If your thoughts on Japanese cuisine are ‘ewww, floppy raw fish. Sweet and sour chicken is quite good though’, you need a few pointers. No, really. You really do. In Japan, the vast majority of hang outs for the hungry are either izakaya (pubs that do a little of everything) or specialist places that focus on just one thing and do it well. This isn’t Tokyo. But, luckily for you, this is London, and there are many places authentic enough to rival the homeland.
The following is intended as a newbies’ guide to eating Japanese. These are some of our favourites, but this is by no means a definitive list. Feel free to suggest your own favourite places for any of these categories below, and we’ll add them to the appropriate section as ‘reader suggestions’.
Sushi Cooked, vinegared rice most famously topped with raw fish, but also cucumber, egg or sweet tofu. Nigiri sushi are the rectangular blocks and makizushi are the rolled variety. In its western incarnation, nigiri sushi is huge — traditionally there should be a little morsel of rice underneath, to be devoured in one mouthful.Where: Atariya have some reasonable sushi bars in north-west London. Their dependable supermarkets are also the best place to get fish if you’re brave enough to home-make sushi.
- Atari-Ya in Swiss Cottage is a noted supplier to big restaurants, as well as having a wonderful restaurant of its own, notes Jonathan.
- Dinings in Marylebone, suggests Claire.
- Edo in Crystal Palace is Michael Keefe’s suggestion.
- Hana on Seven Sisters Road do traditional sushi as well as ‘crazy Westernized types’, says Vix Proctor.
- Kulu Kulu in Covent Garden is a conveyor-belt style place, ‘an easy place to eat alone, or in a couple,’ says Sian Gwilliam.
- Nizuni on Charlotte Street is a good sushi stop for Claire.
- Sake No Hana in St James is good but pricey, says Claire.
- Song Sushi on Blackstock Road is amazing for takeaway sushi, opines Rebecca June.
- Sushi Say on Walm Lane, Willesden is fantastic and always packed, says Bethany Childs (via Facebook).
- Yashin in High Street Kensington is good for Claire, if a little pricey.
- Yoshino on Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly offer huge take away portions of sushi, with an assorted tray for under £4. “The restaurant is quite a bit pricier but a great experience,” says Chris.
Yakitori A simple snack of vegetables or bite-sized pieces of chicken (almost any part, in fact, from thigh to wing to its tiny heart) skewered, seasoned with salt (shio) or coated with an addictively yummy sugary-soy sauce (tare) and grilled to perfection. Where: Any Japanese place in London with a grill can knock up a good yakitori, but Bincho (Clerkenwell and Soho) is the place to go to enjoy the yakitori joint experience in London. TasteCard holders can get 50% off in Clerkenwell.
Okonomiyaki A big-ass savoury pancake originating from Osaka made with cabbage and seafood or red meat, finished off with lashings of mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce, dried fish flakes (katsuobushi) and a dusting of dried seaweed (aonori). Usually the raw ingredients, in a bowl, are delivered to your hot-plate-fitted table, where you and your friends proceed to get drunk and cook it while totally not burning yourselves. Where: Abeno and Abeno too (Holborn and Leicester Square) specialise in real okonomiyaki dining. Much like in Japan, guests are seated around a hotplate. Unlike Japan, the staff do all the hard work for you. They might let you try it for yourself if you ask.
The more upscale Matsuri in St James also sells okonomiyaki (Hiroshima style, not Osaka), says ‘Shogun of Shoganai’.
Takoyaki Tako is octopus. That’s the first thing you need to know. The second is that they sound gross but taste amazing. Another dish from Osaka, it’s basically fried or grilled balls of pancakey awesome, jammed with chunks of octopus, pickled ginger and the odd tentacle, all served with takoyaki sauce and the mayo/fish flake/dusty seaweed super combo. Where: Juzu, a stall situated on Brick Lane on Sundays, is where we go when we need our fix. Which is quite often.
Tempura The ‘tem’ in ‘tempura’ is also the Japanese symbol for heaven. If you’ve a penchant for battered, deep-fried food, it’s not hard to see why. Crispy, light and fluffy vegetables and seafood are served with either salt or a dipping sauce (tentsuyu) or on a bowl of rice (tendon). Where: Tempura is the house speciality at Toku (Regent Street), and one of the most expensive things on the otherwise reasonable menu (but it’s damn good). Visit the website for weekly offers, and students can claim a 10% discount.
