In Tokyo the 32nd Olympic games are well underway and unless you’re trying for a medal chances are you’re watching from home. Not to worry though, as London is full of ways to get a taste of Japan while travel restrictions remain in place. Here are some of the best places to eat and drink like you’re in Tokyo this summer.
Sakaya at Pantechnicon, Belgravia
Now up and running after lockdown delays, the ambitious Pantechnicon development offers Japanese and Nordic dining across multiple stories. Sakaya bar and bottle shop, occupies a little corner on the ground floor. The four-seater venue is inspired by Japanese Izakaya – traditional drinking spots that range in size from something like a pub to tiny counters folded into alleyways and subway stations. Though some offer simple refreshments like beer and dumplings to thirsty office workers the higher end caters to big spenders looking for top quality drinks. Sakaya, is definitely modelled on the latter.
The menu features a sake selection curated by Natsuki Kikuya – probably the country’s leading authority on the subject – and a short list of cocktails and highballs. In honour of the Tokyo Olympics the team has resurrected a cocktail that was created the last time the city hosted the games. The sensibly titled Tokyo 1964 was the winning entry in a competition held by Japanese drinks giant Suntory at the time. It’s an elegant little sour made with Grand Marnier, lemon juice, and Hibiki blended whisky. It’s bright, eye-opening, and not to be missed.
Japanese whisky fans will find lots to enjoy on the backbar which is stacked with discontinued and hard to find bottlings. Top of your hitlist when you visit should be an exclusive single malt from cult distillery Chichibu. It’s a complex dram that tastes of cashew butter and kiwi fruit, underpinned by soft smoke and stony minerality.
Book ahead and see how one of London’s smallest bars is quickly becoming one of its best.
Kanada-Ya, Covent Garden
Kazuhiro Kanada wasn’t always in the ramen game. For many years he got by as a racer in Japan’s fast paced, and often dangerous, professional track cycling circuit. He only broke into noodles when an injury cut short his cycling career, forcing him focus his energies elsewhere. He studied and practiced for years before opening his first ramen-ya in the small city of Yukuhashi back in 2008. Since then the group has established locations in Hong Kong and Lodnon. Kanada san is still very much involved in the day-to-day running of his business and makes many of the ingredients that are shipped to his locations overseas in that first kitchen in Yukuhashi.
Kanada-ya is perhaps best known for its tonkotsu – rich, opaque pork broth with ramen noodles, pork belly, snappy wood ear fungus, and molecularly thin slices of spring onion. A small dish of fermented mustard greens (tastier than they sound) is offered on every table, bringing welcome zip and acidity to slice through the richness. You can also add extras if the urge takes you – it’s a pretty substantial meal already but a cured hanjuku egg and some black garlic oil never go amiss. The broth, made by simmering pork bones, until they give up all of their collagenous goodness tastes both indulgent and healing. It’s absolutely delicious and certainly good for whatever ails you. Throw in a glass of cold Kirin Ichiban and you’re away.
Lighter options are also available, including a very solid truffle ramen with pork collar and yuzu – that you can, and absolutely should, upgrade with a dollop of spicy red miso. The vegetarian ramen features broth made with shitake mushrooms and soy milk, comes topped with fresh asparagus, and is likewise delicious. Be prepared to queue during busy times but do so in the knowledge that it’s absolutely worth it.
Humble Chicken, Soho
As the name would suggest, the chefs at this Frith street yakitori restaurant specialise in one thing. Five days a week they break down chickens into their most basic constituents. Individual cuts of neck, wing, thigh – and every edible bit of muscle and offal in between – are threaded onto skewers and grilled over charcoal. Each one is given a little extra something, a brush of umami-rich tare, or a dusting of tingly spices, chosen to make it taste even more of itself. Though not as well-known here as sushi or ramen, yakitori is one of Japan’s great contributions to eating and this place serves the best in town.
The long counter and open kitchen remain from when the site was home to Barrafina’s Soho outpost. There’s seating outside but even when the sun’s shining it would be a shame not to post up at the bar and watch the team work. It’s amazing to see this kind of precision and technique applied to barbecuing chicken. In addition to all the fowl there’s oysters, a very nice plate of pork belly, and some addictive house made pickles. Not much here for vegetarians, but you can’t please everyone.
It’s easy – and very fun – to rack up a bill as eat your way through a hen morsel by morsel. But if you wanted to you could pick up the very reasonable omakase (chef’s choice) option and get five skewers for just £16. That and a few cups of sake or a cocktail and you’d be out for under £30. Absolutely unbeatable value for money.
Sumi, Notting Hill
The newest opening by Endo Kazutoshi, Sumi is quietly shaping up to be one of the city’s best sushi spots. Head chef and fellow Zuma alumni Yasuda Akinori serves a menu of nigiri, hand rolls, and a few steaks and fish fillets from the grill. The nigiri is pretty classic in execution and absolutely spot on – the rice is well seasoned and just warm enough that it melds with the fish exactly like you want it to. The fattier cuts can be blowtorched on request to get those oils flowing and introduce a little hint of char to each bite. If you’re feeling especially ostentatious you can also add a dollop of caviar to them for £25, though in many cases it would seem extra to requirements.
The hand rolls are also pretty exceptional: Temaki, as they’re known at home, are usually cone shaped wraps but here they come presented like little tacos made of lightly toasted nori. Each one contains delicious cargo like fatty tuna and fermented radish or diced scallop and perilla blossom. Very nice too.
Also, presumably, worth visiting is Endo’s flagship situated in redeveloped Television Centre. It’s considered one of the best sushi omakase offerings in town, serving ultra-high-end sea-life to wheel-heeled punters alongside cocktails from star bartender Jun Ichikawa. Unfortunately for most of us they’re booked up till about Halloween – at which point team GB will have won all the medals they’re going to win in Tokyo. Start planning your winter sushi consumption now.
Marugame Udon, Spitalfields
Another of Japan’s great entries into the noodle canon. At the newly opened Marugame just over from Liverpool Street Station, they make udon fresh in house. The thick wheat noodles manage at once to be chunky, pleasantly, chewy, and deceptively light. This is an order at-the-counter type setup, where you pick your noodles and your toppings, shuffle past a tempting display of tempura from the fryer, and load up on drinks before paying. The whole thing is pleasingly efficient and perfect for anyone who needs to fuel up while working or partying. Chances are, if you’re in this part of town you’re doing one and/or the other.
There are stir fried options available, as well as some serviceable and well-priced rice bowls, but the simple serves are the most effective. A bowl of kake, that’s udon in rich dashi stock, will set you back less than a fiver. It’s comforting in the way of a spaghetti cacio e pepe or a margarita pizza. Simple and assertive flavours that light up all the umami loving circuitry in your brain without being too challenging. Add garnishes as you like, pick up a side of pickles, and maybe a fried prawn from the tempura bar and you’re good to go. Beer makes great company for this kind of food and is available here on tap. The venue also lists a charming elderflower and yuzu session sake by Kanpai in Peckham – London’s best and only sake brewery at time of writing. Definitely worth a try.