Anyone who is a fan of kitsch kitchen accessories and garish Japanese packaging should make a beeline to the Japan Centre in London. Hidden up an escalator, just off Piccadilly, is a whole floor of shelves stuffed with brightly coloured foil packaging, Japanese bento box accessories, and a section dedicated to fresh sushi, sashimi and delicious takeaway gyozas and Japanese dishes.
So, we expected great things when we heard that Tak Tokumine, who founded Japan Centre in 1976, was bringing one of the special dishes from his hometown of Hakata, Japan, to New Oxford Street: the udon noodle.
Pushing through the large glass doors, customers are welcomed in to Ichiryu Hakata Udon House in true Japanese style with the whole restaurant staff yelling “irasshaimase”, meaning literally “come in”. The set up isn’t formal, more Pret A Manger than Ichiryu’s cosy sister restaurant, Shoryu Ramen. Order your food at a counter and grab drinks and snacks from the various display cabinets, then sit at one of the wooden tables in the sleek, contemporary dining area set up at one side of the restaurant.
The offering is Japanese fast food, specialising in thick, chewy udon noodles made fresh at the front of the restaurant. Peer through the hatch to watch a dedicated chef perform the meticulous process of making the speciality noodles: kneading menishin udon flour dough, tightly wrapping in cling film before it’s placed fridge to maintain moisture, and then rolling out using a hand-wound machine.
The menu is split into hot and cold udon, with various toppings, sides and rice bowls available. The hot prawn tempura udon is an umami-rich tsuyu bonito soup made with kombu seaweed and topped with uber-light prawn tempura and fresh spring onions. Tonkotsu with BBQ pork amd ontama soft-poached egg (translated as hot springs egg after the ancient tradition of cooking eggs whole in Japan’s warm water springs) in a rich pork broth is heartier.
Light and fluffy hirata buns are extremely popular in London, and Ichiryu’s Hakata buns, named after the region its cuisine comes from, are served in the Japanese way with slow-cooked BBQ pork and Japanese mayo in a bamboo steamer. Choose a selection of reasonably priced onigiri – rice wrapped in nori and filled with spicy salmon, grilled mackerel and Japanese vegetables. For something a bit lighter and more refreshing try cold udon noodles with tsuyu bonito soup made from dashi soup stock, soy sauce, mirin and sugar.
We recommend uniquely textured mochi for dessert – glutinous rice cakes moulded into ice-cream-like balls. A selection of three offers the best of Japanese flavours – black sesame, yuzu and matcha tea.
Matcha latte, Japanese green teas and a good selection of sakes are available to pick up from the cabinets. Gekkeikan Nama Sake from Kyoto is dry and refreshing and Nigori sake is cloudy with a fruity aroma.
When you’re done, pop down the road to the Japan Centre to stock up on crockery and ingredients to recreate dishes at home!
Written by Alex Crossley
First published March 2016
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