Geoff Leong: 'I can’t eat other sushi after eating Taku's'

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Geoff Leong on his Taku restaurant in Mayfair

Related tags Geoff Leong Taku Takuya Watanabe Japanese cuisine Chef Fine dining

The British Chinese restaurateur behind Leong’s Legend and Goldfish is jumping into the luxury market feet first with his new Mayfair omakase restaurant Taku.

This is by far the most high-end and expensive restaurant your family has ever opened. How did it come about?

My family went to eat at Taku in Paris a few years ago. We were absolutely blown away by the meal. It was one of the best Japanese eating experiences we had ever had. We got talking to Taku​(Takuya Watanabe) and it turned out his daughter was due to study in the UK and that he wanted to be in London. He was also keen to come over because his restaurant was already using a lot of high-quality British-caught seafood. Being in London puts him closer to the source. We were already in discussions before Covid but the pandemic has delayed the launch. We found the perfect site (on Mayfair's Albemarle Street) and launched earlier this month. 

Most of your family’s restaurants are Chinese. Why sushi?

We have a long history with Japanese food in London. My family is from Hong Kong where sushi is very popular. We were involved in Koi (a high-end Japanese restaurant in Kensington) and my father’s former business partner opened the first Japanese restaurant in Chinatown in the 90s. The sushi market in London has changed a lot over the last few decades and mostly for the worse. The rise of grab-and-go has seen the closure of a lot of Japanese-run independents. We have identified a gap in the market for something much more high quality.

But at least half a dozen top-end omakase restaurants have launched in London over the past year or so. How will Taku differ?  

We believe premium Japanese food in London isn't good enough for the price people pay. I can’t eat other sushi after trying Taku’s. There’s nothing in London at this level at the moment. Taku has a proven track record. His Paris restaurant won a Michelin star less than a year after opening and retained it for a decade.

Your new restaurant is very expensive…

Taku’s food is not cheap but it is good value in the sense that our guests really are getting the best of the best in terms of ingredients. This is in our view the biggest failing of many top Japanese restaurants in London. The fish is simply not fresh enough to justify the price tag. The price point of the menu will allow us to source the absolute best.

What will be on Taku’s £380 prestige menu?

We won’t be adding gold flakes or anything like that. It will be the best seafood we can possible get. Taku will also use his contacts in Paris to source difficult-to-find French produce including caviar and truffles.

What was the appeal of running a small omakase-only place?

It's an efficient business model because the space is so small. We only have 16-covers so overheads are low. And because everyone is booked in wastage is minimal because we know exactly how many guests we are serving each day. Unusually, we will open for lunch. Traditionally, omakase places aren’t open at lunch but that doesn’t make sense to me. We’re paying rent 24/7 and there is a strong business lunch market in that bit of Mayfair.

Tell us about your other restaurant interests

We don't see ourselves as a group as such. We're a family office that is involved in a number of restaurants in Chinatown and elsewhere in London and have played a key role in introducing people to regional Chinese cuisine and Asian food more generally. During the pandemic we sold off many of our sites, often to the chefs that ran them for us. The Leong Family Office started out with Goldfish in Hampstead (high-end Cantonese) and we also have Leong's Legend (a Taiwanese concept) and the more casual Dumplings' Legend. But the family is involved with quite a few other places. We are focused on Taku for the moment but we are hoping to bring Dumplings' Legend to Battersea Power Station at some point.

How is business generally?

Chinatown is busy but we are still paying over the odds for rents. In many cases we're paying £400 per sq ft. But a big positive in Chinatown is that we finally have an dining alfresco culture. Westminster Council was very resistant to that but Covid has helped them changed their minds. Chinatown’s success is largely down to it being so democratic. It is possible for people to enjoy premium ingredients like lobster and razor clams but all the restaurants in the area have very good value entry level prices. 

How was Covid for your restaurants? 

The pandemic was extremely tough for the British Chinese community. In the early days Chinese people in London were avoided and abused and our restaurants were empty from early January 2020. It was pure racism. We had the tires on our car slashed and some of the older generation would literally turn into a wall to avoid me when we passed in the street. Myself and some friends set up a platform called CARG (Covid Anti Racism Group) to try and do something about it. One of our focuses was to try and get the mainstream media to stop using pictures of Asian people in the London Chinatown to cover the pandemic. That was very unfair to the British Chinese community who have been living here for many years. We're no strangers to racism, sadly, but this was on another level. 

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