190 Strand, London WC2
Where do they all come from? The new world lotus eaters, I mean, gilded denizens of those high- end, bespoke-designed, concierge-serviced, swimming pool- and gym-packing luxury lifestyle penthouses that are sprouting up around the capital like a brushed granite plague. Is this the new utopia, guarded, gated and reassuringly expensive? Or mere Ballardian dystopia, filled with despots and dictators, kleptocrats, conmen and non-doms?
I only ask because I’ve yet to meet someone, anyone, who actually lives in one of these places. Barely a day goes past when I don’t stumble into some entirely new square or plaza. Like the newly minted, yet eerily empty St James’s Market, home of the wonderful Ikoyi. Or 190 Strand, ‘a flagship development by St Edward, offering a range of bespoke apartments and penthouses. Located on the world-famous Strand, this new iconic landmark will be closely linked to the richest aspects of London living’. Richest being the operative word.
190 Strand is home to Yen, a new Japanese restaurant that specialises in soba noodles made fresh, each day, in a small, ‘bespoke’ glass walled box
Tuna nigiri (left); Tempura, of prawn and courgette flower, is flawless (right)
But 190 Strand is also home to Yen, a new Japanese restaurant that specialises in soba noodles made fresh, each day, in a small, ‘bespoke’ glass walled box. The room, flooded with natural light, is cavernous, and stealthily lavish, with acres of marble, thrusting bamboo, and entire forests of discreetly blond maple. There’s an open kitchen, where Japanese chefs toil with quiet intensity, and a sushi bar, and softly lit paper panels, decorated with Hokusai-like clouds.
Menus are clad in finest French leather, chopstick holders are burnished and heavy, and entire armies of black-suited staff glide elegantly across the polished floor. You don’t have to open the menu to work out that this place ain’t going to be cheap. Yet annoyingly tinkling muzak aside, it’s one hell of a room. It whispers, rather than shouts, its high-end credentials. With service that manages to be both slick and charming.
Then there’s the food. I’ve been twice, the first time with a Japanese-obsessed friend, the second with my editor at Esquire, and a couple of restaurateur mates. All of them know their o toro from their chu toro, and all were very, very impressed. ‘It reminds me of a place in Kyoto,’ says Mark of the tofu and wakame salad. ‘A place that only served home-made tofu.’ It’s that good. Here, the tofu is also home-made, still warm, with a creamy, earthy depth. You get the slightly saline bite of the seaweed and a sharp, ponzu hit from a spuma-like dressing. And that wonderful, blessed tofu, which shows one quite how lovely this much maligned bean curd can be.
Sushi and sashimi are flawless, as good as I’ve eaten in London. Hell, their sea urchin nigiri could hold its head up high in Japan, at once rich and filthily lascivious, each grain of rice individually discernible and subtly vinagered. O toro and chu toro are beautifully cut, and blessedly buttery, and the wasabi is the real thing, freshly grated and gently pungent. Even the soy sauce has a silken purity that sets it apart from the norm.
FROM THE MENU
Tofu salad £14
Prawn tempura £14
Hot soba and duck £16
Salmon sashimi £6
Sea urchin sushi £17
Tempura, of prawn and courgette flower, is flawless, the golden batter crisped mid-drip, so it’s worn like the most diaphanous of slips. There’s no grease, just three sublime mouthfuls that encapsulate this Portuguese-born art. Seb agrees. Alex agrees. Mark and Russell agree. They’re equally adept at the robata grill too. Eel has chewily crisp skin, and fantastically fatty, sweet, unmuddy flesh. Just like everything else at Yen, the devil is in the tiniest of details. These are all classic Japanese dishes, exquisitely executed.
Last, but so obviously not least, are those home-made soba, bouncy and pert, with a subtle buckwheat tang. They arrive in a basket, cold first, dipped into the most lithe and lovely of dashi rich sauces. Then hot, with slices of pink duck, and another dish, with scallops and seaweed. We revel in that springy texture, guzzling with merry aplomb. Once you’re done, they fill up your cup with the water in which they were boiled, so you have one last glorious slurp. You could come here for the noodles alone, but then you’d miss everything else. Throw in a huge sake list, and the most knowledgeable of sommeliers, plus a kitchen that somehow manages to master everything from sushi and sashimi to tempura, robata and soba, and you have a true Japanese star.
Sashimi platter. Sushi and sashimi are flawless, as good as I’ve eaten in London
It’s not cheap. Of course it’s not. But hell, rob a bank, flog a kidney, sell the kids into slavery. Because this is without doubt the best across-the-board Japanese food I’ve eaten in London. After the overpriced, underlit horrors of the new Nobu Hotel, this is as delicate and decorous as a geisha’s sigh. Truly, I yearn for Yen.
Lunch for two: about £160
What Tom ate this week
Christmas lunch in London. Pint or two at local pub, then roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes. Crackers but no Christmas pudding. Thank god.
Down to my mother’s. Lunch of cold beef, turkey, ham, potted shrimps and baked potatoes. Pudding of Quality Street, Heroes and Celebrations.
Over to my Aunt’s, in Lambourne, for my father’s birthday. Smoked salmon, good ham, tomato and mozzarella, and more crackers. Very civilised.
Back to London. Attempt restraint. Fail.