Japanese Food Extravaganza!! – London Edition
Ha, this begins the food section. Last week, I’ve listed some of my favourite brief escapes to Japan, found locally in London. Naturally, I’ll now attempt to complete the Japanese experience (at least from a touristic point of view) with the sampling of Japan’s finest cuisine, London-style.
British restaurants have come a long way: in recent decades, the East Asian cuisine scene has been in midst of a dramatic blossoming both in availability and quality, so much so that enjoying Japanese food in London as if you were in Tokyo is no longer the distant dream that it once was – but only if your wallet is well-prepared. Nevertheless, those days when Chinese takeaways formed the sole representative of the Orient are certainly consigned to the history books!
Any discussion on restaurants carries a degree of subjectivity, which naturally invites controversy. (When it comes to restaurants they seem to matter: one always seems more turned off by that one dislike on Tripadvisor than the wall of compliments behind) Obviously, I have not been to every Japanese joint in London, and only recommended those that I’ve always liked best. Feel free to correct my stupidity, but only if you have another suggestion!
For ‘Fine’ Dining: Miyama, Mayfair
Its location a nondescript basement covered by bare walls, its decor ‘functional’, a cross between postwar Showa and flatpack furniture, Miyama really does not look like a bastion for Japanese fine dining. Fortunately, looks can be deceiving, for the restaurant offers some of the best all-around Japanese gastronomic experience I’ve ever had this side of the Eurasian continent.
Located on a quiet Mayfair side street, but a stone’s throw away from the Japanese embassy, the restaurant offers the most Japan-like experience in the capital. The menu offers popular favourites such as Sushi and Tempura, to some homely options like Miso Aubergine, with hints of Japanese localisms sprinkled in between. Take the Gohan Set – white rice, served with miso soup and pickles, ubiquitous in Japan. Not at all special, but Miyama is the first London restaurant where I’ve spotted this reference.
The majority of the staff are Japanese and flexing your language skills here is much encouraged – in fact, services are so characteristically Japanese as to include sometimes broken English on top of the habitual politeness.
You can see why the expats come. Indeed, I was first introduced to Miyama by an embassy employee who claimed the restaurant is the natural port of call for all homesick diplomats. Frankly, I reckon that’s a more glowing recommendation and assurance of its quality than anything I can conjure on the keyboard.
Being a Mayfair restaurant with diplomats as the targeted clientele, Miyama is not a budget restaurant; its decor means it’s not a place to impress a date either. However, I’d argue the food is fairly priced and in itself should satisfy even the purists!
Underground – Green Park (Jubilee/Piccadilly/Victoria)
p.s. There is a branch in the City of London, which I’ve never been.
For ‘family’ dining: Obon, Kingston Upton Thames
Obon is one of those neighbourhood restaurants: simple decor, acceptable prices, available to take away, locally popular, and where I used to visit frequently with my parents. It is strongest with its udon, a thick wheat noodle, and its sushi. I have fond memories of the udon: inexpensive, homemade, and has some of the best texture I have tasted, perhaps even on par to those I’ve eaten in Takamatsu, home of the famous Sanuki Udon. Admittedly, nostalgia may be clouded my judgement a little here. Yet, I’m still confident enough to class Obon’s as some of the best udon I’ve had in the UK.
As it is expected for raw fish, the sushi here is more expensive, but the food is fresh and varied, and you can witness the meticulous preparation and the artistic presentation of the chef too. Judging from raving online reviews, it seems to be the even bigger draw.
Near Kingston railway station, Obon is not exactly near central London, but if you ever find yourself near that neck of the woods, checking out this local favourite is well worth your while.
Rail – Kingston (from Waterloo)
For Okonomiyaki: OKAN, Brixton Market
Okonomiyaki is a speciality of Kansai (Western Japan), a cross between pancake and omelette, and Wikipedia suggests that some even calls it a Japanese Pizza. It’s usually filled with meat or seafood and topped with a distinctive brown sauce that split opinions like marmite, akin to a sweeter Worcestershire sauce. I am firmly pro-sauce. As a self-declared Osakan, it is also one of my favourite Japanese staples.
