London’s Best Japanese Food and Drink
Has Japanese food ever been hotter? With a new Japan Centre and new restaurants opening all the time, it’s never been easier to get a fix. But while we’re spoilt for choice for sushi and ramen, Japanese cuisine goes much further. Here’s where to enjoy a wide range of tastes from the land of temples and neon.
In among the many, many London restaurants serving sushi, new kid on the block Cubé stands out. Chef Osamu Mizuno, formerly of Nobu and Sake no Hana, is a master, working with quality fresh ingredients to serve nigiri and sashimi of the finest order. We’ve got a much bigger review of Cubé over here, so you can read about its many delights in more detail.
Cubé, 4 Blenheim Street, W1S 1LB
Like sushi, there are lots of great restaurants in London serving ramen. We’re plumping for Kanada-Ya for a few reasons. It comes from Japan (a town called Yukuhashi in northern Kyushu), close to the home of tonkotsu ramen. The menu isn’t trying to do too much, so the focus stays on ramen. You can choose how hard the ‘bite’ is on your noodles, and get kaedama — extra noodles to fill your soup — for a couple of extra pounds. And it’s on the cheaper end of London’s ramen scene.
Most of all, Kanada-Ya deserves this pick because it’s reminiscent of salaryman ramen joints in Tokyo. If you go to the one in St. Giles, it’s all bright lighting, counter seating, steam running down the windows and a queue out the door. Just how it should be.
Kanada-Ya, 64 St Giles High Street, WC2H 8LE; 3 Panton Street, SW1Y 4DL
Walk down Osaka’s Dotonbori, famed for its neon and animated restaurant signs, and you’ll find street vendors standing by large griddle pans, turning over battered balls to get a nice, even cook. Inside these balls are bits of octopus, and they’re such a popular street food that queues are legendary. At the newly opened Japan Centre’s ‘depachika’- style basement store you can pick up six of these tasty morsels for around a fiver (or grab some quickly from the entrance stall).
It’s worth mentioning more of the Japan Centre’s attractions. As well as selling all kinds of packaged, and hot and cold food (the confectionery section must be browsed), the new store goes big on three other items: miso, green tea, and sake. Each has a dedicated area, where you can buy browse many varieties and get advice from shop staff on what to buy.
Japan Centre, 35b Panton Street, SW1Y 4EA
Shabu Shabu / Sukiyaki
There’s that bit in Lost in Translation where Bob and Charlotte apologise to each for their awful lunch of recrimination, and Bob says “what kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?” A shabu shabu or sukiyaki restaurant, Bob, that’s what.
Both these types of cooking involve very thin strips of meat and vegetables cooked at the table. With shabu shabu, the meat is swirled around in a pot of hot broth for a couple of seconds (the meat is so thin it doesn’t need longer), and then dipped in sauce. With sukiyaki, the meat and veg are fried on a hot pan with sauce added later.
You can experience both at Sukiyaki-Tei, which, as well as offering the usual meats and fish options, also has wagyu and the even more prestigious Kobe beef available.
Tokyo Sukiyaki-Tei, 85 Sloane Avenue, SW3 3DX
Teppanyaki is all about the performance. You’ll have seen this kind of cooking on TV: the chef spinning and throwing knives, flipping morsels around on a hot plate. Benihana has its roots in 1960s New York, when Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki opened a tiny Japanese restaurant with an emphasis on theatricality.
The three Benihanas in London are from the same family, with teppan grills at each table for the full experience. The actual food is (almost) secondary, but you can tuck into miso black cod, teriyaki sirloin or wagyu beef. Perfect for anyone ever told not to play with their food.
Benihana, 77 King’s Road, SW3 4NX; 37 Sackville Street, W1S 3EH; 35 Carter Lane, EC4V 5AJ
Abeno /Abeno Too
On the face of it, okonomiyaki sounds dubious. Shredded cabbage is mixed with batter and grilled as a pancake, topped with a variety of ingredients. In reality, it’s one of the most delicious things you can put in your mouth — possibly something to do with all those bonito and seaweed flakes piled on top, or that sauce, which we’re quite prepared to believe contains some kind of addictive drug.
Abeno and Abeno Too are the places to shovel this magnificent beast into your face. One of the founders hails from Osaka, just like okonomiyaki, and they offer a huge list ranging from simple pork to a “Kansai special”, which contains everything bar the kitchen sink shoji screen. You can also watch the chefs at work, expertly grilling away. And since they already have the griddle on, there are hot cakes for dessert.
Abeno, 47 Museum Street, WC1A 1LY
Abeno Too, 17–18 Great Newport Street, WC2H 7JE
Yakitori is traditionally grilled meat on a stick, though the term has come to embrace any kind of food that can be skewered and cooked. It’s traditional izakaya (pub) grub that can be knocked up anywhere, but Danish chain Sticks‘n’Sushi takes it so seriously it’s in the name. There are chicken meatballs, duck hearts, scallops in pancetta, rib-eye beef, emmental cheese and sweet potato among the delights, and this might be the cheapest way around to sample wagyu beef (£15 for a 55 gram stick).
