As a pure vegetarian I’m used to the look of surprise, and even scepticism, whenever I undoubtedly reveal Japanese to be my favourite cuisine. Apart from veggie sushi done right, there is a lot to love about their emphasis on lean proteins and fresh vegetables, not to mention the moreish quality of seasonings and sauces used which enhances the taste of just about everything. If you’re as keen on Japanese fare as I am, then this is the post for you, regardless of whether you’re veg or not. From my fine dining favourites to hidden gems and izakayas, this guide has you covered…
NOBU, Old Park Lane
It would be terribly patronising for me to even attempt at reviewing Nobu – arguably one of the most famous and loved Japanese restaurants globally. Instead, I’ll just start by listing a few reasons why it’s my personal favourite over and above all others.
- The vibe. A trendy but versatile space, Nobu Old Park Lane is appropriate any time or day of the week, for smaller or larger gatherings and for dressing up or down – it totally depends on you. It’s as much fun on a Saturday night, for a boisterous dinner with your gang before you head on out dancing, as it is the next day, when you’re more likely to slouch in with the family in your most comfortable pair of tracksuit bottoms ready for a Japanese fry up!
- Tofu Steak. Pan-seared tofu with Nobu’s anticucho sauce or teriyaki – I prefer the spicier undertones of the former. If you’re a non-veggie and reading this with a smirk, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Vegetarians are spoilt for choice with wholesome, hearty dishes at Nobu – even salads pack in a punch. Key recommendations include the mushroom salad, spinach salad, asparagus in dries miso, tofu tempura (to be dipped in the creamy spicy mayo) and grilled aubergine coated in a sticky sweet miso and garnished with sesame.
- South American twist. Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa’s short stints in Lima and Buenos Aires in his youth clearly left a lasting influence, as Nobu serves up fusion fare with flair. Peruvian dishes, flavours and seasonings feature prominently, with menu items centred around tiradito, ceviche and anti-cucho.
- The view. Okay, so Nobu doesn’t boast the sweeping vistas offered by the formidable new crop of restaurants towering over the city. But it’s worth grabbing a table by the windows overlooking Hyde Park, for a whimsical view of the sunset during summer months. The colourful lights of Winter Wonderland are equally enchanting later in the year!
- Chocolate Bento Box. Meltingly gooey flourless chocolate fondant served with green tea ice cream. Not only does it deserve a mention, it deserves a category of it’s own.
Nobu, Metropolitan Hotel London, 19 Old Park Lane, London W1K 1LB
ZUMA & ROKA
The modern, fine dining sister restaurants by chef Rainer Becker really need no introduction.
Zuma is still as fashionable as the day it was launched back in 2002. Go early for a cocktail or two in the vibrant bar area (they do a mean lychee martini), before tucking into contemporary delights like the highly addictive popcorn tempura. Zuma remains true to Japanese staples too, the creamy homemade tofu is a must, subtly flavoured with barley miso, ginger and accompanying condiments.
But iff you fancy a more laid back, smart-casual vibe, then Roka will do nicely. The micro-chain has a come a long way since its initial opening on Charlotte Street, having recently established a 160-cover restaurant in Aldwych. I’m partial to the smaller Mayfair outpost on North Audley Street, where I can often be found sitting around the robata grill and open sushi bar (the signature feature at all Roka restaurants) with the girls, as we catch up over a light bite…
… As Roka makes it all to easy to eat healthy when eating out. The iceberg salad particularly stands out – crisp, wafer-thin strips garnished with caramelised onion, seaweed and sesame seeds – as do the spinach leaves in a sesame dressing, which are almost too pretty to eat! While my non-veggie friends swear by signature dishes like the black cod in yuzu miso and spiced chicken wings from the robata.
Zuma, 5 Raphael Street, Knightsbridge, London SW7 1DL
Roka, 30 North Audley Street, London W1K 6HP
And now for your sushi fix. The following two recommendations aim to please all you sushi fiends, I just hope they don’t maki you too hangry.
STICKS ‘n’ SUSHI
You’ll be hard pressed to find a quiet time at this modish restaurant in Covent Garden. My recent visit was at 7pm on a Monday evening, when I arrived to find the place positively buzzing.
Sticks ‘n’ Sushi is a Danish export, originally founded 18 years ago in Copenhagen by brothers Jens and Kim Rahbek and Thor Andersen who combined their half-Japanese, half-Danish background to create a distinctive culinary experience. Their contemporary approach shines through in the details too, from the exposed brick walls and leather tables to the quirky statements emboldened on the staff’s shirts – “sushi is fish in haute couture”, particularly tickles.
