Friday, 9 July 2010

Asakusa, Camden


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.

9/10

Asakusa on Urbanspoon

13 comments:

Ibzo said...

I love Asakusa but I think the takoyaki there is pretty poor. I've ordered it about five times now, but every time it's been flabby, and the texture is wrong, although admittedly the taste is spot on (though I prefer mine topped with bonito flakes).

Seek out the unagi tamago next time.

roastedsundays said...

I love it when people discover Asakusa for the first time, makes me grin like an idiot! Its been my go-to japanese for the last 4 years and it never lets me down. The friendly service, the consistently good sashimi, the tiny seating and the crazy cheap prices... its a proper gem of a place.

Next time you go, give the agedashi nasu (eggplant in special sauce with prawn) and the buta kakuni (simmered pork belly) a crack. Crazy good.

oh, and check out the ceiling fans for those really hot days. Hilarious.

Anthony Silverbrow said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. I've been quite a few times and enjoy it but can't say I've ever had a meal as good as you seem to have had. I look forward to going back.

Lizzie said...

Want to go x 10. That's all.

Northern Snippet said...

That beef looks fantastic and what great value-what a contrast with the previous review!

Dan said...

Up until fairly recently, I worked in Camden and Asakusa was recommended to me often. I wandered over there for a look, and despite as you say the exterior looking a bit unsavoury, the word of mouth was so good I really wanted to try it...except it was bloody closed at lunchtimes. I no longer work there, and reading this - I'm kicking myself.

Wild Boar said...

Have heard about this place but also kept putting off trying it out. Will bump it a bit further up my things-to-try list after your review though.

Kavey said...

I worked at Mornington Crescent for nearly 5 years but Asakusa wasn't there then... I wish it had been.

However, all good info --- I live up norf on the northern line so camden is very handy for me.

Must visit.

Helen said...

I've been here! Just remembered that. I had a bit of a different experience though but I only stopped for a bite. It really wasn't anything to write home about but I'll have to give it another go.

Biggest Jim said...

Went a few years ago for the first time and really enjoyed it. Am not often up that way, so would go more often if I could, but it's definitely one of the better Japanese places around.

Greedy Diva said...

Rapt with this tip! Always on the look out for a great Japanese restaurant (rare as hen's teeth).

feastonscrapsblog said...

Asakusa is mere metres away from my office. Must. Go. Soon!

Nancy said...

Oh jeez, I went here about a year ago and I really, really wanted to love it but I had SUCH a bad time. They kept me waiting two hours for my pathetic 6 pieces of sushi because a table downstairs had ordered 100 pieces or something and there was no communication, and i left in a bad mood having felt hungry for most of the time. They didn't even reduce the bill for the wait. They ignored us and my two friends got all of their food a good half hour, and me urging them to eat, eat, eat, it's okay. Not a fun experience. God damnit.

That said, I'm reading all the comments and my ole faithful in Leicester Square Okawari has been transformed into the abomination of "Sushi Gaga" (I cried, I literally cried when I showed up in a bad mood) with all elegant overpriced trendy crap on the menu - so maybe it's time to give Asakusa another shot. I live in Camden too so it makes sense. Agh!