Source: Sauce Communications

London's Newest Japanese Restaurant Is Run by a Romanian Chef

Jason Atherton nears the opening of his sixth London restaurant.

The head chef at a new Japanese izakaya that promises to be one of London's highest-profile restaurants trained as a mechanical engineer in central Romania. Then he learned British cuisine in a Newcastle pub.

Alex Craciun is now the man picked by Jason Atherton to head the kitchen at Sosharu , which opens in London's Clerkenwell on March 7.

It's a big job. Atherton is a respected chef who has just added a restaurant in Sydney to an international dining empire that now encompasses New York, Dubai, Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. His current five London restaurants include Pollen Street Social and Berners Tavern. Sosharu will be the sixth, and there are plans for a seventh.

Chef Alex Craciun.

Chef Alex Craciun.

Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

While Atherton has been in the industry's elite for at least 15 years, Craciun  started at the bottom, helping out in kitchens in Romania while he picked up skills. About a decade ago he moved from the city of Brașov to Newcastle, some 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of London.

"It was terrible," 30-year-old Craciun says with a laugh. "It was a mess,  and I didn't speak the language, or at least didn't really understand it. Though I did my best, it was really hard. But they promoted me. After five months I was in charge of the kitchen.

"Being new in the country gives you that motivation and you want to work more, and that is how everything started. If I had gone somewhere else, like a Michelin-star restaurant, it would have been totally different because I'd have been just pushed back and scared. But I knew I could do better food than them, and it gave me confidence."

Craciun first discovered Japanese flavors at Maze, where Atherton served an eclectic menu of tapas-sized dishes that incorporated Asian ingredients.

Sea bass sashimi salad with myoga and shiso, apple oroshi and ponzu dressing.

Seabass sashimi salad with myoga and shiso, apple oroshi and ponzu dressing.

Source: Sauce Communications

"That was quite special for me," Craciun says. "I was working in Maze for about three years and then decided: That's it. I'm going to work in Japan and see what's happening there."

He talked his way into kitchens in Tokyo and Osaka, which would have been difficult even if he spoke Japanese (he's now studying the language). At the famous RyuGin, he simply turned up and stood outside the door, returning each day until he was allowed to enter the kitchen.

This was the first of several visits to Japan, where he worked anywhere he could, from a mom-and-pop noodle shop through to three-Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy. Atherton has been a mentor throughout.

To prepare for Sosharu, Craciun moved to Japan and spent a year at the Kyoto Culinary School. He worked at Kikunoi in Kyoto under Chef Yoshihiro Murata, as well as at RyuGin, under Seiji Yamamoto, in Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Sosharu is located on the ground floor of the new Turnmill Building, with a 40-cover cocktail bar Seven Tales in the basement. The style is that of an izakaya, a casual restaurant similar to a pub, with the focus on flavor over sophistication. Dishes range from £6 ($8.40) to £26, and dinner is likely to run anywhere from £40 to £60 per person, before drinks. I haven't yet tried the food.

Raw scallop, pickled lotus root and ichiban dashi infused vegetables.
Raw scallop, pickled lotus root and ichiban dashi infused vegetables.
Source: Sauce Communications

The menu will feature small plates, using Japanese and British ingredients, with sections dedicated to different specialties such as tempura, sashimi and hibachi grill. There will be no sushi.

Dishes are likely to include chashu pork belly with udon and king oyster; bream sashimi with shichimi and crispy potato; scallop with yuzu butter and fresh nori; and sukiyaki wagyu beef with glass noodles and young leeks. Desserts include apple pie with miso butterscotch; and white sesame chocolate with miso caramel. Cocktails will include Munenori's Mojito, made with cold-brewed matcha, nigori, Cuban rum, tonka bean and absinthe.

Exciting stuff, but does Craciun get homesick?

"When I left home, I said I am going away for one year," he says. Nine years later, "I miss my mum and dad, my brother, my family, and I try to go very year to see them at Christmas time. But I don't want to move back."

Sosharu, 64 Turnmill Street, London, EC1M 5RR

Richard Vines is chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines

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