FF#2 – ISSHO RESTAURANT REVIEW

Restaurant review number 1 of a packed August schedule comes from…. Issho | Kori Bar | Japanese Restaurant. Set alongside its sibling restaurant East 59th on the upper floor of Victoria Gate in the centre of Leeds, ISSHO is one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the city… but is it worth the hype?

Money, Money, Money

If you are looking for affordable luxury, ISSHO probably isn’t the best choice for you. The below lunchtime meal for two with 1 mocktail and 2 diet cokes cost approximately £90. That does include a service charge, but more on that later…

It is recommended by the wait staff to select 3 to 5 dishes each, ‘tapas’ style. We opted for 6 dishes and a dessert between the two of us and that was more than enough.

Tempura Is King

Are you really testing a Japanese restaurant if you don’t order tempura?! Well to make sure I gave it a proper test, we got double… tempura vegetables and the soft shell crab.

The tempura batter was light and crisp, the vegetables incredibly fresh. This was quite possibly the best tempura veg I have ever had – £8 felt a little on the expensive side, but for the quality of this dish it was a fair price on balance.

The soft shell crab was one of the dishes I had been most looking forward to – one of my favourite ingredients! Unfortunately this one didn’t live up to expectations. The tempura batter was again light and crisp, the crab was fresh I am sure, but it just lacked in flavour. The spicy dashi sauce that accompanied the crab was good, however when used it took over the dish. I suspect it was an issue with seasoning, however at £10 for a relatively small portion, a lack of flavour was disappointing.

Nigiri

Everyone will have their go to, either nigiri or sashimi. I would normally get a mix, however in the end we opted for tuna and salmon nigiri. As you would expect, the tuna was slightly more expensive at £10 for 3 pieces, with the salmon costing £8 for 3 pieces.

Both the tuna and the salmon nigiri were beautifully fresh and prepared in our eyeline at the counter in the restaurant. The wasabi provided the perfect level of heat, and the pickled ginger perfect to cut through the flavour and cleanse before diving in for the next bite! For those who maybe haven’t had sushi at a restaurant before I appreciate this will seem expensive for a relatively small amount of food, however for fresh sushi grade fish of this quality, I would say this is a decent price.

As can be seen in the photos, the fish was generally cut well, but by no means perfect. Both the salmon and tuna were neither even in size, smoothly sliced, or neat on the edges. When paying this price, I would expect to see a higher quality finish.

Tiger Prawns

From the ‘Robatayaki’ section of the menu we opted for the tiger prawns with chilli, and whilst not on the menu, chives. Lots and lots of chives!

The prawns were cooked well, although a little well done. They were a very generous size, and the flavour was in general good! It is hard to go wrong with a combination of tiger prawns, chilli and lime!

However the addition of chives was a little strange, I must admit! Coriander would have been a more obvious, and definitely a better choice in terms of flavour. It would seem the chives were selected for aesthetic purposes, however we ended up removing the vast majority to eat the prawns. If an ingredient has a neutral or negative impact on the overall flavour of a dish, it doesn’t have a place!

Four large tiger prawns for £9 feels just about right. Although without the chives, please!

I Like Big (bao) Buns & I Cannot Lie.

I am a huge fan of bao buns – one of the best trends to hit the UK food scene in years… when done right. When done wrong, they can be pretty awful! As you can probably tell from the photos below, these bao buns are certainly done right!

The Spicy Pork Bao Buns. If you visit ISSHO, you have to get these fluffy clouds filled with perfectly crispy and yet incredibly juicy and tender pork belly. The kimchi, crispy onions and cucumber, together with the sesame sauce combine to create a mouthful of pure unadulterated joy.

They come deconstructed, so you can choose how much sauce and sides you add to your bao – but if you’re anything like me that means exactly half of all of them on each one! I was surprised to see kimchi on the plate, but I am not sure why! It worked perfectly. Everything worked perfectly. They are perfect.

I’m pretty sure you aren’t supposed to eat them in one, but its almost impossible to resist the urge to smash your face straight in to these. If you find some self restraint, then savour every bite. Otherwise order 2 portions!

