From ramen bars to Thai barbecue, Taiwanese street food to Chinese gastropubs, London is having an Asian food love-in. Now the spotlight is on Japanese izakayas – translation: ‘the roof with alcohol’. Once the post-work watering holes for businessmen who would pop in for ‘beers and sticks’, they have evolved into a mainstay of casual, inexpensive drinking and dining, and the trend is booming in London.
“For too long Japanese food has been considered a treat – a clean night out with immaculately presented food and green tea, or a carafe of sake at the most,” says Natalie Lee-Joe, co-owner of Jidori - one of the hotly-anticipated izakaya-style openings coming to the capital.
“Wander down the narrow streets of Tokyo and you’ll find a totally different experience. Izakayas are filled to the brim with workers unwinding, drinking mugs of beer, shochu or sake, whilst snacking on yakitori and edamame. The drinks, the food, the service are all rough and ready but so much fun. Everyone is friendly, your stool is touching your neighbours, your waiter-cum-cook is right in front of you and everything is ordered to share. Being a foreigner in Japan, you can feel quite distanced – izakayas break down all those barriers.”
So where can you try Japan’s answer to the Great British pub? SL have hunted down eleven London-based casual dining spots that go well beyond sushi.
An Islington institution, Akari is based on an authentic Japanese pub and is the perfect place to pop in for after-work (or late night) gyoza, sweet miso-marinated aubergine or salmon sashimi.
Beer & Buns
This pop-up take on the trend has been so popular it now has a permanent outpost in Shoreditch. With the UK's largest range of Japanese craft beer, incredibly crispy Korean-style jumbo chicken wing and soft, pillow-like steamed 'Hirata' buns filled with a choice of delicious fillings, it’s not hard to see why. Just head to No. 3 Appold Street and look for the flashing neon sign in the window to spy this secret munch spot.
Flesh & Buns
Credited with introducing the izakaya model to London, Ross Shonhan’s Flesh & Buns serves up everything from fried squid to crispy piglet belly with mustard miso and pickled apple in dinky sharing plates, much like the Spanish tapas concept. With the aim to inject humour and a not-so-serious way of eating into the capital’s restaurants, we’re big fans of its rock music soundtrack, moody low lighting and some of the fastest (gua bao) buns in town.
Natalie Lee-Joe and Brett Redman (of The Richmond in Hackney) are the creative brains behind this new yakitori opening in Dalston. With the aim to “bring the warmth, conviviality and casual element of Japanese lifestyle to London”, Jidori delivers on its promise with chicken skewers traditionally grilled over open coals, inventive Japanese small plates and rice dishes, and a selection of craft beers, whiskies and sake. With its minimalist-yet-intimate vibe and wood and brass accents, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were on the notorious Memory Lane in Shinjuku – home to copious yakitori bars. Opens Autumn 2015.
Ex-Nobu Head Chef Scott Hallsworth “wanted to set-up an izakaya for the mass market” and he has very much succeeded with Kurobuta, a great Western iteration of the Japanese institution. Adding Asian junk food to the mix with dishes like sashimi pizza (delicious when washed down with frozen tankard beer), his menu also includes other highlights like soft-shell crab, Jerusalem artichoke chopsticks and many other umami-rich snacks designed for sharing.