There’s a part of us wishes that London’s first serious soba restaurant was, well, somewhat less serious. True, Yen is an impressive operation by anyone’s standards, a vast, zen-like temple of Japanese food occupying a stunning space in a brand new development just off the Strand, serving unashamedly high-end cuisine at unapologetic price points.
But the reason people in this city took to ramen so eagerly wasn’t because you could eat it in cavernous industrial-chic gallery-like rooms flanked by immaculately turned-out staff but because you could queue up in St. Giles’ and slurp it down elbow-to-elbow with fellow noodle enthusiasts for the price of a cinema ticket. There’s a time and a place for all price points, particularly concerning Japanese food, but can’t we have budget soba too?
Still, here we are and here Yen is, and though it sits quite comfortably towards the upper end of what you might be expected to pay for dinner, even in Central London, there’s no doubt they are very good at what they do. We’ll come to the star of the show – the soba (buckwheat noodles) – soon, but the first of a selection of dishes we sampled from the (huge) menu was ‘marinated salmon with seasonal cress’, a neat row of very lightly-cured sashimi topped with roe and with little fried skin lean-tos alongside.
Yen’s sashimi selection covers all the usual bases, from scallops and uni (sea urchin) to the wagyu of the sea, otoro (fatty tuna). It’s all carefully selected and prettily presented, with interesting little bits and pieces such as micro-shiso and courgette flower arriving with the fish. Perhaps, if we’re being brutal, this wouldn’t be a reason to visit Yen by itself, but it made a reasonably distracting diversion before the real fireworks began.
And the real fireworks began, somewhat surprisingly, not with soba but with tempura. Yen has been marketed as a soba specialist – in fact, in none of the press releases have we seen any mention of tempura at all. And yet this courgette flower was utterly wonderful, sweet in flavour, dressed in the very lightest and softest of batters, and presented with minced daikon that somehow conspired to pack more flavour into barely a teaspoon-full of mixture than any other daikon we can remember. This was a seriously impressive display of tempura prowess.
Next came proof that Yen are equally happy turning their hand to a Nobu Matsuhisa classic – black cod and miso, which came in two perfectly-cooked morsels, the flesh flaking perfectly and the skin silky with fat. Plenty of Japanese restaurants try their hand at this dish – in fact Roka, just moments away on Aldwych, do a version – but we can honestly say they don’t get much better than this. Unfortunately, a fairly humdrum chicken course that followed brought us back down to earth – it wasn’t wrong, just boring, and paled into comparison with what had come before.
Or, indeed, what came next. It would be a bit of a shame (not to mention a bit of an embarrassment) if after all the hype the soba at Yen turned out to be less than brilliant. Fortunately for all concerned, they were just that – brilliant, bouncy and fresh and full of earthy flavour, and perfect with a soy dipping sauce. And that alone would have been more than enough, but Yen had one final trick up its sleeve – leftover noodle cooking juices and sake were added to the dipping sauce as one final flourish, creating a sublime alcoholic soup, the memory of which will be enough to warm us all the way through the coming winter.
So, where did you come from, Yen? No, not everything they do is perfect, and none of it is cheap. But the fact that soba this good, and tempura this good, exists at all in London is something we should all be thankful for, and with any luck will inspire other like-minded copycat noodle joints to step up their game in the coming months and years. Soba, so good.
JOL was invited to review Yen on a complimentary basis. We retain full editorial control.