Monday, 28 February 2011
Asakusa, 265 Eversholt Street, Camden, London, NW1 1BA
If you’ve never heard of this place before, you’re subscribing to the wrong newsletter, my friend.
We’d been wanting to come to this place for about 2 years now. Ever since I heard about this place from a friend who was in a Japanese club (whatever that is, because she sure wasn’t Japanese) and she said that they all really liked this place, I decided that I had to try it out.
Then, I read more about it on the internet, and people only ever had nice comments about it. Then, as we tried to book a table there, time and time again, it became apparent that this was no ordinary Japanese restaurant.
This one required booking in advance. Like, lots in advance.
If you want to have dinner here at the peak times (ie Friday or Saturday dinner), best make your booking a week in advance because there are about 7 tables in total, so unless you’re a regular, I don’t reckon you’re gonna get a table that easily.
Anyhow, I made the booking a week in advance for a table for 2, at 7pm, on a Saturday. That was OK, but when our 2 friends said they’d join us for dinner, I changed the booking to a table for 4, and could only fit us in at 6pm.
They open at 6pm. So, at 5.45pm, like overly excited hungry people, we arrived at the place, found a parking spot very close to the restaurant, and waited for the restaurant to open.
It seems a few people were doing the same thing. Now, I’m not sure how many people make a habit of eating dinner at 5.45pm on Saturdays, but there sure were a few people waiting outside the restaurant. I think people were just plan afraid of having their precious tables given away, so decided to just camp outside until they were let in.
On the way in (all of us were looking at each other in a somewhat victorious manner), in the space of 5 minutes, they’d actually turned away 3 groups of dinners (who didn’t book!) so booking is highly advised.
The people who were turned away were so desperate to have something, anything, to eat in there that they actually pleaded and bargained with the waiting staff to let them have a table.
‘We’ll be out of here by 7pm, we won’t be more than half an hour …’
‘We only want something quick to eat and we’ll be out of here by 7pm.’
Nope, sorry, no booking, no eating! (my words, not theirs, they were much more polite than me)
15 minutes after opening, the restaurant was nearly full. All 7 tables of it.
(The world’s smallest fan. On the ceiling.)
And because I’ve waited so long to eat here, I was gonna take as many pictures as I could. Usually, when I take pictures in a restaurant, especially a small one, the waiting staff are usually quite suspicious of me, and tend to give me suspicious little glances. Here at Asakusa, they were nothing but nice, and the smiles continued throughout the entire meal. Everyone who served us were nothing if not polite, taking the time to explain things to us slightly ignorant, non-Japanese diners, and even went to and from and kitchen trying to get explanations from the chef if certain changes could be made to the items on the menu.
Totally exceptional service from the waiting staff, and totally deserving of the 12.5% service charge included in the bill.
I’d read from other reviews that the best thing to do at this restaurant was to order as many little portions to share as possible, instead of ordering one big main meal individually. So that we did.
Agedashi tofu £3.50 (deep fried tofu in special sauce)
Because we really like this dish, we usually order it in most Japanese restaurants we go to. Kinda like a benchmark of how good a restaurant is, I guess. The cubes of silken tofu were light and very soft, with a batter equally as light befitting its soy interior. Once I’d taken the first squishy bite, the delicate sauce trickled through, moistening the fluffy yet soft tofu even more. Excellent first dish.
Buta no kakuni £4.50 (simmered belly pork in special sauce)
I’ve always wanted to try this. I’d heard a lot about this pork belly dish, and was curious to see how it’d compare to the Chinese version of ‘tau yew bak’ or stewed pork in dark soy sauce. And I must say, to our delight, this dish was excellent in its own right.
The description on the menu (in brackets above) does not do it justice. Special sauce is not good enough a description for this amazing, out of this world, best sauce there is, sauce.
The pork could have been slightly softer (I think it’s because it was lean pork), but aside from that insignificant point, everything else about it was amazing. The taste can only be described as ‘umami’, being sweet, more-ish, salty, meaty, and everything else in between at the same time.
It would have been perfect eaten with some steaming, fluffy rice, but we had more to try, so upwards and onwards we went.
Nasu dengaku £4 (deep fried aubergine with sweet soy-bean paste)
Another favourite with us – we know the one at TenTenTei is excellent, but how would this compare?
2 of the diners proclaimed this to be the best version of this dish they’d tasted, and 1 said that it was comparable to the one at TenTenTei. I thought that it was slightly better than the one at TenTenTei, which means that it was the best version I’ve had so far.
3 to 1 for this being the best version of the dish. Ever.
The aubergine was deep fried, making the skin crispy and the inside of the aubergine all soft, warm and lovely-mushy. The miso topping was a perfect blend of sweet and salty, and how anyone would not like this dish, I don’t know.
Ebi furai £6.10 (4 prawns deep fried in breadcrumbs, served with special sauce and salad)
You know how when you have a table full of excellent dishes of all kinds, and you’re wowed by each one in succession? Well, when we had that many top-of-the-class dishes in front of us, this one was the only one which perhaps wasn’t that … ‘wow!’
Don’t get me wrong, it was good, and perhaps, most restaurants would have been proud to have been able to serve something like this, but in Asakusa, this was only so-so. The prawns were big and crunchy, the batter was light and flavoured well, but nothing about the dish stood out from the other dishes. Maybe it’s because it’s meant to be a mild-tasting dish, something to be eaten on its own rather than in between many strong-tasting dishes. Whatever the case, while it was good, it wasn’t excellent.
