Despite the fatal association of its name with a commercial brand of stock cubes, served up to their wholesome families by sensible English housewives in late-1960s TV commercials, the Oxo Tower is getting more adventurous. After a dismal record of restaurant openings and closures on the second floor, Tamesa@Oxo was launched there last year by Dominic Ford, the food & beverages director of Harvey Nichols, and did well. Now Ford has opened a second front, offering riverside romantics a dinner of Japanese tapas. For those, like me, who went completely off sushi and its boring variants 10 years ago, this is excellent news.
There's a nice canteen-y feel about Bincho Yakitori, a palpable buzz of excitement that's audible among the boxy lights and dark-wood walls and pillars. When not gazing at the stupendous view across the river to St Paul's, you can watch the impassive cooks crashing and flaming away at the six grills like a Ginza cabaret turn. The tables are ridiculously tiny, though: fine provided a pair of miniature geishas are sitting at them, less fine when it's a 15-stone journalist and his size-10 friend.
The menu strikes a pretentious note ("In Japan the Ganko Ojisan are the keepers of the flame, acolytes who are devoted to the details of the fire. They have studied fire and learned its secrets ... They know the hottest fire is not the best fire ...") that's completely alien to the street-barbecue down-to-earthness of the place. For this is cuisine of the utmost simplicity, a blizzard of tiny nibbles served on wooden skewers. The incendiary expertise of the Ganko Ojisan is neither here nor there.
Bincho means a kind of charcoal; yakitori means "grilled chicken". There are nine chicken dishes on offer, including chicken wing, chicken oyster and chicken gizzard (a footnote promises "Other chicken parts available on request" in case you're keen on chicken beak or chicken pancreas). A further 26 dishes are offered under the name "Kushiyaki" meaning "grilled everything else". See what I mean by simplicity?
Our sweet waitress, Jessica, explained that, after starter vegetables or salad, you should order seven dishes each and see how you get on. We began with hot Korean pickles called kimchee, fabulously cold and spicy, and some fried white fish, artfully arranged in a fantail, lightly battered with a vinegary sauce, and very tasty. We should have avoided, however, the somen-fried prawns, two spheres of complicated dry noodles enclosing something nasty. "It's crispy," said my friend Angie, "but it's also greasy and squidgy. And there's no prawn inside."
As our 14 mini-dishes arrived, a hit-and-miss quality was apparent. Chicken breast with shishito pepper was succulent. Quail egg with bacon was just a bonsai English breakfast. Duck with spring onion and wasabi was overwhelmed by the horseradish. Shitaki mushrooms were salty and too dry. The asparagus wrapped in bacon ("Asparabacon" in Japanese apparently) would make a nice boardroom canapé. On and on they came: eel (delicious) and tuna (chewy) and salmon (a miniature steak) and beef (very tender) until Angie announced, "I'm bored with skewers. It's all so ... insubstantial. And it all tastes a bit similar." She had a point. As the waitress pointed out, all the meat dishes were flavoured with ebeta sauce, and all the fish and seafood with ponzu sauce. There's a limited repertoire of flavours here, amid the prodigality of the nibbles.
The puddings lacked an authentic feel, possibly because of the well-known Japanese antipathy to dairy products. My yuzu pannacotta looked beautiful but was over-sweet and featured some exotic marmalade that was simply wrong. A "sake-poached pear" was a rather ordinary pear-with-ice-cream. Their hearts, you can tell, aren't really in puddings.
There's a long list of 19 sakes (the best is £10.50 for a 50cl jug) served inside a Mazu square drinking box, which is supposed to catch the drips as your companion pours you a slug of alcoholic rice wine and waits for you to return the compliment. By the end of supper, you're left with absurdly sticky fingers and an urgent desire to brush your teeth. Bincho Yakitori won't be everyone's plate of noodles: it is insanely bitty (a family of four would find themselves wrestling with close on 30 dishes simultaneously) and there's no reason why some work and some don't. But I enjoyed the encounter, more for the novelty value than the level of achievement. Stand by, any day now, for a Wagamama-style franchise of Japanese tapas bars. Or should we start calling them "Japas"?
Bincho Yakitori, 2nd Floor, Oxo Tower Wharf, Barge House Street, London SE1. (020-7803 0858). About £85 for two, with drinksReuse content