Thursday, 16 June 2016
Yumi, Covent Garden
This should have been a review of Bigbe, a Taiwanese fried chicken hole-in-the-wall on Little Newport Street which had been gathering rave reports from people I trusted and seemed the ideal spot for a greedy deep-fried lunchtime binge. Only, when I got to Bigbe, it seemed all was not well. In the kitchens, a woman was yelling in Chinese at a man slumped face down at a prep table, arms over his head. After a lot of shouting, the man slowly raised his head, and turned first towards the woman, and then, wincing slightly at her continued verbal onslaught and wild gesticulations, towards me.
I smiled brightly, in an "I would like some fried chicken" kind of way. I sensed the man was attempting to figure out what I wanted, but the effort involved in refocusing his eyes was too much. He stared through me for a few seconds, groaned, and then collapsed back onto the table, arms once more folded over his head. Perhaps today wasn't the day to pursue my craving for fried chicken. I slowly backed out of the front door and away, the sounds of angry Chinese fading behind as I trotted towards Shaftesbury Avenue.
Fortunately, I had a backup. Yumi is a brand new "Izakaya" on Shaftesbury Avenue, attached to the Piccadilly West End Hotel (there's a space on the bill to charge your meal to a room) and backed, apparently by the ETM Group. Certainly there are worse restaurant chains than ETM - the Gun in the docklands and the Well in Clerkenwell were some of the defining gastropubs of the early noughties, and I believe the Jugged Hare is great for cheap(ish) game - but a Japanese bar in Covent Garden is quite a different beast entirely. Could the skills be transferred? Well, let's find out.
Miso soup was first up, and was nice. I'm not entirely sure how mind-bendingly brilliant it's possible for miso soup to be, but the seaweed had a good bite and the tofu was soft and the broth itself was hot and umami-rich. And at least it didn't have big flabby mussels floating about in it.
"Kimuchi" is, as far as I can gather, a slightly bland Japanese version of kimchi; not inedible by any stretch, just missing some of that funk and fire of the real Korean deal. OK, so I'm criticising a dish in a Japanese restaurant for not being Korean, which could be unfair, but the point is, this is London not Hokkaido - proper kimchi is available, at Koba and On The Bab and (further afield) the fantastic Jin Go Gae in New Malden - and anyone lucky enough to try the real thing in those places will be fairly nonplussed with this version.
From the robata - eventually - came these chicken thigh skewers. I say eventually because it took a good half an hour for them to appear (dishes arrive as they're ready), and I was increasingly worried that either the meat would be wildly overcooked or their grill wasn't hot enough. In the end, it turned out to be the latter. Pale, wobbly and fatty, these desperately needed a bit of colour and crust from the coals, and a decent gloss of powerfully-seasoned tare marinade did not make up for the pretty unpleasant texture.
Gyoza were better, but not perfect. The overwhelming taste of the filling seemed to be spring onion, although the menu didn't mention that as ingredient at all so perhaps it was just a lot of pickled ginger that tasted of onion. Either way, the pork element was quite low-key and what I did detect was rather dry and mealy, although the casings themselves held up well and the dipping sauce was good. I mean, they were fine, you know, just not quite as good as you might expect. Which pretty much sums up the place, in fact.
What I really want, I realised after I'd paid up and left, is for Bincho Yakitori to move back to London. Their grills were always full of the most weird and wonderful cuts of meat and interesting vegetables, from chicken neck skewers to hearts and liver, to stuffed mushrooms, accompanied by pig's tripe soup and vibrant house pickles. And the bill rarely stretched over £20 a head no matter how much you ordered. But it seems the Soho rents became to much and they relocated to Brighton. Where apparently they're doing very well, so good luck to them.
Maybe my expectations were too high. Yumi is a little unpretentious Japanese restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue serving (charmingly and attentively) a small menu of undemanding Izakaya dishes and they're clearly not aiming for the heights of gastronomy. Which is fine, but I just wish someone would at some point take the food side of things a bit more seriously - I'm convinced that there's a way of doing this stuff incredibly well and for good value, and we shouldn't have to choose between some corporate proto-chain concept on one hand and a £100/head glitz-fest of Roka or Umu on the other. Or maybe - and this is the really terrifying thought - the economic realities of London in 2016 mean that the days of Bincho Yakitori are a thing of the past. I bloody hope I'm wrong.
Central London still waits for a decent Izakaya. Meantime, there's plenty of other options for booze and food on the app.