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Toby Young
Friday 10th October 2003

Kikuchi

ES Magazine - 10th October 2003

by Toby Young

You won't find Kikuchi mentioned in any of the guides. It's so far off the radar screen, you'd be hard pushed to notice it even you walked straight past, which you might well have done if you've been to Hakkasan. Situated in a hole in the wall on Hanway Street, Kikuchi is just about the most unostentatious restaurant I've ever been to. From the outside it looks like a greasy spoon and from the inside it looks like storage locker. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it resembles the famous cupboard in Nobu where Boris Becker sired his lovechild. Yet it may well be the best Japanese restaurant in London.

I was tipped off about Kikuchi by my friend Merryn Somerset Webb. Merryn is the founder and editor of a financial magazine, but she spent most of her 20s in Japan working for UBS Warburg. Like the vast majority of people who've lived in that country for any length of time, she returned to London with a raging addiction to the local cuisine and she's spent the last five years searching for the perfect fix. In Kikuchi she claims to have found it.

To begin with, it's completely authentic. Unlike fancier Japanese restaurants, the menu is completely free of Pacific influences. If you ask the owner and head chef, Masayuki Kikuchi, for a California roll, you're request will be met with an uncomprehending stare. Indeed, if you ask him for anything you'll get a blank look since he barely speaks a word of English. This is a restaurant for the Japanese purist and I wouldn't advise going there without a phrase book.

It also helps to know something about Japanese etiquette. A waitress brought me a hot towel as soon as I sat down and I immediately used it to wash my face. I noticed her repressing a giggle so I asked Merryn what I'd done wrong. She explained that in Tokyo a restaurant of this size will normally share the same laundry as the local hostess bar where hot towels are used for a very different purpose. Just in case of possible mix-ups, no Japanese person would ever consider letting one of these towels near his or her face.

I followed up my booboo by ordering edamame as a starter.

"Only a 'salary man' would do that," sniffed Merryn, using the Japanese term for a bridge-and-tunnel person. "Edamame is something you have while sipping a Soporo in a bar. The correct thing to order is miso soup."

Of course, it's hard to know what to eat first in a Japanese restaurant as authentic as this since everything you order will simply be plonked down in front of you as soon as it's ready. I tried to convey to my giggling waitress that I wanted to follow the edamame with some mixed tempura and, only when I'd finished that, did I want her to bring the chef's sushi selection. She nodded obligingly and, five minutes later, brought out the sushi.

I proceeded to horrify Merryn by asking for some wasabi to mix into the soy sauce--"It comes ready mixed, you plonker"--and then picking up a piece of sushi with my hand and dipping it into the sauce rice-side down. Apparently, no one outside central Tokyo dispenses with chopsticks and the correct way to dip a piece of sushi is rice-side up. Merryn tartly informed me that any Japanese person witnessing my table manners would conclude that I'd been born in a trailer park.

If you can navigate this minefield, though, Kikuchi really is the cat's whiskers--and, no, not even a 'salary man' would order them. When it comes to basic Japanese food this is about as good as it gets. The sushi was fresh, the tempura was nice and crisp and the miso soup was bursting with flavour, even if it did arrive 15 minutes after everything else.

"You're supposed to eat it last, you nerd," harrumphed Merryn. "Don't you know anything?"

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