Knowing about Japanese food has never been cooler in Britain, but you have to know this one thing: there is hardly a restaurant in these islands whose menu would pass muster as "real Japanese" with the formidably choosy diners of Japan.
Knowing about Japanese food has never been cooler in Britain, but you have to know this one thing: there is hardly a restaurant in these islands whose menu would pass muster as "real Japanese" with the formidably choosy diners of Japan. Consider the case of Nobu Matsuhisha, perhaps the most famous Japanese chef and restaurateur in the world, whose New York-London-Milan-Malibu chain, part owned by Robert De Niro, is the expensive eatery of choice for stars with love affairs they wish to publicise. When he started, Nobu used to offer gaijin (foreigners) pure Japanese food, but it was commercial suicide; foreign palates needed a bit of East-West fusion to ease them into the ways of Japanese cuisine.
Transport one of Nobu's European or American restaurants back to Tokyo intact and it would raise Japanese eyebrows. Wealthy Japanese would not baulk at paying a fortune for top-quality dining, but they would decline to pay this much for what, to purists, is a vulgarised smorgasbord. Sushi and tepannyaki on the same menu? You might as well marry pâté de foie gras to chicken korma.
This is not to pick on Nobu, the biggest player in London's burgeoning Japanese restaurant scene. The vast majority of the UK's Japanese restaurants cheerfully offend against a basic rule of Japanese cuisine - in fact Japanese life in general - which is to choose your specialism and concentrate on practising it to perfection.
If your business is noodles, your best business decision is - like the hero of the famous food-film Tampopo - to strive tirelessly to achieve the perfect clarity of soup and crunchiness of buckwheat noodle. If it's sushi, then a seven-year apprenticeship is essential: learning to choose your cuts at Tsukiji market on a cold Tokyo morning; how much pressure to apply as your trusty knife cuts through the fish flesh.
For restaurateurs catering to gaijin, economic logic runs the other way. They can only thrive by offering their customers Japanese cuisine's greatest hits: teppanyaki, tempura, sushi, soba and udon. For the fast-growing number of Japanese food aficionados in Britain who know there is far more to Japanese food than sushi, the existing restaurant scene allows them to dabble in new taste experiences. When a critical mass of customers, and the fashion-spotters of the food press, have caught up, then we should be prepared for a second wave of the Japanese food revolution, with cuisine-specific venues, equivalent of today's Sichuan or Kashmiri specialists.
"One day all Japanese restaurants in London will be specialised restaurants," says Nakao San, sushi chef at the Gonbei restaurant in King's Cross. Present at the creation of London's first Japanese restaurant (Hiroko, near Bond Street, in 1972), he now teaches would-be sushi masters from around the world. But he makes no secret of his belief that to be a good sushi chef, it helps to be Japanese.
"People who pay £100 for sushi at Nobu are not necessarily going to be experts on fish, but I think that generally British people's appreciation is becoming more sophisticated and knowledgeable and that eventually they will be as urusai (pernickety) as the Japanese. They won't want to see beef teriyaki on a sushi restaurant menu."
British food culture has a long way to go before it can support specialist regional food, not least because real Japanese cookery shines a harsh light on the quality of its ingredients and mercilessly exposes the second-rate stuff that wholesalers will fob off on restaurateurs. Any Japanese chef in the UK will tell you about the difficulties of getting the right kind of bluefin tuna in Europe; but even the ingredients that we can produce are often not up to snuff.
"Our ambition has been to demonstrate that there is Japanese food beyond sushi," says Cary Bush, who runs the Sakura restaurant in Bath with his Japanese wife. They specialise in the more homely but tasty cuisine of shabu shabu and sukiyaki, in which thin strips of meat are cooked in a communal hot pot at the table. "Getting ingredients of the right quality is a nightmare," he says. "We went through four butchers before we found one who understood what we wanted, and it was the same with vegetables; the greengrocers just didn't get the message about the quality required."
Not only do the suppliers sometimes not get the point about freshness, but some British diners have yet to get the point that "exotic" eastern food does not always have to be about strong flavours.
"British diners are becoming more sophisticated in their appreciation of the world beyond sushi and respond well to our attempts to educate them, with things like unagi (eel) and edamame (fresh boiled soy beans)," says Shigemi Matsuda, Hiroshima-born chef at the Jin Kichi restaurant in Hampstead. "What does amaze me is how much wasabi (hot horseradish sauce) they want on their sushi. I tell them it already has it under the fish, but they still want more. It's like a macho contest to see how they can stand having their eyes water."
It is proof of sorts of how Japanese food has penetrated the British cultural orbit. Once the preserve of city bankers on expense accounts, it is now partaken in the spirit of competitive vindaloo-eating on a lad's night out.
Japan on a plate
151 King's Cross Road, London (020-7278 0619)
Not the glitziest, and certainly not the priciest, but still one of the best sushi restaurants in London. It's a magnet for Japanese businessmen, which has to be a good sign. The man with the knives, Takao Sensei, has been in London for 30 years after serving a hard apprenticeship man and boy and is unimpressed by sushi fashion.
33b Walm Lane, Willesden, London (020-8459 2971)
Willesden might not be the first place you would look for a good Japanese restaurant but cognoscenti come from miles around to get an authentically Japanese experience.
Windsor Hotel, 69 Great Pulteney Street, Bath (01225 422100)
Cook-at-your-own-table specialists, a rarity in Britain and especially so in the West Country. The owners, a British-Japanese couple, work hard to source the best ingredients for heart-and-stomach-warming Japanese favourites such as sukiyaki and shabu shabu, cooked in bubbling vegetable broth. Delicious.
Samsi Japanese Yakitori Bar
38 Whitworth Street, Manchester (0161 279 0022)
Expensive but plush, advanced booking usually necessary. A rare UK example of a yakitoriya, or grilled chicken shop. Succulent pieces of chicken (and other meats, including kidney) are cooked on skewers, with optional peppers, onion, and Japanese version of barbecue sauce. Washed down with cold Kirin beer, there is nothing finer.
West Richmond Street, Edinburgh (0131 668 3847)
Excellent value, and highly praised friendly bar and bistro, serving a good cross-section of the wide range of Japanese food types. Has a loyal following, and also does takeaways.