EATING OUT / No raw deal in Little Tokyo: The Ajimura Japanese Restaurant

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The Independent Culture
THE AJIMURA JAPANESE RESTAURANT; 51-53 Shelton Street, London WC2 9HE. Tel: 071-240 0178.

Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Friday, Saturday dinner only. Closed Sunday.

Last orders 11pm. Set dinner pounds 28. Licensed. All major cards accepted.

SEEING Kabuki theatre for the first time in Japan when I was 19 was, I suppose, one of the most theatrical experiences I have ever had. The vividness of the colours, the concentration of the actors, the slow pace of the movement, punctuated by the slapping together of wooden blocks and strange squawks and twangings and wailings, suddenly made the Wolverhampton panto seem a bit dim.

Japanese food at that age was just as much of a shock. I remember sitting cross-legged at a little table in a restaurant in Tokyo, experiencing real unease as a Japanese waitress kneeling beside me in traditional costume picked out a fish eye with her chopsticks and popped it into my mouth. It was, she said, a great delicacy, the eye of the King of Fish, and my Japanese host explained that it was a great honour to be offered it. To me it tasted as I imagined any other fish eye would taste. In any case I would have preferred the rest fried rather than raw, ideally with chips.

Now that there is a takeaway sushi bar in Piccadilly Underground station, I imagine many English people are quite used to Japanese food. Although I still haven't come round to fish eyes, I frequently seek it out as being Terribly Healthy. Pret a Manger, on the corner of St Martin's Lane, does a very good sashimi pack with a little bottle of soya sauce and a few shreds of fresh ginger. It seems a great deal more sensible as a quick source of raw energy than, say, a hamburger.

The Ajimura in Shelton Street, just north of Long Acre, claims to be the oldest Japanese restaurant in London, founded in 1972. It has a lot of charm. There's a bar on one side where you can sit and watch the raw fish being cut up from the refrigerated store, very simple black tables on the other and a little room at the back with a few more wooden tables. It has somehow managed, like a lot of older-established Italian restaurants, to become an unpretentious London eating place without losing its originality or native style.

The menu is chatty, typed rather than printed, and has biographies of the proprietors, like a theatre programme, with what seem to be Japanese jokes: 'Tora San Tanizawa: chef in residence, sushi master and a partner of Ajimura. Joined Ajimura in 1974 when, after all-night farewell party his passport and tickets were discovered stolen.' There is also an apology about Japanese students who had worked there being unable to tell the difference between 'beer' and 'bill': 'This is due to our incurable national disability in distinguishing between 'L' and 'R'.'

Competition is now getting fierce: the Kagura, not far away in West Street off Cambridge Circus, is good, if a little more expensive, and the Hiroko, attached to the Kensington Hilton near Shepherd's Bush Green, is very good and always full in the evenings. But at lunchtime I still prefer the Ajimura. It offers a set lunch at pounds 8.50 which must, I think, be the best value Japanese lunch in London. It includes a small bowl of miso soup, a huge dish of rice and vegetables with delicious thick chunks of marinated raw fish to dip in the soya sauce, green horseradish, pickles and a salad, with an orange cut up in a bowl of its own peel as dessert.

I ordered the set lunch for my companion, and asked for something more complicated for myself. For connoisseurs, the Ajimura offers a whole shoal of raw fish - trout, squid, octopus, yellowtail, brill, tuna and salmon. The tuna and salmon are particularly chunky and tasty.

There is also beef teriyaki, which is very good, as well as other cooked meat dishes, and even cooked fish, including prawn and sea bream hot-pot with tofu and vegetables, prawns grilled with sake and garlic, and grilled eel. There are also udon noodles, said to gain flavour from being made to music, and a variety of vegetarian dishes, marked on the menu with a little flower symbol.

I really wanted to order a set lunch but, always keen to explore on your behalf and at your expense, I suggested other vaguely related things; the Japanese waitress shook her head, saying: 'Oh no, you wouldn't like that. That's really Japanese, very sour, pickley.' A real restaurant critic, I imagine, would have plunged in and had his mouth shrivelled, as Barry Humphries used to say, to an asterisk. I did not. I did persuade her to let me have a wakame jiru, a clear seaweed soup, and a medium assorted sashimi, which I assumed would be the same as the set lunch, but a bigger helping.

It wasn't. There was less of it, and it was more expensive. The set lunch arrived immediately, as generous and delicious as ever. My companion discoursed brilliantly on the topic of the frozen Stone Age man found last year in the Alps. I was saying, I suppose in rather dubious taste, that scientists were excited by the idea that his frozen sperm might be used to inseminate some adventurous young woman keen to give birth to a cave baby, and she was fantasising about people searching for it in the snow as if hunting for a contact lens: 'Stop] Nobody move]'

Even by the end of that, my lunch had not arrived, and my seaweed soup arrived last of all. It was, admittedly, a very good clear broth, with a lot of seaweed that tasted remarkably like fresh lettuce. There is one school of thought that says all seaweed served in Oriental restaurants is lettuce, but I didn't want to be drawn into that. My companion was telling me about Samurai warriors doing flower arranging, and I didn't want to provoke Tora San, the sushi master with the fish cleaver, into anything more violent.