Go easy on the wasabi

British foodies can't use their chopsticks fast enough, but would 'our' Japanese restaurants pass muster in 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.

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

Gonbei

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.

Sushi-Say

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.

Sakura

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.

Bonsai

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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments