Yen in Aldwych: Wonderful soba noodles and a dazzling sushi bar
There’s an exciting, often unspoken rivalry between the London and Parisian food scenes, something that many would have laughed about up until 15 years ago. The British capital turned around its bad reputation thanks to an influx of Europeans – diners and cooks – and a new wave of British chefs, usually trained in Spain, Denmark and France, who were inspired by the success of culinary giants Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay. London made multiculturalism its secret weapon: the Indian, Thai, Chinese and Peruvian restaurants on offer are the very best you can find in a foreign city. And the Japanese? That’s where the rivalry gets particularly interesting. Paris boasts a unique integration between Nipponese chefs and local gastronomy: from udon bars to michelin-starred eateries, the quality and authenticity are impressive. On our side of the channel, though, we have Europe’s only three-michelin-starred Japanese restaurant (sadly its globally revered sushi master Mitsuhiro Araki is moving back to Tokyo this month). The gap is closing.
Yen, located in Aldwych, is the sister restaurant to Paris’ place of the same name. The concept is clear: easygoing fine-dining that suits workers from the city as well as people looking for good food. It’s not a boring bankers place, it’s cool and convincingly Japanese. Tonight the clientele, save for a couple of traders, are all natives – a very good sign.
We sit close to the kitchen and begin to read through the menus, including an extensive one for daily specials. The best and more fun thing to do seems to be mixing the cuisine’s different styles: tempura, sushi and noodle soups. The latter is actually one of the strengths of Yen: they have a soba room where their “master of soba”-trained chef Kasuki Sakurai prepares buckwheat noodles every day.
Often, we look up, envying those sitting at the very pretty sushi bar.
We start with the Fresh Oysters with Ponzu Foam and two cocktails: a Ki No Bi Martini (basically a gin martini with a bit of sake) and the herbal, yuzu-infused Pacific Heatwave (gin-based, too). The oyster is quite spectacular and the non-invasive fruitiness of the ponzu goes well with the cocktail.
The sashimi creation of the day elegantly – from both a visual and flavour standpoint – juxtaposes thin-sliced turbot with cucumber, tosazu jelly, squid ink chips and pomegranate. It’s a dish that calls for dry, smooth sake. We have some ginjo (it’s a premium classification, meaning at least 40% of the rice must be polished away) from Koshi no Kanbai, Vanishing Points, produced in the Niigata region, famous for their clean and refined taste. The pairing is a success. With the tempura mix – lightly done, not oily – we drink Sapporo beer.
The sushi is where Yen prove their mastery. First the fish: from the tuna – both the akami (lean) and otoro (fattier portion) – to the yellowtail and salmon, each piece is a joy for the palate. The rice is properly seasoned, not too sticky/compact; the nigiris come with soy sauce and a little brush to avoid the “bad-mannered” dipping attitude. The makis are perhaps a little more standard but nevertheless very good.
Onto the hot dishes. We go for a piece of wagyu beef – from Hida cattle, which some prefer to Kobe, rated A5 (A, the best yield; 5, the best quality) – cooked over a magnolia leaf. While the leaf adds great flavour, the rest of the dressing overpowers the delicacy of this wonderful meat, defeating the purposes of sourcing and serving produce so refined.
The soba soup is fantastic and a very good reason to pay another visit very soon. The noodles are fine and hearty; their sharpness beautifully inhabits the intense clear broth of dashi and soy. The duck perfectly matches the mood of the dish. There are also two wooden boxes with spices to add: we try them both – one is spicier, the other yuzu-based – and they fittingly enhance the flavour. It’s also entertaining to play with them.
Japanese cuisine is notoriously not famous for desserts, but the restaurant’s twists on European classics – cheesecake with yuzu and fondant with matcha ice cream – are certainly enjoyable. We also give a go to the soba ice cream, which is a discovery.
Yen deliver on their promise of offering a fine-dining experience and traditional handmade soba; they offer a more authentic approach than West London places like Zuma and Nobu, attracting a more food-oriented crowd with whom to share the evening. As for the rivalry between Paris and London over the Land of the Rising Sun’s cuisine, we might be a little behind but they’d better keep an eye on the wing mirror.
★★★★★Food ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Drinks ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Service ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor
Photos: Filippo L’Astorina
To book a table at Yen, 190 Strand, 5 Arundel St, London WC2R 3DX, call 020 3915 6976 or visit their website here.