If a restaurant is too public, and a private room is too private, there is only one place to be, and that's in a booth. You can stake out your own territory in a booth. It's a public private room in itself, part of the restaurant and yet apart from it too. And it's sooooo glamorous. It's Bogie and Bacall at Romanoff's, Cary Grant sliding in next to Katie Hepburn, Dean Martin held upright only by the curve of velvet behind him. Falling off one's chair is unlikeable. Falling out of one's booth is adorable.
I've long held the theory that we are pre-disposed to booth bliss by our childhood playpens. What else is easy to get into, hard to get out of, lets you check out the world around you while also making you feel safe and secure - and comes complete with nice people bringing you food?
So it's straight to a booth on arrival at Blossom, a relatively new Japanese restaurant deep in London's Hoxton Square barland. I didn't even have to ask. Obviously I just looked boothworthy. Of course, it could have been because there were such a lot of booths and so few people, but I doubt it.
Blossom is the posher, cooler offering from the people who also own the more low-key Japanese Canteen takeaway chain, a branch of which is right next door. There's an outdoor terrace for balmier days, and a basement lounge and bar for clubbier nights. The décor is a clever modern take on the rustic interiors so beloved of Japanese taverns and noodle bars. The booths are wooden, the floors are wooden, the ceilings are wooden, even the vertical louvres on the windows are wooden. It's charming, but it doesn't quite make up for a complete lack of atmosphere and shy staff who slink in and out of the shadows as if not allowed on stage. All this puts an awful lot of pressure on the food to be fabulous.
The menu is Japan's greatest hits, with all the usual sashimi, sushi, yakitori and teriyaki, as well as the now-obligatory homages to Nobu (black cod with miso, soft shell crab maki, chilli rock shrimp tempura). Unusually, there is also a scattering of Korean dishes such as Korean beef tartare with pear, kimchi pickles, and bibimbap rice pots. Even more unusually for a Japanese restaurant, the menu acknowledges producers and providores such as The Ginger Pig for meat and Secretts for vegetables, as well as Japanese-trained ceramicist Jill Fanshawe Kato who produced the unexpectedly enchanting hand-made crockery.
The plates are, in fact, rather more interesting than some of the food they bear. Rock shrimp tempura with wasabi mayonnaise (£6) come across as deep-fried shrimp nugget cocktail party fare, rather than seducing the tastebuds with ethereally light, pale golden tempura batter as they do at Nobu. The shrimp have little flavour but for the punchy wasabi mayo. Pork and kimchi soup (£3.50) is murky and full of undistinguished flavours. The Korean influence leads me to think there will be variations on sizzling, charcoal-grilled bulgogi beef and kalbi ribs but the only grilled beef is teriyaki, so I go for Korean grilled lamb chops (£9.50) that taste sweet and lack sizzle and scorch in spite of the pronounced grill marks. On the plus side, a sweetly dressed salad of Secretts' baby, baby leaves, white radish and carrot is just delicious, and spicy yet subtle gyoza pork dumplings (£2.50) are correctly frizzled on the bottom and steamy on top.
Hands up all those who have had the amazing rice hot pot at Roka in Charlotte Street, in which sea-sweet crabmeat and crunchy wasabi-flavoured flying fish roe (tobiko) is folded through light, soupy rice. Hands down, this one is nothing like it. The bibimbap (£8.50) is much more homely and fill-er-up, the sizzling hot rice in the granite bowl topped with rare strips of beef, shredded carrots, courgettes and white radish, runny egg yolk and a sweet/sour red pepper kochujang sauce. Mixed at the table, it's like a Korean Sunday night tea.
In spite of seven very good varieties of sake on offer, I make do with a so-so 2004 Fleurie Domaine du Calvaire (£23) from the small, modestly priced, mixed-bag wine list.
If the best thing on the night is the sushi, does that suggest the chefs are Japanese rather than Korean? Two slim torpedoes of creamy-tasting toro (fatty tuna) finger sushi and a freshly made maki roll of avocado and snow crab (£6) are impeccably fresh and well-formed.
Puds are the worst things. Fresh mango custard topped with chocolate pastilles (£5) is dense, sweet, and feels pre-pre-made, while poached pears with spiced sake (£5) have been cooked to a mush and suffocated by a glunky sweet red bean sauce.
This is a very Hoxtony sort of place, referencing everything from Tokyo sushi bars to (New York) SoHo's bibimbap bars, and it fits neatly into the rather wide gap that is better-than-Wagamama, not-as-good-as-Nobu-Roka-Zuma. But servings are generous, prices are reasonable, the ambience is pleasant and easygoing, and most importantly, the booths are excellent. If you're worthy. s
13/20: Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Blossom: 37 Hoxton Square, London N1, tel: 02077294948. Lunch and dinner served Monday to Saturday. Aroud 380 for two including wine and service.
Second helpings: More restaurants with booths
The Balmoral, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 557 6727 The hotel's opulence spills over into its Michelin-starred restaurant, with its onyx, red lacquer and velvet booths. It's the perfect setting for chef Jeff Bland's marinated Gressingham duck and loin of lamb with truffled mash.
33 Dover Street, London W1, tel: 020 7499 3033 The most sought-after space in this Mayfair diner is the central "carriage" lined with padded booths and venetianed windows. The food is all Americana, from Manhattan clam chowder to mac cheese.
Malmaison Leeds, 1 Swinegate, Leeds, tel: 0113 398 1000 Vaulted ceilings, cosy leather booths and candlelight transform this brasserie into one big comfort zone. Adding to the cosiness are bistro classics from steak frites to duck confit.
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