It seems like everyone is falling in love with Japanese food these days. The recent batch of food guides and awards have an unmistakable Asian theme running through them with many new entries coming from sushi restaurants. We published a post back in the summer titled ‘Which City is the Haute Cuisine Capital of the World?’. In the eyes of Michelin, Tokyo wins hands down, with no fewer than 286 starred restaurants and Kyoto coming in a close second. While Chinese and Indian cuisine have been the staple diets for many Brits for years, it would seem a growing appreciation for the food that has taken over from the French as the worlds most celebrated cuisine is in evidence.
Although London has hundreds of Japanese restaurants, in recent years if you were asked for the name of the top Japanese restaurant in London, Nobu was usually the first and possibly only name to come to mind. Nowadays we also recognise the Michelin starred Umu – famed as much for its blisteringly expensive menu as its Kyoto style cuisine. Names such as Roka and Zuma have become upmarket global Japanese brands in their own right although they are known more for Japanese fusion rather than purist food. German born owner of both restaurants, Rainer Becker, has created what he calls ‘Japanese food for the western palate’.
London based Sushi chef’s Yasuhiro Mineno and Shinya Ikeda are taking a different approach however, believing Londoners need educating in how to eat sushi. On the wall of the sushi counter in their Kensington restaurant Yashin is a sign saying “Without Soy Sauce…but if you want to”. Their point is decent sushi is not meant to be drowned in soy sauce the way many of us Brit’s eat it. Yashin came in above both Roka and Zuma in the recent Sunday Times Top 100 so maybe British diners are starting to take notice. The highest new entry in this now much anticipated list is The Shiori in Queensway which came in at an impressive No 30, given that chef Takashi Takagi mans the open kitchen single-handed. Takagi built his career in Kyoto under a master Kaiseki chef. Kaiseki translates as ‘Chef’s Choice’ and it is a style of cuisine that our British palates are becoming more receptive to – possibly as it’s similar to the multiple course Tasting Menu that has become the bench-mark of a highly thought of fine dining establishment over recent years. Kaiseki is certainly not a cheap option either, with prices very similar to Tasting Menus also at around £100 per person.
Listed immediately after Yashin is the tiny Sushi Tetsu in Clerkenwell. With just seven seats it specialises in ‘Omakase’ dining, meaning the chef’s pick of the day’s sushi and sashimi and it is rapidly growing a reputation as being one of the best sushi bars in the UK. With such little space however it books at least a month in advance now the word has spread – Jay Rayner called it a ‘shrine to the best of Japanese food’.
Although our Japanese love affair does seem to be quite London-centric there is evidence that more high profile restaurants are appearing all around the country. Interestingly Nobu seems to have provided a training ground for many chefs who have left to set up restaurants of their own (Sushi Tetsu, Bone Daddies, Dinings) and former Nobu chef, Scott Hallworth has seen much success with his restaurant, Wabi in Horsham in Surrey. Yuzu in Manchester was set up to fulfil a need by the owners for authentic Japanese food in the city centre and is being recognised now in local food awards. Edinburgh, loved by foodies but not known for adventurous cuisine has apparently had a little gem of a sushi restaurant hidden behind a bus stop for years called Sushiya. More recently several more sushi restaurants have sprung up all around Sushiya, including Kanpai Sushi, winner of many local awards including best newcomer in 2012.
Japanese ‘fast food’ in the guise of Ramen has also crept into our high streets via ubiquitous chain Wagamama’s promoting their Japanese inspired pan-asian menu with restaurants modelled on traditional Japanese Ramen Bars. Along with Yo Sushi it seems to have provided an entry level, less intimidating introduction to Japanese food without all of the trappings of Japanese culture that can be over-whelming when experienced for the first time. Bone Daddies and sister restaurant Flesh and Buns have gone one step further adding a Rock and Roll element and Izakaya (a type of Japanese drinking establishment) to the mix.
As Japanese culture inspired our decor in the eighties and nineties, so Japanese cuisine is inspiring our palates now. Our taste buds have been educated to appreciate more subtle flavors including umami the so called ‘5th taste’, described as an ‘intense savouriness’. Japanese cuisine seems to also appeal for its cleanliness and purity along with perceived health benefits and seasonal focus. The visual impact and arrangement of the food completes a cuisine which truly satisfies all of the senses.
With wasabi mayonnaise now regularly appearing on the menu with steak and chips, how long before we are listing tuna sashimi alongside chicken tikka masala as a national favourite?
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