The cost? £12. The best £12 you will spend all day.

Desserts

After quite a heavy meal in terms of flavours, we were both in need of something fresh and tart for dessert. We opted to share the Yuzu Tart – a Japanese citrus fruit, often likened to a lemon due to its colour but flavour wise is closer to a grapefruit / orange combination.

The raspberry gel provides a gentle contrast to the yuzu tart. Overall this was a nice way to end the meal. The sesame tuile was however rather non-descript. If you squint, you can just about see it perched on the raspberry gel – it sadly offered about as much in taste as it did visually. I would normally expect a tuile to be dark caramelised sugar, so maybe this one was just undercooked.

At £8 I would suggest this is not great value for money. It was a good solid dessert, but it wasn’t perfect. For a lunch time, I would expect a dessert to be executed to a high standard for £8 – whereas this was just, well, ok I guess.

Scoring…

Now for the all important scoring. I will score each restaurant I visit on 3 different elements; the food quality, the setting, and the price.

Food quality – overall the food was a really good standard. There were some dishes that weren’t quite as good as promised, but there were some that were near perfect. I must admit, the tempura veg and bao buns are significantly boosting this score!

The nigiri and tiger prawns pulled their weight, and were solid additions to the meal, however the soft shell crab and yuzu tart were below expectation. Without these two dishes, the score would have been up in the bao clouds, however with them it ends a little nearer the ground.

All in all it’s a strong performance. 8/10

Setting – the setting is in general of a very high quality. Occupying the top floor of the relatively new and high end Victoria Gate shopping & casino complex, ISSHO has been designed to ooze quality and luxury. On the whole it does its job well especially in the bar area, however some of the attention to detail was lacking in the restaurant. The decoration in this area is trying to be luxurious, but it has a feeling of the emperor’s new clothes.

The restaurant in general felt a little thrown together, with themes that weren’t quite seen through. The metal counter set along the wall running the length of the main seating area is open, which gives it the feel of a buffet bar in a hotel. Maybe this changes at night time, however for lunch the counter is only being used by one person at the far end slicing tuna and salmon. The windows directly behind us were generally quite dirty and absolutely covered in bird poo. The service was largely good, however felt rather standard which did not meet expectations in a place aiming at the upper end of the market.

It could be brilliant, but on this showing it is well wide of the mark at the moment. 5/10

Price – I am going to split this in to two sections – the food first. In general I think the prices are on the limit of acceptability for what you get. I would say 4 dishes were good value, 3 were poor value. To charge top prices, the quality has to be spot on, and it just felt a little clinical. The food lacked some care and attention at times. Even the dishes that I would consider good value were generally quite poorly presented. The nigiri had not been sliced evenly and wasn’t smooth as you would expect. The only dish I would say was presented to a high standard was the dessert, however the execution let this one down a little.

The second element that needs discussion is the service charge. In very small print at the bottom of the menu (and barely visible when using the QR code to view on your mobile, as instructed) it states “12.5% discretionary service charge will be added to your bill”. I must admit to not seeing this at the time, and as I wasn’t made aware of this by the wait staff it came as a surprise when we reviewed the itemised receipt one we got home. I personally think adding a service charge for a table of 2 on a lunch time to be very cheeky, especially when the service on offer was relatively standard. For clarity, in the UK a service charge is not added or expected as standard as it is in the USA. The wait staff are paid significantly higher hourly rates and do not rely on tips as is standard in the States.

When it came to requesting the bill, the receipt was brought to us with the card machine in hand, at which point the waiter proceeded to take my card and type in the amount prior to us having chance to review. Almost as if it is a deliberate tactic to rush the sale to limit the chance of the service charge being queried.

Unfortunately this tainted the experience quite significantly. 4/10

5.7/10

On this showing, I am not sure if I will be back. I just don’t think it offers good value for money, and I am left feeling like I have been ripped off a little with the sneaky service charge. The hype and the prices suggest an experience of the highest quality, however the reality is far more ordinary than that.

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