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for Okonomiyaki is not as widely shared in the UK, even though it should become more popular with the British public, being… cooked and pizza-like, after all.
Buried in the multicultural and ever popular Brixton Market, Okan is a rare Okonomiyaki outpost. A cool little place that resembles those backstreet stalls in Osaka, the restaurant has friendly staffs that kindly plays along with my attempts at a Japanese conversation while serving up cheap and delicious Okonomiyaki, all under £10.
Good food, cosy, inexpensive, good place to be.
Rail/Underground – Brixton (from Victoria/Victoria)
For Ramen: Kanada-Ya; St. Giles; Tonkotsu East, Haggerston; Kanada
The London ramen game is strong these days, with an armada of competitors coming to shore, all vying for customers and local bragging rights. While there are many varieties of ramen, the Kyushu staple that is Tonkotsu seems to be the mainstream here. A ramen in a pork-based broth served with slices of roasted pork, spring onions and boiled eggs, Tonkotsu may sound simple, but it is very difficult to master.
Opinions on ramen die hard and I do feel like whichever ramen bar I pick would lead to disagreements, but here is two that I go regularly:
Firstly, the usual favourite Kanada-Ya. Originally a Japanese chain (which implies certain pedigree), Kanada-Ya is a self-proclaimed and justified expert on Tonkotsu. Located in a traditional setting , Kanada does not pamper for British tastes, and instead serves some of the richest and creamiest (read: fattiest) broth this side of the world. Kanada also permits a choice of firmness on the noodles (suggestion: go hard) and provides a list of add-ons, of which the soft boiled egg is the popular and recommended choice. You’d be amazed how a seemingly simple dish can become an art form in a ramen bar.
Underground – Tottenham Court Road (Central/Northern)
Secondly, the synonymically named Tonkotsu is a recent entry into my ‘favourites’ list. With six branches in London, it is also represented in the Selfridges food hall. Its Haggerston branch, though, provides the best setting: underneath the railway viaduct, you’d find an typically East London industrial ambience, outfitted with its own noodle-making machinery on full display. Making your own noodles on site surely makes a huge difference, for Tonkotsu serves a firm and bouncy variety just to my taste.
Tonkotsu also serves another personal pick, the Tsukumen. Noodles are presented cold and eaten by dipping into separate, thick and hot soup. This preserves the texture of the noodle from the overexposure in a traditional ramen and really does make the noodles stand out more.
Overground – Haggerston (East London Line); there is another branch in Dean Street, Soho.
For Takeaway Sushi: Atariya Takeaway, James Street
Backed by its wholesale supermarket division that serves the bulk of the Japanese community in the UK, Atariya is a famous sushi restaurant with branches in Ealing and Swiss Cottage. As the freshness of its ingredients constitutes the greatest part of what makes good sushi, Atariya’s sushi is the quite surely the one to beat in town.
However, with imported fresh ingredients comes a rather hefty price tag, not one that I can afford to go regularly. Therefore, its takeaway store hidden just behind Bond Street station is a saviour.
Forget Wasabi and Istu! Admittedly, the takeaway version of Atariya remains on the pricey side, but certainly not extortionate, and heck I’d argue expected for good sushi. Its quality and freshness will not disappoint.
Underground – Bond Street (Central/Jubilee)
For ‘Cheap’ Sushi: Kulu Kulu, various locations
As freshness is paramount, good but inexpensive sushi is about as realistic as a pagoda without columns – until the advent of the conveyor belt sushi, in Japan at least.
The conveyor belt style is conceived as a quick and mass-market way to enjoy a previously expensive delicacy; therefore it usually strikes a balance between price, variety and quality.
Yo sushi, however, is not the best representative. Rather, Kulu Kulu is the best approximation of the Japanese conveyor belt experience in London: it even evokes some fond-only-in-nostalgia memories of cramming oneself into a station side sushi joint in the streets of Osaka.
Look pass the ‘vintage’ and ‘characteristic’ shop front and the close proximity of strangers, and enjoy a good range of fine sushi. Its taste may not have been earth-shattering, but definitely above average in London, available for a very reasonable price in central London standard. As good a ‘cheap’ option will ever be.
Underground – Piccadilly Circus (Bakerloo/Piccadilly)