Yuya Kikuchi worked at Mitsukoshi restaurant on lower Regent Street for four years after arriving in the UK in 2007, having previously honed his cooking skills in Japanese kitchens in Osaka (spiritual home of Takoyaki, popularised by Tomekichi Endo), Brussels and Sydney. His education saw him attain the tricky qualification enabling him to prepare the poisonous Fugu (blowfish), strictly controlled by Japanese law and a fish which can be lethal in the wrong hands: a cheffy ‘rockstar’ skill. After three months in Paris at the beginning of 2013, he has returned to open his first restaurant on London’s Rupert Street. The grime and scuffed nature of this strip of Soho, wedged between Bubbleology and The White Horse pub, has not deterred him. No name is emblazoned on the outside, with just a couple of rough hewn tables for cheek by jowl dining, six seats in the window for solo drop-ins. He’s the only chap cooking. It’s almost comically small.
The menu sprawls over many small plates (annoyingly sporting the affectation ‘tapas’), taking in ramen, sushi and sashimi, and a couple of rice bowls. On each occasion we stick to the small plates, as this is where most of the fun seems to lie, making this little operation stand out from the current clutch of ramen kitchens and generic sushi operations. Spelling mistakes on the blackboards in a childlike scrawl have a naive charm with “breded chicken’ and ‘caperin’ (for the tiny fish capelin) the prime culprits. Cute.
We wade in over several visits, teeth janglingly cold Sapporo lager at the ready.
TAKOYAKI (£3.50) — Gleeful combination of sweet and smoky, with a smoky waft of benito flakes, a squirt of kewpie mayo, the wheat flour battered balls eventually spilling their creamy innards and revealing firm fleshed nuggets of octopus. Joyful. One of the best morsels I’ve had this year.
SIRLOIN TATAKI (£5) — Cold strips of beef that pleasantly surprise, tender meat having been cooked rosy rare. Yuya’s homemade chilli oil is given a flourish with the acidity from citrus based ponzu, to make a thrilling dipping sauce.
GRILLED CAPELIN (£4.50) — This plankton grazing forage fish is a tiny and ugly bugger, and arrives fried with some daikon and a slice of lemon, its head twisted towards us, mouth open as if in protest. Despite an accusatory eye from the sod, we crunch the head off. An iodine twang from the eyeball makes my own eyes widen but I polish it off. Like an angry whitebait that’s been pumping iron.
SEARED SPICY COD’S ROE (£4.50) — Four small slices of roe that have flirted with the Japanese spice blend shichimi, crusted with white and black sesame seeds and gentle chilli heat.
GRILLED CONGER EEL (£4.50)— Steamed slivers of delicately melty eel, marinaded in sweet sake. As good as this was, it’s a tiny couple of mouthfuls.
AGEDASHI TOFU (£4) — Silky cubes of fried tofu, absorbing umami-rich flavours from a dashi, mirin and soy broth. Satisfyingly savoury.
GRILLED AUBERGINE WITH SWEET MISO (£4) — Simple but effective, a miso glaze revealing soft aubergine that demands to be scooped out to the last scrap.
STEAMED PRAWN DUMPLING (£4.50) — A decent trio of dumplings, sweet chunks of prawn mixed with chives.
CHICKEN KARAAGE (£4.50) — One of the few misses few on the menu, this Japanese fried chicken, marinaded in soy, ginger and garlic doesn’t have the thrilling crispy carapace we want. Tonkotsu on Dean Street make a version which pisses on this from a great height.
BREADED CHICKEN AND PONZU (£4.50) — Without the smoky dipping sauce, this ‘breded’ chicken is a bit yawnworthy. Just highlights how good those Takoyaki balls really are. Order those instead. Twice.
We have other dishes too; some so-so tempura; some Japanese omelette; slightly icky salmon cream croquettes; good prawn croquettes that remind us of the best prawn toast and perplexingly dry slices of pork belly with miso. The memory of those Takoyaki balls continue to reverberate.
The temperature of the Sapporo beers are blizzard cold, and are at an optimum level for slamming down several in quick succession, disturbingly quickly, and prime for Friday night necking in Soho. The wine list is something of a token effort but we spot the very dependable red Château Maris from the Minervois, and wine should be jettisoned for the laudably wide range of sake, fruit sake (plum, pear and yuzu), and shochu, all available by the small measure.
While not everything hits the heights of those blisteringly good Takoyaki (and the bill can ratchet up at a furious pace), the service is sweet, the attitude humble, and good will towards this tiny operation pours easily from us on each visit.
It’s the cutest surprise.
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