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Café Japan, 626 Finchley Road, London NW11

2 May 2007

1:54 PM

2 May 2007

1:54 PM

My friend Nick — OK, he’s not exactly my friend, he’s my brother’s friend, but my brother lets his friends be mine, as he knows I’ve always struggled to make any of my own. Anyway, Nick says he’d like to take me to what is possibly his favourite restaurant in London. I like Nick. I trust Nick. Nick knows his food. Nick has eaten in all the top places not just in London, but in New York, Tokyo, Paris. Nick knows his wine and doesn’t just order the second cheapest bottle on the list to spare him the embarrassment of ordering the first. And, really, what follows is Nick’s review, as pretty much all of it is stolen from an email he later sent me. I did suggest that Nick actually write the whole thing himself — I’d have been prepared to put my name to it, even though it would be a great deal less work for me — but he didn’t go for it. He said that when he had to write his 5,000-word undergraduate dissertation he panicked because, ‘I didn’t think I knew 5,000 words. No one had explained that it was possible to use the same word more than once.’ The thing is, when you have to rely on your brother for your friends, you can’t afford to be that choosy.

So, his favourite London restaurant? This, it turns out, isn’t in the West End or Mayfair or Notting Hill or high up in some ghastly City hotel. No, it’s in Golders Green. That’s right. Golders Green or, as we used to say, ‘Golders Green three miles, but to you? Two.’ I grew up in Golders Green and accept that it is rarely considered a centre of gastronomy, but in its defence I would say that in my day there was not only Blooms, but also a Wimpy, a Golden Egg and a Garfunkel’s. You could even say we were spoiled.

Anyway, Nick’s favourite restaurant is a Japanese café called, not that surprisingly, perhaps, Café Japan. Nick has not only eaten in all the top places in all the top cities but he’s also eaten in all the top Japanese places in all the top cities, and you know what? Café Japan, he says, knocks them all into a cocked hat and possibly into an un-cocked one, too. (Personally, I always prefer an un-cocked hat, but accept it’s a matter of individual choice). Nick is a regular, so thinks it is only fair that he first telephones owner-cum-chef, Mr Konnai, to ask if it’s OK for me to write about the place. Mr Konnai is so over the moon, he says, ‘No. I’m always full. I don’t need any more business. Go away.’ Nick somehow gets round him and, while I couldn’t say how, I’m guessing it’s not how my brother always got round me and my two sisters. As he was the only boy we’d do anything — even be his slave for the day — for a look at his you-know-what. We’d have to pay, though, if we also wanted him simultaneously to jump up and down, do ‘the willy dance’. I’m not sure this would have worked on Mr Konnai. That said, it still works for me.

Café Japan is on the parade opposite the clocktower, sandwiched between something and something else, although I don’t know what, because Nick didn’t say in his email. Lazy bastard! It has an unimposing front and an unimposing interior. It’s quite formica-ish, quite pine-ish, very un-Nobu-ish and is no longer or wider than a good-sized suburban sitting-room. There’s a counter that seats seven or eight, and then tables at the back seating maybe 30. There’s no kitchen as such, either, just Mr Konnai behind the counter, with a rice cooker, knives, a chopping board, a wall-mounted electric grill, a chilled cabinet of stunningly fresh-looking fish and a quartet of handsome Japanese boys who chop and roll sushi as if there were no tomorrow (although I, personally, always prefer it when there is a tomorrow, I accept it’s a matter of individual choice). Nick says it’s ‘exactly the kind of place you’d find in a Tokyo neighbourhood for regular eating’. In other words, it’s the sort of place where the Japanese would eat in Japan.

It is certainly a very warm, neighbourly place, and busy, busy, busy. We settle at the counter, next to a young Jewish couple. It’s not exactly kosher, but they love Café Japan too — Jews for sushi! — and say this is the best in London. The daily specials, like giant crab claw, sound interestingly tempting but in the end we opt to eat ‘omakase’ (‘let the chef decide’), starting with sushi and sashimi. Nick knows about sushi and sashimi. The fish, he says, must be blisteringly fresh, of course, but it’s also about the angle of the cut, which takes a great deal of expertise. As he writes in his email but I would have written anyway: ‘We start with a small dish of salmon cooked in teriyaki and ginger — meaty and savoury, followed by an oval glass platter of sushi and sashimi. Not just the regulars of salmon, shrimp, regular tuna and yellowtail — but the sweetest scallop; delicate but rich turbot; tangy mackerel and sardine (prepared in Mr Konnai’s own cure); clam; flying fish roe; fatty tuna (the middle grade from the belly, Mr Konnai feels the highest grade of fattiness is “over fat”) which is not just soft but completely melting in the mouth; and eel which is wrapped in seaweed and topped with a dab of some secret homemade savoury. And everything is not just fresh, but quiveringly fresh — never the slightest smell of fish but only of the sea.’ Obviously, I could have put it better myself, but it’s only fair to sometimes let other people have a go.

We move on to some cooked dishes, by which I mean cooked via Mr Konnai’s little retro grill (it looks like the top of a domestic cooker, circa 1962). We have butterfish, which is very, very buttery, served with a light teriyaki sauce and then, yes, black cod. As Nick writes, but I would have written anyway: ‘It’s cooked to absolute perfection, the most delicate yet savoury golden miso on the outside, but the flakes within pearly white and glistening with moisture. And far, far superior to some fusion restaurants which cook this dish in banana leaves so that, in effect, the miso is steamed rather than caramelised and remains sticky and heavy. Truly, it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable piece of fish.’ It is exquisite.

Café Japan is a wonderful place. Friendly, not fancy, with terrific Japanese food at deliriously non-Nobu prices (set lunches including miso soup, appetiser, main, salad, rice and pickles from £8.50 to £12 and à la carte dinner around £25 including sake). I should confess that I’ve never been that into Japanese food. I like sushi and all that. I don’t hate it. But I wouldn’t kill for it, or wouldn’t have. I might now. Café Japan is the real deal, with everything made for you on the spot by a total expert. I shall never purchase that dry, overchilled nonsense called ‘sushi’ from M&S, Pret A Manger or — God forbid — Boots again. I thank Nick and say we must do it again. Maybe we will and maybe we won’t. But at least he knows how to get round me now.

Café Japan, 626 Finchley Road, London NW11; tel: 020 8455 6854.

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