This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s London Guide
When I came to London in 2018, I had low expectations for food in general, let alone Japanese food. (It was one of the first pieces of advice I got from my friends in the UK.) However, I was pleasantly surprised by the evolution of the Japanese restaurant scene in the UK capital since then. You can still get disappointed if you don’t do enough research, but there are hidden gems between and behind the red brick buildings that serve excellent and sometimes creative Japanese cuisine. Here are five places I fell in love with.
12 New Quebec Street, London W1H 7RW
Good for: Formal business dinner or special occasion
Not so good for: If you’re in a talkative mood
for your information: Open Tuesday to Saturday for dinner. In addition to the main dining room, it has a private dining room (up to six people)
If you are looking for a Japanese restaurant in London that is authentic in every way, this is it. When I first visited Roketsu shortly after it opened in late 2021, I felt like I was back in Japan. As it was not easy to travel during the pandemic, the feeling of being at home, albeit short-lived, meant a lot to me and my family.
Upon arrival at Marylebone Restaurant, a five-minute walk from Marble Arch Subway Station, you are greeted with a welcome cup of sake or Japanese tea upon entering the main dining room for 10 people. The elegant yet simple interior was crafted in Kyoto and shipped to London, then assembled by craftsmen from Nakamura Sotoji Komuten, one of the world’s leading experts in traditional Sukiya architecture.
The meticulous attention to detail is also evident in the 10-course kaiseki menu (£190 per person) prepared by chef/owner Daisuke Hayashi, who trained at the renowned Kikunoi restaurant in Kyoto. He prides himself on being true to Japanese aesthetics and not compromising himself or his food to please Western tastes.
Prepared in front of you as you sip sake or tea, the dishes flow before you like a smooth river, not too fast, but at the right pace. Beautifully presented, each one is a dizzying array of flavors and textures. The restaurant has an unusual wine cellar if you choose to pair the wine. However, I can vouch for alcohol-free pairing. My only advice to guests: when asked if you’re willing to pay a little extra for Wagyu instead of Scottish beef, go for Wagyu! You will not regret.
The menu changes monthly to express the freshness and seasonality of local ingredients. The last time I was in mid-February, we ate among other traditional sushi called Eho-maki, which is believed to bring good luck if eaten in the lucky direction of the year (south-south-east in 2023).
Three types of sake and wine pairings are available (£95 – £200 per person) as well as a non-alcoholic pairing (£75 per person).
10-12 Bloomberg Arcade London EC4N 8AR
Good for: Lunch or simple dinner
Not so good for: Reservations (lunchtime)
for your information: Open daily, 11:30-22:30 (21:30 on Sundays). There are two other Koya branches (in Soho and Hackney) each offering a slightly different menu
Located near the Bank of England in Bloomberg Arcade, Koya is one of my favorite lunch spots in town. In my opinion, most Japanese noodle bars in London, be it ramen or udon, are not of consistent quality. Koya, which opened its first branch in Soho in 2010, has never let me down in this respect. Thick, chewy udon noodles are freshly made each morning and served al dente with your choice of toppings.
Choose from four combinations of udon and dashi broth: atsu-atsu (hot udon in hot broth), hiya-atsu (cold udon with hot broth), hiya-hiya (cold udon with cold dipping sauce) and hiyashi udon (cold udon with cold dipping sauce).
While many of the udon on the menu are traditional Sanuki style, Koya has also come up with a unique udon that can only be found here. One example is lamb miso with cumin hiyashi (cold udon with minced lamb with miso with cumin and herbs) and I have become a huge fan of it. I recommend adding a poached egg as an extra layer to make the bowl even richer.
Izakaya-style small plates are also worth trying. My best choice is kakuni (stewed pork belly with cider) which is so tender and tasty.
73 Heath Street, London NW3 6UG
Good for: Gathering for a group of friends or family
Not so good for: It’s a bit far from central London and hard to get a reservation
for your information: Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner
At the foot of Hampstead Heath, a stone’s throw from Hampstead Underground Station, is this cozy Japanese restaurant known for its quality yakitori skewers and sushi. “We only use fresh ingredients that we buy during the day at the markets,” says Atsushi Matsumoto, who has owned the restaurant with a business partner since the early 1990s.
Last year they expanded the space by combining the former boutique next door. However, it’s still hard to find a table as it’s very popular with North Londoners with discerning palates. In fact, Atsushi-san initially declined to appear in this article, saying that he wanted to focus on serving the locals. (Fortunately, he later changed his mind.)
If I can secure a seat, I prefer to sit at the counter around the charcoal grill. There, you can watch the chefs in action as you enjoy a set of grilled skewers, including minced chicken meatball, fresh green asparagus with pork and king prawns. Hamachi kama (grilled yellow jaw with salt) and sakana nanban (sea bass, sea bream and salmon deep fried and marinated in vegetables and vinegar), two other favorites of mine, go very well with a bottle of Japanese beer or a cup of sake.
And don’t forget the uniquely prepared and presented sushi. I usually end my lunch or dinner with toro taku (chopped fatty tuna with yellow pickle roll) and nameko-jiru (miso fish soup with mushrooms, grated radish and spring onions).
Unit 1, Dorrington House, 9-15 Leather Lane, London EC1N 7ST
Good for: Informal dinner with colleagues or friends
Not so good for: Official business dinner
for your information: Open Monday to Friday for lunch; Tuesday-Saturday for dinner
Tucked away in the alleys of Holborn, Mugen is a casual Japanese restaurant offering affordable but tasty izakaya-style food and drinks. If you arrive on a weekday evening, you’ll likely find tables full of Japanese expats who work in the city. While more and more City restaurants expect you to leave after a few hours, Mugen invites anyone to stay as long as they like. “I wanted to create an oasis for Japanese expats who want to enjoy their food and drink longer,” says Hiroshi Matsuda, the owner of Mugen, who also came to London in the early 1990s as an expat.
Much like the typical izakaya in Japan, Mugen has over 100 dishes – large and small – on the menu, including a variety of sushi and bento. Saba (mackerel) sushi, which uses salted and vinegar mackerel from Norway, is its signature dish and a must. My favorites are also chicken namban (fried chicken with sweet and sour and tartar sauce) and toban gyoza (baked gyoza dumplings).
The staff is friendly and the service is attentive. No wonder people return to Mugen again and again (myself included).
32 Haven Green Ealing, London W5 2NX and 5 New Row, London WC2N 4LH
Good for: Tea or take away breakfast/lunch
Not so good for: Always busy
for your information: Open daily except some holidays
When I’m craving something sweet, the first thing that comes to my mind is WA. This Japanese patisserie opened its first store in West London near Ealing Broadway tube station in 2014. It quickly became popular with the Japanese and other Asians in the area. But it’s not over. They now have a second branch in Covent Garden and will soon open a third in Marylebone this summer.
My all-time favorite is Mont Blanc. Digging into a snowy mountain of rich chestnut cream to find the candied chestnut inside is a delight. Matcha roll and matcha tiramisu are also recommended, although choosing between the two is never easy.
If you’re craving something savory, WA offers a great selection of breads, rolls and sandwiches. Grabbing katsu chicken sandwiches and baked veggie curry buns is always a good idea if you’re going on a picnic.
The author is the CEO of Nikkei-FT Partnership, Nikkei Europe and former Nikkei correspondent
This article is part of a collaboration between FT and Nikkei that sees Nikkei journalists and correspondents write about their favorite Japanese restaurants in cities around the world. Next up: the best Japanese food in NYC
Cartography and Development: Serena Chan, Mark Limb, Kristo Mikkonen and Ændra Rininsland
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