Friday, 9 July 2010
Asakusa, where have you been all my life? Three and a half years, 235 blog posts and over 200000 words; why has it taken this long? A few reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, I'd never heard of it. Secondly, it's in Camden, and as any Londoner knows, the number of places worth visiting in Camden can be counted on one hand. Thirdly, my experiences of Japanese food in London, and sushi in particular, has veered between "not bad" and "pretty awful", and there's only so many overhyped, overpriced and overcrowded sushi joints you can visit without eventually coming to the conclusion that London just can't do this stuff very well. So to be fair, I wasn't really looking for Asakusa, but thanks to the intervention of a friendly foodie who insisted I travel all the way up to Mornington Crescent on a baking hot Thursday evening, that's where I found myself. And, my God, was it ever worth it.
It's the least likely setting so far for this kind of food. In a creaky old tudor-style building that looks like it once housed either a "Mamma Mia" raffia-covered-Chianti-bottle Italian or a sex shop, are squeezed a handful of tiny tables, a miniscule bar area and, down some stairs towards the back, a sushi kitchen surrounded by a half dozen stools. A number of electric fans did their best against the raging heat, but really there are more pleasant spaces in which to eat your dinner. On the Northern Line in midsummer during rush hour, for example, or in the rhino enclosure at London Zoo. But Asakusa isn't trying to impress with its decor; it lets the food do the talking.
Edamame were subtly salted and extremely consistent - there wasn't a hard or mushy bean in the whole bowl. A fan of superbly-timed and tender beef fillet came with a selection of toppings (ginger, garlic, tomato) and a sharp dipping sauce, and a scallop sashimi was attractively presented in a half-shell and was very fresh. Best of the starters though were these piping hot balls of fried octopus - Takoyaki - served with an amazing okonomiyaki sauce; something I'd never tried before and will henceforth seek out on any future visit to a Japanese restaurant. I just doubt they'll be this good anywhere else.
Hotate sashimi was stunning. Yellowfin tuna, mackerel, salmon and white tuna, it goes without saying that it was all incredibly fresh, but this had something extra - a deep, rich meatiness and heady notes of ocean spray; it was up there with some of the finest fish I've ever eaten. At the same time, a plate of black cod and miso turned up, a dish which Roka did very well but here was even better AND cheaper. It had a sweet crispy skin and delicate white flesh which flaked off perfectly with the barest of prods with my chopsticks.
These skewers of honey-glazed (I think) hatsu chicken hearts were tender and tasty, like miniature chipolatas but with extra bite. And as if all that food wasn't enough, a large plate of more standard sushi arrived, including some shiitake mushroom rolls and nigiri which we struggled to finish. It's worth pointing out, too, that despite the familiar appearance the rice was warm and soft and obviously freshly made to order, unlike some I've had in even quite smart Japanese places.
If you're thinking all that sounds like a lot of food, then you'd be right. And given the time and care that went into its preparation, and the consistently high quality of all the ingredients, you'd be forgiven for assuming the bill would also be astronomical; certainly, ordering a similar selection of items from Roka on Charlotte Street would cost you upwards of £150. Here at Asakusa, our bill, including a large sake and bottomless green tea, came to just under £60 - an absolute steal, and although the surroundings and atmosphere leave a little to be desired in relation to places like Roka, the cheeriness of the staff and the level of service never faltered. Asakusa is a gem of a restaurant, and I promise never to write off Japanese food in London ever again.