Restaurant review: Shinsen Sushi, Edinburgh

There is apparently a Japanese expression – shinrin-yoku – that has been loosely translated as a calming forest walk.
The restaurant has only been open for a couple of months. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.The restaurant has only been open for a couple of months. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
The restaurant has only been open for a couple of months. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

My takeaway from Shinsen Sushi involves a walk there to collect it, as it only announces a move into deliveries the next day – doh.

While I think shinrin-yoku has branches of trees in mind rather than those of garishly lit Tesco Metros, I nonetheless enjoy the calming benefits of stretching my legs to get my meal. The trip also serves as crucial punctuation between my living room serving as office and place to relax, in the absence of any kind of Bugsy Malone quick turnaround.

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That said, there is a definite poignant edge to the walk given the local lockdown restrictions that give the many empty restaurants en route an unfortunate Marie Celeste vibe. I can almost see and hear past diners laughing, and wonder that after a string of closures – and a hospitality sector understandably bemoaning its frustrations – who will reopen and who will not.

There is a large selection of pre-boxed dishes - including vegan options and desserts. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.There is a large selection of pre-boxed dishes - including vegan options and desserts. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
There is a large selection of pre-boxed dishes - including vegan options and desserts. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
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Shinsen took a somewhat bold decision to open mid-pandemic, and as for its story, it points out that in Japanese culture, Shinsen refers to the food delivered to Kami (“god/sacred power in Shintō religion”) that is “prepared with meticulous care, either cooked (jukusen), raw (seisen) or vegetarian (sosen), from the first fruits or first rice sheaves of the harvest”.

Consequently the menu is split into raw, cooked, and vegan, plus salads, desserts and drinks – with the restaurant adding that it has “taken an Eastern favourite and given it a Western twist, without losing the essence of the Japanese cuisine”.

As sushi wins out over ramen any day for me, I make a beeline for the raw section of the menu. I have been wowed by the images on its social media pages, with the highlighting of its spider roll taking it to the top of my order list.

I add a nigiri set, with a goma sesame salad, Japanese steamed cheesecake, and watermelon Ramune – a soda that is apparently a staple of the Asian country’s culture, with a distinctive bottle whose opening is sealed with a marble, and whose creation is attributed to Scottish pharmacist Alexander Cameron Sim.

I phone up to place my order in the absence of an online option, am asked to specify a collection time, and told I can pay when I arrive.

Not too long afterwards I cross the threshold, with the premises midway down Broughton Street brightly lit with a large fridge cabinet stocked with boxed-up products, like a branch of London-focused sushi chain Wasabi – and in contrast to my expectation of everything made to order. There is also a sizeable open kitchen, and I collect my order, adding some wasabi peas and aloe vera juice at the last minute as I cannot resist the temptation.

My bag is handed over, admittedly rather heavy with the amount of food in it, and I make my way back home. I’m worried I’ve ordered too much, and don’t really want to keep anything till the following day, but my fears will turn out to be baseless and I end up polishing off everything.

Topping up

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It’s only when I’m back in my own kitchen that I realise that the haul contains no wasabi or soy sauce, although I have some of the latter in stock thankfully. I also have no chopsticks, to my surprise, having had at least one spare pair in my cutlery drawer since I can remember. Cutlery will have to do, and it does the job just fine.

The first thing to be unboxed is the spider roll, several discs of rice encircling pale lobster and crab meat complemented by avocado, cucumber, ume mayo and topped with fish roe as vibrantly orange as Irn-Bru.

Then I make a beeline for the nigiri – smaller-than-expected rice blocks topped with a flat slice of fish (or, say, pepper if I was going vegan). The most impressive of these is sporting a toupee of flawlessly textured blushing tuna, followed in my order of preference by prawn, salmon, one raw and one "aburi” – partly cooked – as well as sea bream, tilapia kabayaki, and eel. The latter has never been a favourite of mine, and if I have identified it correctly out of this selection, its gelatinous texture doesn’t change that view.

What also crosses my mind is that I have eaten several tonnes of sushi over the years, my favourite in Edinburgh being the excellent Kanpai, while the Waitrose sushi bar holds its own, and while I know the sheer volume now stored quite literally under my belt doesn’t make me an expert in Japanese cuisine, it’s the rice in my Shinsen order that puzzles me. It doesn’t seem to me like conventional short-grained white sushi rice but rather a browner, less dense, more al dente version.

I then dive into the pretty decent sesame salad, with a generous pool of tart dressing underneath, say, green leaves, thinly sliced cucumber and carrot, cherry tomatoes, and a generous portion of crispy onions.

Then for the cheesecake, which comes with a bijou pot of toffee sauce. Why don’t I microwave it, I think – a good idea in the case of the cheesecake, less so for the toffee sauce that erupts volcano-like within a few seconds. Still, the cheesecake gets the thumbs-up – light and airy and with a subtle fragrant taste.

In summary, this isn’t the greatest sushi I’ve ever had, and it’s not the greatest I’ve had in Edinburgh. But the sum of my order proves greater than its various elements to make for a nice treat on a Friday night, arigato.

Shinsen Sushi

43 Broughton Street

Edinburgh

EH1 3JU

0131 629 5830

7/10

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