As the name would suggest, the focus is on sticks (grilled skewers) and sushi, often with unusual but enticing combinations such as the Hell’s Kitchen pictured (tempura shrimp, avocado, spicy sauce, topped with tuna & barbecue sauce). But they also have a fantastic selection of sides and salads. I’m sure by now you would have sussed that I can be a bit of a health food nut, so no surprise that I’m a big fan of their green and grilled salad, protein-packed and loaded with more veggies and superfoods than you can shake a stick at (no pun intended). If you’re laying off the drinks, then do spring for one of their freshly squeezed juiced, aptly coded by colour.
We found that fortune really does favour the brave, when we ordered the black sesame ice cream for dessert. I’d highly recommend it if you think you’d have a taste for frozen tahini with a sweet, but not overpoweringly so, undertone. It turns out that we did, and ended up calling for seconds.
Sticks ‘n’ Sushi, 11 Henrietta Street, London WC2E 8PY
You don’t go to Ohisama for the ambience, for it is rather lacking in this arena. But this hidden gem off Baker street does plentiful right by sushi lovers with beautifully presented dishes that are fresh, creative and bursting with flavour. Like the mysterious Dr. Watson yellowtail maki roll (pictured below). Their extensive selection for vegetarians is especially impressive, as it’s such a rarity even in some of the best Japanese restaurants – the crunchy vegetable tempura won over the most carnivorous of my friends on our recent visit.
Ohisama is co-founded by ex-Nobu chef of 15 years Segu Mohamed Lareef, so you can also expect classics like yellow tail sashimi with jalapeño, lobster salad with Yuzu Ponzu dressing and rock shrimp tempura on the menu. They even do nasu dengaku a la Nobu, which is just dreamy.
Desserts are simple and stick to traditional Japanese offerings such as mochi and dorayaki (Japanese-style pancakes). For me, it’s green tea ice cream though that is always a must after a good Japanese meal. Ohisama doesn’t disappoint in this regard, serving up light scoops of bitter-sweet matcha that always hit the spot.
A simple space, what Ohisama lacks for in atmosphere, size and decor, it more than makes up for with its delicious fare.
Ohisama Sushi, 39 Paddington Street, London W1U 4HH
An Aussie take on the Izakaya (Japanese pub), from Scott Hallsworth, ex head-chef at Nobu. You understand the appeal.
Kurobuta sprung to life as a pop-up in Chelsea (now a permanent fixture), before setting roots down in a quiet corner off Marble Arch. The space is airy and minimalist, not unlike a canteen with seating across longish communal tables with wooden benches, as well as bar stools against high table-tops. Natural light is aplenty and prettily complemented by the multitude of lamps hanging from the ceiling encasing halogen bulbs in wire cages. The ambience at lunch is quiet and lazy, while evenings are buzzy and bustling. Antipodean influences are felt throughout in the unhurried, laid back vibes and friendly, cheerful service.
Quirkily divided into categories like “Junk Food Japan”, “Something Crunchy” and “Significant Others”, the menu may stray from authenticity but there’s no denying that it is inspired. Each dish is a riot of flavours and textures, with umami-undertones to many of the plates. Flamed with sake, lemon, butter and salt, even simple edamame beans are transformed, while Hallsworth’s take on nasu dengaku deserves special mention – gooey, succulent bites of grilled miso-aubergine with candied walnuts for an extra-sweet finish. If you don’t fear the fried, then you’re in for a treat. The sweet potato fries are a must, to be indulgently dipped in the kimchi (fermented cabbage) mayo and jalapeño sauces, and if you fancy a Jappo take on spring rolls, then go for the jerusalem artichoke chopsticks with truffle ponzu dip.
The only slight quibble I have, is with the desserts. A creative affair no doubt, in presentation and in taste. But there’s almost too much happening on each plate, making it difficult to enjoy it for what it is. Still, that’s likely a reflection of my simplistic tendencies, hardly a reason to begrudge this edgy eatery for its inventive approach.
Kurobuta Marble Arch, 20 Kendal Street, London W2 2AW
Kurobuta Chelsea, 312 King’s Road, London SW3 5UH
If I’m being honest, after a couple of less than satisfactory experiences with the quality of food and the service, Sumosan doesn’t really rank as a favourite. However, to end this post on a sweet note, it’s definitely worth mentioning their legendary dark and white chocolate fondant, coated in a green tea mousse and presented under a sugar-spun dome. It never disappoints and is worth going in for just by itself.
Sumosan, 26 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4
KINAKO FRENCH TOAST AT SHACKFUYU
And since we’re on the subject of unmissable desserts, it would be incredibly selfish of me to not to share another great find at Shackfuyu, the pop-up by Bone Daddies serving up Japanese junk food.
I can’t vouch for the actual food as I haven’t eaten there yet. But the Kinako French Toast is must-try: soaked overnight, fried to crispy perfection on the outer edges without losing it’s melt-in-your-mouth buttery centre, and served with a soft-serve matcha ice cream. There’s really nothing quite like this. No wonder it’s high on my list of sweet treats this spring.
Shackfuyu, 14A Old Compton Street, London W1D 4TJ