The best two week holiday I’ve ever had was a whistle stop trip round Japan. Straight up. Hands down. Etcetera, etcetera.
It’s such a brilliant and bizarre country. I loved the history, the geography, the juxtaposition between wacky culture and strict formal custom. I loved the trains and the incredible customer service. I thought it was hilarious how you could spend 2 hours walking round amazing temples and shrines only to find out, in the last paragraph of the tour pamphlet that, in fact, the original was knocked down by one dynasty or another and this version only sprang up 50 years ago. And, obviously, I loved the food.
Thing is, I couldn’t give you any specific recommendations of places to eat in Japan. We pretty much fell in to each restaurant, caring little for reputation and pretty much never knowing the name. Which, because good sushi, ramen, udon, Korean BBQ etc are basically ten a Yen, was a joyous and pretty much failsafe way to eat out.
Due to the awesome speed and efficiency of the Shinkansen, we’d often cover a couple of touristy destinations in the same day. Which meant falling into a fair few cafés and food bars in close proximity to train stations. These were the places that I doubted the most when walking in because they appeared to be simple joints at best, mostly very dated. Sometimes they just offered 3 or 4 different bowls of ramen or udon noodle soups. Often the food was purchased by the press of a button on vending machine, which provided a ticket to present at a counter. This felt odd, but did save the embarrassment of not being able to speak our hosts’ language. Other places were just informal, quick service cafes offering a limited number of sushi and noodle meal combinations. Without exception, all of these chance meals were cheap and excellent.
Such a shame it’s not like that for Japanese food in London.
Though there are a few little local gems out there, sushi is so often disappointing, and it’s never cheap, is it? As for noodles, besides Koya, the brilliant udon noodle house in Soho, I’d struggle to think of a simple place that is really genuinely and reliably good, somewhere that could be described as ‘go to’. I’ve got high hopes that if or when it finally opens Tsuru Ramen will be to ramen what Koya is to udon. Until then, the search for great independents continues.
I happened to fall into a couple of little Japanese places in the last week, both quite close to rail (ok, tube) stations, with varying degrees of satisfaction.
The first was on early evening on a Monday. Wanting but unable to go to Kulu Kulu on Brewer Street (it was closed), we went instead to Ittenbari a few doors closer to the Piccadilly Circus end of the same street. Unbeknown to me at the time, and though I’m sure I’ve seen it there forever, it is new, or a relaunch or something. I know this now because the Skinny Bib has also recently been. Which (and this is meant in a nice way!) must mean it’s new, or relaunched or something.
I see from its website that Ittenbari describes itself as a ‘Japanese fine ramen and sushi bar’ and is linked with a restaurant in Osaka. They’ve a few items like katsu curry on the menu, but they were clearly pushing the ramen and sushi option, so that’s what we went for. There were two ramen soup options: one with a seafood broth (Shio) or soya (Shoyu) broth, both with a slice of pork, bamboo shoots, shredded spring onions, half an egg. A miso option is coming next month too, apparently. I thought this could well be a good sign – do just a few things, do them well, and don’t settle until you’re satisfied.
The reality was that the broths they do serve are OK. They’re relatively comforting, but certainly not delicious, nor do they have any real depth of flavour. If, like the miso, they’re the result of weeks of development, then I’m surprised. The noodles held up well to their time in the broth and provided a good bite, but the rest of the accompaniments were bland. Authentic in a very basic and unexciting way; it was adequate, but no more. A sushi platter was decent – simple, good enough construction, good size, standard variants, but not outstanding fish. I’m assuming the ‘fine’ in the title relates to the thickness of the noodles, rather than describing the quality – everything was fine, but in an underwhelming rather than ‘feign dining‘ kind of way. Service and décor need more attention.
The second place I ‘fell into’ is a place called Suzu, a short walk east from Hammersmith tube. Actually, I cycled to it, specifically with the intention of having lunch there. But that’s not the point. Rather, the point is it’s tenuously linked to the waffle at the start and to Ittenbari by the fact it’s a simple, local, Japanese restaurant serving noodles in broth and sushi and is a short distance from a tube station.
Various mismatched bare wood tables were bathed in glorious sunlight thanks to large windows running along the length of the room. The style was unpretentious, un-designed and, as a consequence, informal and endearing. I was put off by the menus being adorned by pictures of the food, but I think that’s my only complaint.
I had a great bowl of spicy sesame chicken ramen. There was much more depth and complexity to the broth in this than those ones at Ittenbari. The sesame flavour was dominant to start with, then it was creamy and comforting, and then there was a good hit of chilli. It wasn’t on the level of the pork and miso broth at Koya, but I’m not sure anything is. Fried chicken thigh pieces were excellent – crisp skin, juicy flesh – and though the noodles were of a paler, softer, blander kind than at Ittenbari, they did the job. A good bowl of food for £6.90. I also had a couple of pieces of eel nigiri, which were excellent. Incredibly light and sweet roasted eel meat, well seasoned rice. Very pleasing. A couple of guys next to me were cooing over their fresh and generous kaisen don bowls (rice bowls with pieces of raw fish – always an excellent lunch choice) and I was totally jealous of an elderly couple on my other side who were tucking into some super looking sushi and sashimi platters, large glasses of crisp Asahi and a jug of saki each. All around the full room were satisfied customers making positive noises. Fish is sourced from Ataryi-ya and meat from HG Walter. Which is nice.
If you are heading to Japan I wouldn’t suggest you search out those specific simple restaurants that we happened upon, even if I could remember (or, indeed, ever knew) what they were called. Part of their attraction was that we found them by chance. Similarly, I don’t suggest you travel the length of London to eat at Suzu. But if it’s local to you, or if you accidentally walk out of Hammersmith tube or bus station and need to kill an hour, then it’s definitely worth falling into. What about a visit to the more central Ittenbari? Maybe wait until that elusive miso ramen has been perfected.
Ittenbari in 3 words
Fine. Just fine.
£8.90 per bowl of ramen, £12 for 8 nigiri (standard salmon, tuna, egg, squid, eel, salmon gunken mix)
ittenbari.co.uk – 84 Brewer Street, W1F 9UB – 020 7287 1318
Suzu in 3 words
Good little find.
£6.90 for the bowl of ramen. Other hot mains are similar. Nigiri start at £3.20 a pair, sushi and sashimi platters from £7.50 to about £15.00.
suzuonline.co.uk – 170-172 Hammersmith Road, W6 7JP – 020-8741-1101