Sticks’n’Sushi, 11 Henrietta Street, WC2E 8PY; 58 Wimbledon Hill Road, SW19 7PA; 1 Nelson Road, SE10 9JB; 1 Crossrail Place, E14 5AR
Sake no Hana
Fish and vegetables dipped in a batter as light as air and deep fried, yet doesn’t feel at all greasy — that’s when you know you’ve got good tempura. It’s a solid staple of Japanese restaurants, but if you want an extra special experience, go to Sake no Hana. As you sit cocooned in a room of bamboo and cypress wood, savour prawn tempura — or soft shell crab, lobster, scallops and seasonal vegetables. You can even get prawn tempura salad and maki rolls. (As an aside, the seven-course set lunch on Saturdays , including a cocktail and champagne, looks a bargain at £49.)
Sake no Hana, 23 St. James’s Street, SW1A 1HA
Robatayaki is a type of cooking where skewers of food are grilled over hot charcoal. ROKA has literally put the concept at the heart of its four restaurants with the grill out in the open. If you’re lucky, you can sit alongside and watch the chefs at work. Menus change according to the season and which branch you’re in, but you could be lucky enough to find black cod marinated in yuzu miso, baby back ribs glazed with spices and cashew nuts or seared beef with black truffle dressing. Smell that smoke.
ROKA, 37 Charlotte Street, W1T 1RR; 30 North Audley Street, W1K 6ZF; 71 Aldwych, WC2B 4HN; 4 Park Pavilion, 40 Canada Square, E14 5FW
French toast with ice cream
No, this isn’t a Japanese staple. It’s in this list because nothing is as Japanese as going bonkers for some random foodstuff and queueing up for it. Particularly when that random foodstuff contains sugar. Shackfuyu’s kinako french toast with matcha soft-serve has been around for a couple of years now, so lines are unlikely, but it’s worth remembering how the city lost its head for this dessert. It is very good, and you should try it at least once to feel thoroughly Japanese in your pursuit of a craze.
Shackfuyu, 14a Old Compton Street, W1D 4TJ
Soft-serve ice cream
Speaking of crazes, while Europe went gooey for gelato, Japan was getting soppy about soft-serve. And so we, the land of Mr Whippy, embraced it in our turn. The most famous place to get Japanese-style soft-serve is Bake in Chinatown, which funnels it into a large taiyaki “cone” (taiyaki being small fish-shaped waffle cakes, usually filled with custard or red bean paste). You can get the original versions here too, as well as Chinatown Bakery — and watch the waffle machine in action through the window — but it’s the ice cream you’ve come for. Bake also has the new trend egg waffle cone available, which is more appropriate for Chinatown given it’s from Hong Kong.
Bake, 9 Wardour Street, W1D 6PF
Wagashi is the umbrella term for delicate Japanese sweets, covering mochi, manju, dango, jellies and much more. It’s traditional to bring a box of local delicacies back from a trip to another Japanese city; Minamoto Kitchoan provides Londoners with the opportunity to impress relatives and colleagues without the travel.
Signature are sweets available all year, either as individual treats or in beautifully wrapped boxes. Other wagashi, which use seasonal fruits, are only available during certain months. Ever since Minamoto opened a shop on the Strand, it’s become increasingly hard not to give them all our money in exchange for daifuku, so be warned.
Minamoto Kitchoan, 44 Piccadilly, W1J 0DS; 448 Strand, WC2R 0QU
All this food needs to be washed down with something, and there’s no drink more Japanese than sake. Sakagura’s vast sake list is chosen by three experts in the field; around 13 types have been specially highlighted as their top tips, so you can’t go wrong. If you don’t know what to opt for, try a flight of three to see what tickles your tastebuds. Wade further into the menu for even more options from the five sake types (just watch what you’re ordering — there’s a bottle priced at £900. No, that’s not a typo).
The drinks list is rounded out by plentiful choices of shochu, Japanese whisky and cocktails. And don’t forget to order food — there’s sushi, yakitori, robatayaki and wagyu beef, plus they’ve gone the extra mile to highlight the veggie options. Well played.
Sakagura, 8 Heddon Street, W1B 4BS
There can be only one choice when it comes to udon in London and that choice is Koya Bar. The original Koya closed in 2015 but this place quickly established its own identity, serving udon noodles in soothing, restorative broths.
The most exciting dish, we think, is the breakfast udon, which is a British-Japanese mash up — fried egg, bacon and shiitake mushrooms sit atop the bouncy noodles. Good luck getting it into your face without spillage; we’ve never managed it.
Koya Bar, 50 Frith Street, W1D 4SQ