IN AUSTRALIA I have five favourite Japanese restaurants. There’s one for fancy occasions; polished teak wood, elaborate Japanese specialities and real hand painted ceramic teacups. There’s the sushi train Japanese, for the casual lunch. Here they yell “sumimasen” loudly as they efficiently chop, slice and plate up dish after dish of avocado handrolls and pork gyoza that trundle past you as you sit poised with your chopsticks waiting for variety.
The other three? They’re my local Japanese, in each of the areas I have lived over the years. You know the type of place — small, friendly, uniformly similar menus with all the classics, and three generations of one Japanese family dishing up authentic and reasonably priced dishes from behind a blue parted curtain.
My favourite local wormed its way to the top because of its unexpected location next to a Pancake Parlour in the middle of a bus interchange, and its hand drawn pictures of the entire menu decorating the walls. Coloured loosely with crayon, like the third generation had drawn them at school to proudly advertise the wares, they match the food itself — warm, comforting and genuine.
Now, having moved to London, I am bereft of a Japanese local. I have tried gyoza in Camden, eaten katsu in Notting Hill and wrestled with ramen in Islington. And yet, I still haven’t found anywhere with the consistency and comfort of Japanese at home.
Perhaps the key is to stop trying to find an exact replacement, and take each Japanese restaurant for what it is. Case in point, Satsuma, in Soho. It was perhaps unrealistic to think a two leveled restaurant in the midst of the busy heart of Soho would provide the same sense of familiarity and welcome as a neighbourhood local.
No, with Satsuma, it is a place to come before heading out. Before seeing a show, or a comedy act. A perfect place perhaps for a night out with friends, secluded in your own orange booth under dim lights, making the most of deliciously strong apple martinis and plum wines. In these circumstances, the food is the sideshow, not the main event.
That’s not to say it’s not good. The edamame, gyoza, and mixed tempura all tick the right boxes. The tempura is lightly battered and crispy, the salmon and chicken gyoza deliciously fresh and the edamame comes in a generous serve.
On the other hand, the agedashi tofu, normally a favourite back home, is unappealing called a tofu ‘steak’, and comes out much like it sounds. A slab of wobbly tofu that doesn’t allow its accompanying sauce to improve its fairly bland taste.
The Bento Box epitomizes the experience. Traditional Japanese ingredients, with an attempt at a contemporary twist. It is an assorted set meal with a number of inclusions depending on your order, including chicken yakitori, salmon sashimi, seafood salad and crispy prawn with kaffir wrapping. There is a lot going on in one place, and not all of it quite works. The sashimi hits the mark — fresh, generous slices, and the crispy prawn is an unusual surprise. The seafood salad, on the other hand, would have been best left out of the equation.
It only serves to reinforce there are many different types of Japanese. Satsuma might not ever be your neighbourhood local but then again, it’s not trying to be. Without this expectation, you may be pleasantly surprised. At the very least, you will be in for a fun night out.
Satsuma Japanese Restaurant, 56 Wardour Street, Soho W1D 4JG London. See www.osatsuma.com.