Natur Sushi: the tuna-mad celebrity hideaway
A logbook by Sensei Hiroshi Umi.
What do a Spanish football legend, the country’s most famous weatherman, a successful singer-songwriter and a TV news presenter have in common? Well, that they all regularly enjoy dining at a distinctive restaurant which lies not within the culinary boundaries of Madrid neighbourhoods to see and be seen in (you know: Jorge Juan, Barrio de Salamanca, Ponzano…), but in the charming little town of Villanueva de la Cañada, almost an hour from Puerta del Sol. And it may be that they all feel the attraction of the joyous talent and expressiveness of a chef laden with history, who serves and outstanding nigiri.
Natur Sushi. The early days
Before he took the helm at Natur Sushi, the name by which the establishment is now known, serving as a truly original itamae, the life and miracles of Antonio Bong-Xu Castro would provide enough material for a Netflix documentary. Thanks to the acrobatics of the wonderful world of the circus (literally), his family were able to flee China in the days of severe communist repression. A globetrotter born in 1986, Antonio has lived in Majorca, in Madrid, qualified as an architect, has a master’s in 21st-century gastronomy from Alfonso X el Sabio University, returned to his native land in search of family answers… And today oversees oriental cuisine of extreme, academic, obsessive precision, with Fuentes bluefin tuna as the cornerstone.
“My background is really mixed. My mother is half Japanese and half Chinese, but from Manchuria. She came to Spain and I was born here. It’s a story with a little bit of everything: drama, escapes, journeys, meetings… I returned from China in 2011, finished my architecture studies, and didn’t know what to do. I started working as a Chinese teacher in a local school, and also began helping out my mother, who set up our first restaurant, in Boadilla. It was Chinese in style. I started getting involved in the kitchen, because I always liked cooking, and I love, I’m mad about eating. I do good things here, but I do the very best at home, whatever it might be, cutting-edge or traditional, foreign or Spanish. Snails, rice, meat, fish, such as sea bass baked in salt, stews, lamb with scarlet shrimp… Bring me a photo and I’ll nail that dish for you. All of it my own way. A lot of people say I should go in for MasterChef, but I can’t abandon the restaurant to do the competition,” explains Antonio, who has invested all his dreams (and his savings) in these premises in Villanueva de la Cañada.
Bluefin tuna, centre stage
While he spins his story, he serves us a Fuentes Bluefin Tuna tartar in two textures, which is out of this world. “The tartar I have on the menu is quite something itself, but this is to enter in competition in 2024, and I give it some more customisation: I serve it with an ultra-crunchy and really neutral rye biscuit, finely chopped diced and flaked akami, around 5 mm, with the umami maxed out. I then add a few little hints of flavour, such as dried tomato or capers, and a dressing that I’ve been gradually stepping up as I’ve improved the recipe: crunchy onion for texture, tamago furikake, my oils in basil special, spices, citrus and salt. I don’t want it to emulsify, but to mix, to make for a well-rounded dish,” he reveals with exuberant passion. An undeniable hint of sweetness and a real Mediterranean taste to this hugely flavourful tartar, with echoes of Italy.
Accompanying the dish, the truffled akami that he presented for the recent GourmeTapa by Fuentes 2023 at the Salón Gourmets trade fair. “It was an amazing dish, but that might have been its undoing, that it was more a dish than a tapa,” he acknowledges. “Tuna is a recent discovery for me, above all in 2020, when I saw my first ronqueo butchery. I’m a red beef kind of guy, but so what? Tuna is the equivalent from the sea. This year I’ve brought out five competition-level dishes, with nuances, with personality. My mother taught me to cut, but then I perfected my technique all on my own. I’m not categorical, or orthodox. It’s a clean cut, but done my way. Through intuition,” he admits. With effective finesse and surgical precision, Antonio prepares a maki with a sanmai oroshi (a filleted cut in three parts, akami, chutoro, tartar) and a base in which the salmon head and cheeks prove essential to the dish’s success.
Entirely self-taught, with a vivacious sense of humour, a fan of Dabiz Muñoz and some of his more searing techniques – “I do a tapa with crackling, pork, pig’s ears: I call it taparterias – the artery blocker, ha, ha, ha – and I made a maki with Iberian ham, really impressive, they even showed it on TV, on Antena 3”–, Antonio Bong-Xu nails his nigiris, made with Vietnamese rice delivered by Cominport. “I call this nigiri taste lory, with chutoro and flambéed. I mix a lot of flavours together, although to be honest I’m not really a fan of fusion cuisine,” he confesses mischievously. His akami karupa is another mouthwatering delight; akami carpaccio, bluefin tuna loin, marinated in tropical fruit juice and Japanese ponzu, with radish, pickled turnip, topped with imperial caviar roe.
Making full use of this wonderful venue, with natural light flooding the main room (and a private room on the ground floor), Antonio is building his future, like a skilled architect, on the foundations of joy, Cartesian order and attitude. The bonhomie, the setting, and his skill in the kitchen, using great products, attract both locals and famous faces alike. And in fact the celebrities I referred to initially who have sampled Xu’s creations make for quite a roll call: no less than Fernando Torres, Roberto Brasero, María Rozalén, David Cantero… As well as those still to come.