If you've been to Japan, you might agree that the apex of its charm and allure is how it manages to have both age-old traditions and cutting-edge modernity co-exist vibrantly, neither falling into the shadow of the other. It's the kimono-clad geisha on her mobile phone with enough features to control satellites. It's the businessmen who dine at sushi and noodle parlours that have cooking methods that go back centuries, who then proceed to karaoke clubs with control panels more complex than Captain Kirk's SS Enterprise.
Fittingly, I have two favourite Japanese restaurants in London, and try as I might, I can't choose either one over the other.
New School: Dinings
For a wildly succesful example of avant garde Japanese cuisine that is a knockout on both beauty and bite, go to Dinings, helmed by Nobu alum Tomanari Chiba.
It was my friend from work Macaloony who first brought me here. She loves Dinings to the extent that she made me promise not to tell anyone where we were going, and storms around the office like a Kabuki demon every time there's a rave review about the place in one of the London papers, cursing at what it'll do to her already strained ability to get a table at short notice.
It's possible she'll disown me or at least disinvite me to her upcoming wedding upon reading this post, but let's face it, by this point I'm nowhere near being the flag-planter and early loudhailer for Dinings.
Ah well, at least we'll always have that farewell dinner this past summer. Good girly times.
Fabulous fish: Seabass carpaccio with summer truffle and ponzu (citrus juice) jelly; Mackeral sushi...made with...egg fried rice?
Meat that melts in your mouth while you melt in your knees: Stewed pork belly (Iberian pate negra, if you're lucky); and wagyu beef sushi, also with ponzu jelly.
If you're not watchful, a session at Dinings can quickly turn into a protein and carb fest. The fruit and vegetable balancers are not to be ignored. I'm a big fan of the beetroot, and avocado...a great cover for the razor clams underneath.
Right. Veggie guilt taken care of. Now for main event.
Foie gras sushi.
I'm not otherwise much of a foie gras fan. It's too rich even for me, and sometimes has too much of a raw livery smell. Combined with humble sushi rice to soak up its richness, however, is clearly one of those loud "Eureka" moments in the kitchen lab.
And then, the encore! Trump the foie gras sushi, by adding unagi (grilled eel) and shaved truffles.
The less innocent among you will know that Japanese porn does nothing in moderation. This evidently extends to the food porn genre. The foie-gras-unagi-truffle sushi orgy leaves you in a puddle of pleasure and with a vague sense of guilt after.
Old School: Cafe Japan
For a traditional hole-in-the-wall experience, go to Cafe Japan on Finchley Road, right by the Golders Green tube station.
Go on a rainy day (and given it's London, there will be many) and slurp up a steaming cauldron of nabeyaki udon. Go at lunch time (because there is never any left by dinner time), and pick at a grilled yellow tail collar, oozing in its own luxurious fish oils. Go at dinner time (because it's brought out only then) and order a slab of grilled butter fish. Go any time, sit at the bar, and have the chef build you a sushi or sashimi platter.
Go twice in the same day, ditching a rainy and muddy jazz concert at Hampstead House in between, much to the disbelief, amusement and slight envy of your more stubborn friends, scrunched between their mats and umbrellas, less willing to cut their losses.
The only disjointed detail in the lways-blissful experience at Cafe Japan is hearing the chef talk to his helpers in English -- because they speak Mandarin otherwise -- but the quality of the food will keep you sufficiently zen to not really care.
Home School: Atari-ya
For the DIY cuisine crew among you, may I suggestAtari-ya, a tipoff from kopibren and Silas. Atari-ya's sushi from their tiny James St Counter is fabulous and good value for money, but the metallic cafe tables and flourescent lights just doesn't cut it for me for atmosphere (and I'm not one to usually harp on about atmosphere while I'm eating).
Much more fun to buy sashimi sliced from giant market-counter slabs, from their larger markets in Finchley or West Acton. If you already know how, you can also buy rice and other relevant sushi and miso soup apparatus and make it all at home. If you don't, all you need is some soy sauce and ready-mixed wasabi for a sashimi feast at home.
626 Finchley Road
London NW11 7RR, UK
+44 20 8455 6854