Katsu curry A heap of rice, mild curry sauce with onion, potato, carrots, beef chucks and a whole-breaded, deep-fried, sliced-pork cutlet dumped on the side for good measure. Where: It’s very hard to actually screw up a katsu curry. Very hard. Most places have it lurking somewhere on the menu. However Tokyo Diner (near Leicester Square) is worthy of a mention as they not only do a decent katsu curry, but for the truly ravenous they offer ’Omori’, an extra large helping of rice, for free. All you have to do is ask. Just make sure you eat it, greedy.
- Curry Ono in Brixton village offers ‘a great katsu curry’, says Amy.
- Misato in Chinatown floats Nick’s boat, while Careicles notes that it’s famous for its katsu.
- Soho Japan on Wells Street ‘does the best katsu curry ever’, according to minty_fresh_uk.
Udon Thick, wheat noodles plonked into a mild broth with tempura, scallions, or various other fun foodstuffs thrown in on top. Where: Queues are out the door for bowls of wormy fat Sanuki noodles, a speciality from south-western Japan, at Koya in Soho since it opened to rave reviews in 2010. Pioneered by people who really know their stuff — it’s about as authentic as you’re going to get in this hemisphere.
Omurice Chicken fried rice wrapped in a thin sheet of omelette and squirted with ketchup. The ultimate in fusion comfort food. Where: Surprisingly, not many places do Omurice. The Crane and Tortoise on Gray’s Inn Road does, though. And it’s delightful when there’s an empty spot inside that only rice pretending to be breakfast can fill.
Gyoza Derived from Chinese dumplings, these beauties are made with minced pork, cabbage and garlic then pan-fried on the bottom and steamed. Consumed with a soy-chilli oil dip. Where: Yoisho (Goodge Street) is an izakaya that does everything, but the gyoza here is particularly morish – said by many Japanese foodies to be ‘some of the best gyoza in London’. Do some chompworthy yakitori too.
Other noteworthy izakaya and restaurants
The aforementioned Japanese ‘pub’ works a lot like Spanish tapas; order a round of food and drinks, then repeat until you’re stuffed and/or pleasently wasted. Below are some of our other favourite Izakaya to check out:
- Asakusa, Mornington Crescent: Booking is essential, so people tend to keep this one quiet. We’re probably already in trouble for telling you.
- ICN Gallery, Shoreditch: Simple, to the point, tasty and cheap stop-off for lunch, with an associated gallery of new Asian art. Read our review.
- Kiraku, Ealing Common: High-standard of food and some very tasty Sashimi (raw sliced fish). Be sure to book at peak eating times.
- Nozomi, Knightsbridge: Celebrity hangout with classy bento boxes. Read our review.
- Suzu, Hammersmith: Do fantastic deals every Monday with discounted food and drink.
- Tomoe, Bond Street: Another good ‘all-rounder’ on the food front. Downstairs is good for big groups.
- Akari on Essex Road deserves a mention, according to Kkmaisey.
- Cafe Japan in Golders Green is ‘great, unpretentious and reasonable’, says fluffythoughts.net.
- Dotori in Finsbury Park is a good option according to Ali Ross on Facebook.
- Japan Centre near Piccadilly is Eugenie Guseva’s favourite for lunch (via Facebook).
- Nobu in Mayfair, with its Michelin Star, is nominated by George Hastings on Facebook.
- Roka on Charlotte Street serves up Robatayaki style, Claire Luck tips us off on Facebook.
- Sapporo Ichiban in Catford offers an ‘amazingly fresh and affordable buffet’, according to Pixies888.
- Satsuma on Wardour Street does ‘excellent bento’, according to Paul Henry on Facebook.
- Sushi Japan in North Finchley is beloved of Shani Souter (on Facebook) who tells us it “has the greatest selection of all sushis available (including sashimi) and Japanese delights (my favourite being pumpkin korroke and the octopus balls, takoyaki) for an amazing set price. Terms and conditions apply but for £14 you can eat whatever you like off the menu — and as much of it as you like. Even the ramen which usually costs £9 a bowl.”
- Sushi Waka on Camden Parkway, nominated by Dave Hodgkinson.
- Taro on Old Compton street ‘do great Bento boxes’, reckons Amy.
- Tsunami on Charlotte Street is nominated by Liza Ramli on Facebook
- Zuma in Knightsbridge is nominated by Liza Ramli on Facebook.