The best Japanese restaurants in London
Rice-pot gut-bombs, briny smacks of o-toro, and sharp crackles of nori – these are the greatest places to sample the taste of somewhere else…
The British fascination with Japanese cuisine has done much to improve the island’s access to mouth-burning ramen, cool slips of soba, a saving’s-worth of sushi, and the beautifully choreographed rhythms of kaiseki fare. But, as often happens with culinary imports, quality can become a victim of quantity, and the soft joys of Kyoto and Tokyo have been widely threatened by chainstore maki and train-station nigiri.
In London, where the promise of raw fish and slices of fried pork knows no bounds, the options are superb. Here are a few of our favourites…
The o-toro nigiri at Sumi is an item of pure lust, the juiciest section of meat hewn from the belly of a tuna, slashed with razor precision under a yanagi into a gridded pattern so that it drapes loosely over a small mound of vinegared rice, glinting with the soft lustre of satin and dabbed with a fingertip of wasabi, the kind of combination that has Tokyo sushi-masters awake at the break of dawn and up until the darkest hours of the night.
Endo Kazutoshi is a gifted chef and his dishes are probably the closest you’ll get to Haneda without leaving Heathrow – his hotate temaki crackles with thin nori sheets and is jammed with diced scallops and small buds of shiso flowers; and his yellowtail has a toasted hit that’ll long linger in the mouth – but you will always return for his gleaming o-toro.
Koya Ko Hackney
There are few greater pleasures than the hedonistic cooking found in Koya Ko, the cramped udon house that offers shelter from the Veja-saturated crowds congesting east London’s Broadway Market. Bowls of vegetable tempura and marinated-and-fried chicken karaage are fine ways to line your appetite, the type of lightly fried dishes favoured by those looking to steady fragile morning-after heads – but you’re only really there to crush a bowl of udon, the thick wheat-flour noodle that sits at the blurred intersection of soba’s stripped-back purity and the high-octane thrill of lava-hot ramen.
The curry udon here shows the more combative side of the Japanese pantry, a dish that’ll have you spending ten minutes tussling with chunky tentacles of dough that’s been shaped to the thickness of Roman-standard pici and boiled to the soft, chewy give of cheung fun – though you may barely see them under the murky sauce in which they’re submerged. An extra £3 will get you a tamago egg, an essential addition that’ll enhance the beautiful, chaotic moshpit in front of you.
Koya Ko Hackney
You’ll book an evening slot at the Aubrey, the Mandarin Oriental’s maximalist take on an izakaya, and you’ll make your way to the high-roller streets of Knightsbridge. You’ll avoid the temptation of making a beeline for three-courses in Heston’s dining room (you may fail!), push through the noren – door curtain – and you’ll dizzy yourself with the splashy warren of rooms in front of you: swathes of pink, dark parquet flooring, flashes of blue leather, misc-en scenes in the kacho-ga style pinned to the walls, and areas festooned with plush green banquettes calling for your occupancy.
Izakayas in Osaka tend to go the way of the informal: late-night inebriation, elbow-to-elbow chatting, small, inexpensive dishes that are just made for a pleasurable time with alcohol, and the odd spill of sake from the salarymen next to you. At The Aubrey, you’ll order ornate platters of umami-rich sushi pressed with Hokkaido rice; insurmountable plates of fried rice tossed around with Wagyu oxtail and lifted by the funky pungency of bone marrow; and your eyes will roll backwards for the Wagyu sando, a statement inch or two of pink meat, moistened with a bit of house-style Kewpie and tonkatsu sauce, bookended by bread that’s equally thick and toasted to a fried, tanned crust, and cut up four ways. Consider The Aubrey as a sort of izayaka flying on Concord.
In the straightjacket confines of Japanese high-dining, Masaki Sugisaki, who grew up surrounded by the strict, seasonal pleasures of his parent’s kaiseki restaurant, may be viewed as a fugitive chef, a cook whose zeal for great produce is matched by his insistence to give subtle contortions to traditional cuisine, with a certain flirtation with creams and velvety finishes.
Fatty tuna fetched from the northeastern coast of Spain (though Sugisaki’s catch largely comes from day boats in Cornwall) may arrive in coin-sized chips and be moistened with wasabi aioli; seabass carpaccio is flavoured with thin shingles of truffle and pinged up with cubes of jellied ponzu; and nasu-dengaku – aubergine spread with bubbling-hot caramelised miso glaze – is twice-cooked until it’s at the consistency of thick, seeping cheese.
Following a visit to Koyn earlier this year, Freddie Janssen, chef of Snackbar, Dalston’s answer to LA’s Sqirl, posted an Instagram story that neatly encapsulates the restaurant’s spirit: “Good quality proteins and expensive ingredients and you can’t really go wrong”, a dinner whose bill would’ve given her a heart attack had she seen the final tally. Money and fine meat – the commodities that grease the Mayfair streets on which it sits.
The proteins are indeed first-grade – slips of dry-aged, slivery seabass have a clean, briny smack, and are usually served with dabs of oscietra caviar, lightly sweet shrimp and a soy of yuzu dashi; and whole red-mullet tempura, which is tricked out with yuzu kosho tosazu and kombu salt, has an indecipherable, muted umami that refreshes your palate rather than obliterates it – and the prices will have you reaching for your backup Amex when the first one fails. When the glass dome that covers the sushi roll of A5 wagyu and truffle is removed, the heavy aroma of musty earth, smoked meat and deep expense accounts instantly fragrances the entire atmosphere within a three-table radius; if you have a preference for that sort of thing, it is £58 well spent.
A Japanese-influenced restaurant jammed amongst Brixton’s welter of juice bars and halal butchers – things can get a little complicated in London. Temaki chef Shaulan Steenson did terms at Tokyo sushi temples Hakkoku and Sushijin, and here he has an affinity for smearing rice – a type that’s been tossed around with sugar, akazu red vinegar and salt, and fluffed to a golden sheen – onto brittle slices of seaweed; pressing in trout or cool akami tuna, or bits of prawn tempura with slicks of slightly spiced mayo and a scattering of spring onion; and moulding them into finger-length batons.
Though you’re deep in south London, two to three bites – or a quick Garfield-style inhale – offer the lightly marine taste of somewhere else.
The dining room at Roka is dominated by its robata, a tiered grill splayed out like a set of bleachers and on which dozens of hunking slabs of meat and fish are flavoured by smoke and fire. The big-ticket item most order is the block of black cod that’s sweetened by yuzu miso, or the blistered fillet of seabream, a clean, pearly taste that’s brightened up by little tangles of pickled red onion.
The sashimi platter arrives on what appears like a ice stage carved straight from Hoth, with thick, chunky cuts of seabass and tuna and a small bowl of oversized shrimp and dabs of caviar. If it’s in season, a gentle rice hot pot, thickened with Japanese mushrooms, clippings of mountain vegetables and trimmings of truffle, is served in all its gut-bomb glory – a smooth, cocooning dish that will wrestle you into surrender before the dessert plate arrives.
Although izakayas in the motherland are often enlivened by sake-fuelled abandon, there’s a leisurely rhythm to “mu”, the cavernous Dalston hideout where small plates and live music collide, a dimly lit place where every diner seems to be on a third or fourth Hinge date.
The menu items, which can groove between fried aubergine enhanced by white miso, and cool slivers of yellowtail with yuzu and pomegranate, are the perfect foil for soaking up the excess of sweetened cocktails. If you have thick cutlets of crunchy-chewy pork tonkatsu on the mind, you’ll be just fine.
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