served with pickled ginger and soy.
The nigiri is followed by a bowl of miso soup that is fine no more, then squares of sweetened omelette and finally sweet and nutty, black sesame ice cream.
I’m not enough of a Japan-hand to make any claims for the authenticity of HanaMatsuri. I recognise that we’ve been served well-sourced fish at its freshest with clear, clean flavours. I understand that the rice is perfectly vinegared and held together just enough to get it from table to mouth in one piece.
It’s heresy I know, but I don’t entirely get sushi. I’m rather more partial to some yakitori skewers or an umami-rich bowl of ramen but I can appreciate the skill of the sushi master, the sought-after perfection and the exquisite Japanese aesthetic.
I know enough to know that supermarket sushi is not the real thing, but spotting the degrees of difference between good, really good and outstanding is a whole other game, so until I’m fully tutored in Tokyo I’ll settle for HanaMatsuri on Meanwood Road.
HanaMatsuri, 580 Meanwood Road, Leeds LS6 4AZ, tel: 0113 295 5920. Open: Wednesday to Sunday, noon-9pm. Booking essential. Price: set dinner for two plus beer and service, £175.

About The Author

Jill Turton

Jill Turton is a freelance food and travel journalist who writes for numerous publications. She inspects restaurants for national food guides and is a regular reviewer for the Yorkshire Post. Jill is author of Good Food in Yorkshire and the Time Out Guide to the Lake District and with Mandy Wragg writes the Yorkshire online food guide www.squidbeak.co.uk'

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