Behind an understated exterior in Soho, Japanese small plates and ramen are turned out with immaculate skill at low prices.
There’s no sign above the door, no flashy exterior. Just an A-board advertising ‘Japanese Tapas and Ramen’. Kirazu may be paces away from Spuntino – one of Soho’s trendiest ‘hidden’ diners – but it’s easy to walk past Kirazu without a second glance. Don’t. You won’t find anything else in London quite like it.
Despite the understated exterior, Kirazu’s ad-hoc interior wouldn’t be out of place in a hip Hackney eatery. Bare light bulbs dangle from the ceiling; crates are used as shelves for bottles on the white walls and fresh-faced after-work customers sit at communal tables on knocked-together wooden benches. The room buzzes with excited chatter.
Chef Yuya Kikuchi smiles as he turns out skilful yet pared-down small plates from behind his chunky wooden counter stacked with crockery, squeezy bottles of sauces, a blowtorch, and the other accoutrements of his craft.
Much of Kikuchi’s menu is themed around obanzai – a traditional home-cooking style from Japan – and he believes his restaurant is the only one to serve it in Europe. As cuisines go, obanzai is humble; no fancy garnishes, no expensive ingredients. But the Kansai region it originates from is renowned for the quality of its produce, especially vegetables, and obanzai is built around letting the ingredients sing.
Conger eel, a classic summer food that the Japanese say can cool you down on a hot day, was served grilled in a sweet soy-based sauce with a few slices of cucumber. Salmon sashimi was burnished with a blowtorch, imbuing the silky flesh with a delicate hint of smoke. Another dish to be flame-finished was salt-cured and chilli-seasoned cod roe (mentaiko) that popped in the mouth as we ate it, yielding its bitter-edged piquancy.
It’s not all obanzai though. In keeping with the current London trend, ramen makes an appearance, as does the Osaka street-food takoyaki. These round battered octopus balls, cooked on a dimpled griddle, then smothered in Japanese mayo and thick Worcestershire-style sauce, were the best we’ve found in London.
Chef Kikuchi clearly has talent, as well as extensive training in Japanese haute cuisine (kaiseki), and years of cheffing experience racked up around the the world. He’s putting it to good use at Kirazu. We’ll be back to try more of his well-priced plates, along with an accompanying cup or two of saké.