The Family Reinventing Sushi Fusion
“It’s a relatively rare thing to see the owner of a London restaurant talking to the diners these days” says Yara Zeitoun, the 24 year old director of Oliver Maki London. “But here that’s really important.” We’re sitting in the newly opened restaurant on Soho’s busy Dean Street. As we talk it becomes clear that the restrained slate grey interiors belie the passion and experimentation inside. The sushi fusion menu is a mix of Japanese and Mediterranean cuisine. And their philosophy is as much of a fusion, this time of traditional sounding values like family, dedication and loyalty, mixed with their more contemporary counterparts: innovation, experimentation and iteration.
A Family Affair With Food
Fifteen years ago Yara’s father, Oliver Zeitoun, gave up his career as an MD at a top ad agency and opened a restaurant with his brother in Kuwait City. Their fusion Sushi concept was a great success, Oliver Maki is now a leading brand in the Middle-East. The latest restaurant in his small chain opened in London in February 2016.
“I was so passionate about cooking. I decided to take the challenging route, to play with this most sophisticated of cuisines.”
Oliver grew up in Lebanon. As a teenager he lived through the civil war and later in life, the war in Kuwait. As MD of Publicis Kuwait he gained renown as the first person to use the Kuwaiti dialect rather than traditional Arabic in advertising. But he was also obsessed with food. “Back in the nineties I noticed that people all over the world were afraid of traditional Japanese food,” says Oliver. “I’d been experimenting with Japanese cooking and Mediterranean flavours at home. I was so passionate about cooking. I decided to go for it and take the challenging route, to play with this most sophisticated of cuisines by integrating Mediterranean and global ingredients.”
Oliver and Yara Zeitoun
And so the Oliver Maki brand was born. The restaurant has remained a family affair. “This is us, this restaurant,” says Yara, “it’s absolutely a family business and we’re in it together. The Lebanese culture is all about family, hospitality, generosity of spirit and it’s important that we bring a little of that to our customers. Dad eats here every day, and we all talk to diners, we make them a part of it.”
Deconstructing Tradition To Create Food Heaven
“All our restaurants are constantly engaged in R&D, it’s like a lab for chefs.”
When it comes to the food, tradition makes way for experimentation. “My earliest memories of Dad are of him experimenting with food,” says Yara. “That attitude is a big part of Oliver Maki. All our restaurants are constantly engaged in R&D, it’s like a lab for chef’s”. The approach she describes is playful and iterative, there are failures that don’t make it to the menu, but the ones that do have been well thought out. “You can be ‘fusion and confusion’,” she says. “We are not. It’s not about being different for the sake of it. We don’t just mash up different influences. We carefully deconstruct the things we’re inspired by, and then rebuild them as a perfectly executed Oliver Maki creation.”
Herbs and olive oil play a key role in the creation of their fusion food. “Thyme is really important, you find a lot of it in Lebanese culture,” explains Yara, “we use it a lot, for example in the Amourous Maki with tuna. We have a thyme drink and a Tom Collins with thyme. And olive oil isn’t something you would usually expect to find in Sushi, it’s part of the Mediterranean influence, which is also a big thing in Lebanese cuisine.”
Food As Precious As Jewels
Looking through the Oliver Maki menu the fruits of this playful foodie laboratory can be seen. For those a little nervous about the combination of flavours Yara recommends the ‘Sandi Ume Maki’. “Because it’s delicious and a good way into the particular type of fusion we practice. The red coloured wrap it comes in is made from dried plums. It contains shrimp tempura, chopped salmon, soya salt, spring onion and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.”
Oliver goes for the ‘Oliver Temaki’. A hand roll of Japanese nori, chopped salmon, Japanese chilli, fried baby anchovies (typically eaten in Lebanon), shiso leaf, salmon roe, and extra virgin olive oil. “I eat it nearly everyday, it’s my personal favourite.”
If you’re not worried about paying it safe then you are presented with an almost poetic array of choices. A Miso shot served with black sesame bread. Or the upside down shot glasses of the The Mount Fuji Maki with fois gras, onagi and mint. A ‘Sushi Jewelbox,’ presented in a bespoke perspex box, that delivers a different roll from each drawer. And the signature dish, the Oliver Maki roll. Basically an eight-course tasting menu on one plate, including over 30 different ingredients and requiring nine cooking processes.
Appetite whetted? You can find Oliver Maki on Dean Street in London. Or, if you are further afield the restaurant also has branches in Kuwait City and Bahrain.