Thursday, 10 January 2013
There's very few times I feel more self-consciously clueless about food than when I'm eating in a Japanese restaurant. Sure, learning the ingredients and preparations in any foreign culture can be a challenge - I'll die happy the day I can order dim sum and not feel like I'm playing a scratch card - but Japanese food is surely one of the most advanced and perfected cuisines on the planet, and comes in such a variety of guises learning even the basics can seem an impossible task.
For a start, there's rarely anything so straightforward as a "Japanese restaurant". Instead, there are udon bars, ramen bars, yakitori joints, sushi bars, okonomiyaki, kaiseki, Brazilian-fusion and probably a few others I'm yet to discover. The intense skill and focus needed to perfect each of these styles of food results in extreme specialisation, and anywhere brave enough to attempt more than a couple of them at once is setting themselves up for a fall.
If anyone can have a decent bash at a pan-Japanese restaurant though, it's a former Nobu head chef. Nobu, whatever you may think of their showy, A-list bait restaurants and eye-watering prices, always knew how to produce decent food, and Scott Hallsworth has worked in their kitchens in various glamorous locations all over the world for over a decade. The influence of the mothership doesn't just extend to the food, either - the vast basement space on Kingsway is nicely done, the gently spotlit black wood tables and cream banquettes giving a ever-so-slightly bland but familiar Mayfair vibe, and all front of house being very smart and smiley.
Miso soup was, well, Miso soup, but had a couple of shimeji mushrooms bobbing about in the broth to liven things up a bit. I quite liked that they didn't even offer the option of a spoon so I didn't feel too self-conscious loudly slurping it directly out of the bowl.
I'd ordered a single piece of otoro (fatty tuna) sashimi just to see how their raw skills were, and it wasn't bad, but nowhere near as good as the one from Sushi Tetsu a few months ago and just felt slightly less-than-perfectly-fresh. Also, despite sternly being informed on the menu that the sashimi was "not served with soy sauce", it arrived with, er, a little bowl of soy sauce and a specific instruction from the chef to dip the fish in it. Which was a bit odd.
The BBQ grill set, though, was just lovely. Skewers of soft sliced onions dipped in a powerful miso dressing, delicately boned chicken wings with a perfect crispy skin, a good dollop of powerfully-smoked aubergine salsa, and the most wonderfully cooked (if slightly underseasoned) lamb chops that were just so addictively tender I stripped them clean to the bone in seconds. The sesame-ponzu dressing was a great and time-tested match to the charcoal-crisped protein, and a blackened half of lemon topped it all off. The kind of food that, unless you were a vegetarian or had some other kind of eating disorder, you could not fail to appreciate.
Any criticisms, then, will be largely due to one thing - the prices. It is very easy to spend a lot of money in Wabi and not have a great deal to show for it, and I say that having enjoyed the food there very much indeed. With a (bitterly sharp, presumably a mistake of some kind - it tasted they'd forgotten to sweeten it) salad, some decent pickles and a bowl of rice my fairly modest lunch came to £27, and though I'd happily pay it again, Bincho Yakitori in Soho does better (and cheaper) skewers, Asakusa in Camden does better (and cheaper) sushi and although I didn't try their tempura if it's any better than Koya's I'll eat my kimono.
But for an area that's hardly blessed with great restaurants and for doing what it does with a good amount of style and flair, Wabi is worth a visit. Die-hard foodies will be put off by the very anti-2013 lack of extreme specialisation, but I can only see it getting better as the staff and kitchens bed in, and you'd have to be a real contrarian not to be won over by almost everything about the place. For better of for worse, it's Holborn's very own Nobu.