Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Mino Kitchen, Holborn
I have a lot of time for any restaurant that cooks the majority of its food over charcoal. There's something primal about the way marinated meat reacts to the fierce heat and smoke of solid fuel that I find irresistible, whether it's lamb chops cooked in a tandoor or some tender cubes of chicken from a proper ocakbasi. Of course, such cooking requires skill, and patience, and a great big expensive extractor fan, so it's probably not surprising that you're more likely to see gas-fired grills in your local kebab shop and Indian takeaway than proper coals. But when charcoal-grilled food is good, it can turn humdrum raw materials into something quite special, adding wonderful textures and flavours while keeping the inside flesh moist. At least, that's the idea.
The Japanese, in their wonderfully organised and obsessive way, not only have a name for restaurants that specialise in charcoal-grilled food (yakitori) but also for places that specialise even further in skewered meat cooked over charcoal - kushiyaki. Mino Kitchen is ostensibly a kushiyaki restaurant, but also sells sushi, perhaps to cover all bases in case they get some demanding business lunchers. I wasn't here for sushi though - I ordered the "Nana kushi set" of skewers and, because none of the non-alcoholic options on the drinks menu really appealed, a glass of tap water.
Here they are then, in all their skewered glory. An odd looking bunch, I'm sure you'll agree; some of them tasted pretty odd too. There was an eringi mushroom, sliced vertically into one long rather rude looking appendage and incredibly difficult to eat. I tried biting off chunks but it was too chewy, and ended up swallowing the damn thing whole, like a pelican swallowing a sardine. It tasted like a big, chewy mushroom. Shiitake were more manageable but no more interesting - they tasted mainly of the sweet marinade that everything is brushed with on the grill. King prawns were disastrously overcooked into a mushy paste and wouldn't shell properly - not very nice . Weirdest of all though was sunagimo, described as 'chicken gizzards' on the menu yet having the strangest texture - they were bizarrely crunchy all the way through, not just charred from the grill but literally crunchy like celery, even though I'm sure they were indeed parts of a chicken. Chicken meatballs and beef meatballs were fine, nicely crispy outside but rather mealy and offputting inside.
It may sound like I had a fairly awful lunch but really it was only the king prawns that were completely inedible. Most of the rest of it was decent enough and made a distracting if not particularly large meal, and it was interesting sat at the bar watching the chefs put it all together. The only other major issue I had was with the price - these miniscule skewers (a starter portion really) of hardly premium ingredients were £12.50 and it was only thanks to an additional £2.60 small bowl of steamed rice (shovelled in using the wonkiest chopsticks I've ever used) that I managed to avoid leaving with a still empty stomach. But then, this is Holborn, and given the competition (or rather, lack of it) in the area I imagine they will probably do quite well. It may not be the greatest kushiyaki joint in London, but at least it's not another branch of Pret. Small mercies, and all that.