Wafu steak £6.30 (beef steak with grated white radish served with salad)
Someone wrote a review about how they really liked the wafu steak from Asakusa so I decided we should try it out. The beef was tender and cooked rare (although we asked for it medium, but I like it rare anyway, so I wasn’t too bothered), although I perhaps should’ve eaten this before trying any of the other stronger tasting dishes.
On its own, as a perfectly-cooked piece of meat, this was a very good example of how good beef should be cooked. Each piece was seared on the outside, yet pink on the inside. Taste-wise, aside from being beefy, I couldn’t taste much else, so if you order this on its own, it should be top notch.
On the specials menu – deep fried sardines, about £4
After we’d spent about 15 mins deciding what to order, and then finally settling down to the 9 dishes or so, I found the green specials menu hidden underneath the main menu.
I can’t NOT order something from the specials menu, can I, so we did. Again, I’d read somewhere about the sardines being really good here, so I decided to go for the deep fried version of the fishy fish. While I really liked this, another friend who doesn’t like strong fishy-tasting fish didn’t.
I thought it was a fantastic example of what could be done with fish that’s usually deemed to be poor man’s fish, as not only was the fish so delightfully succulent, but the batter and combination of tangy salad actually made this dish a good, solid main meal on its own. I loved the strong fishy flavour that accompanied every crunchy, juicy bite, and could have easily finished it on my own.
Tako sashimi £6 for 6 pieces
This isn’t on the menu, but we asked the (very patient) waitress if we could have an order of just octopus sashimi and after a few trips to the kitchen, she returned with the affirmative answer that yes, we could have six pieces of octopus for 6 squid (ha ha).
The octopus was served very cold, and very thick. Each piece took a good few chews to get down, which, to me, is the sign of a good, fresh piece of fish.
Yakitori £2.50 (2 skewers of grilled chicken and onion with special sauce)
I would have more of an opinion on this if not for the fact that the fiance ate (almost) all of it while I was busy taking pictures of the food. I think, in fact, he spat out the last piece just as he was eating it, when he realised that he hadn’t left any for me. The chicken pieces were very juicy and tender, and that was probably because they used a combination of dark meat, and some skin, which grills really well. Compared to other yakitoris I’ve had, this one was possibly the best version of them all.
Maguro nuta £4.30 (raw tuna with special vinegar and soy-bean paste)
I’d never had something like this before, and I’m so glad I’ve now tried this. I don’t usually like tuna, because to me, the texture is kinda in the middle of nowhere. It’s not squidgy and creamy like salmon, neither is it chewy and firm like squid (my absolute favourite sashimi of all time). I don’t quite like the taste of tuna either, as it tastes of nothing (to me anyway).
I really like this version, though, because not only was the tuna cut up into thick, succulent chunks (making it absolutely meaty), but the lovely sweet and salty miso paste made the tuna actually taste of something. Like my friend said, you couldn’t taste the tuna underneath all that miso paste, but that’s how I like my tuna!
Tuna-lovers might not appreciate this dish too much, I don’t reckon. Salmon-lovers, tuck in.
Tsukune £2.50 (grilled chicken meatballs on skewers with special sauce)
I’m not entirely sure what this ‘special sauce’ is, as it seems to be popping up on most of the dishes. I’m pretty sure it’s not the same special sauce being used throughout, but whatever the case is, either the chef is being mysterious about it, or just can’t be bothered describing it in too much detail on the menu. So, I’ll do it.
It tasted like chicken meatballs with teriyaki sauce. Slightly sweet, a little sticky, and it had a hint of plum-like sauce to it. While entirely pleasant, it wasn’t anything too different, and made for a pleasing starter.
Green tea and black sesame ice-cream £3.40
We don’t usually order dessert at restaurants, but something in the air that day made us feel quite generous (and hungry) so we did just that.
The green tea ice-cream wasn’t green enough, if you get what I mean, but texture-wise, it was creamy and delightfully thick. Everyone at the table preferred the black sesame version, which tasted like black sesame, and if you don’t know what that tastes like, you should go try some out because it’s one of those things I just can’t describe. Eaten together, those 2 flavours are weird. Good weird though, as I finished off whatever the others couldn’t.
Japanese sweet £3.20
When we asked the waitress what this was, she looked slightly perplexed and tried her best to describe it to us. Because I kinda had an inkling as to what she was trying to describe anyway, I yelled ‘pancake?’ and was rewarded by a huge beam from her. Her happy nods and ‘Yes, yes, pancake!’ convinced me to order a portion despite knowing what it’d taste like anyway, and I was glad I did that.
I’ve had this before, but not had it warm, and the gloopy red bean paste sitting snugly inside a fluffy, spongy pancake made for a delightful round-up to the meal.
To sum it up, this restaurant, to me, is the best Japanese restaurant in town. Some restaurants only do sushi well, some only do cooked food well. This one is a front-runner in all categories of the menu, and they do what they do spectacularly well, at a very reasonable price. The service here was attentive, and efficient. The food is fresh, absolutely impressively fresh, and if I manage to book a table here again, I’ll most definitely be making a return visit to try out the other things on the menu.