In March 2000, Yen opened up in the St Germain de Pres area of Paris, with a mission to provide perfect soba noodles to Parisians and Japanese living in the French capital.
The noodle gurus have brought their art to London in a stunning restaurant off The Strand in a space so smart it could be mistaken for a concept design store – high up on the walls, different shades of maple wood slot together to form eye-catching features, the bespoke pale grey and maple chairs and tables are made by Italian designers, and instagrammers are already taking selfies on the wooden staircase.
It’s all very zen and lofty, however it does retain a welcoming, warm feel that some high-end Japanese restaurants lack. There’s a soft glow from the back-lit handmade Japanese paper that’s slotted between panels of maple wood on the walls above the open kitchen, and the backs of the chairs tilt back slightly for optimum comfort.
The smaller touches are there too – little bronze stands for chopsticks, leather bound parchment menus that look like wedding invites, and handmade Japanese crockery in all shapes and sizes.
As with many Japanese restaurants, the menu can be a little overwhelming at first glance, with sections for sushi, noodles and rice dishes as well as the usual starters and mains. However here you can opt for an ‘omakase’ menu chosen by the chef, otherwise the informed staff are happy to advise on dishes.
We began with a couple of starters – super silky homemade tofu mousse, whipped until it veered into angel delight territory, mixed with dashi sauce, fresh ginger and spring onions for little bursts of flavour, and lightly seared salmon marinated in ginger and citrus, topped with tiny drops of egg yolk, plum sauce and a single fried crunchy caper, served with crisp squares of deep-fried salmon skin and grassy pea shoots. We also tried super light and crisp courgette flower and courgette baton tempura before moving on to our mains.
Black cod was marinated in sweeter saikyo miso, served with squid ink chips and edamame soya beans, and French black chicken was marinated for four hours in red miso and then chargrilled on the robata grill, creating a stunning combination of super plump and juicy flesh with a sweet, smoky char, complemented with super fine mashed potato mixed with umami dashi.
There’s a cedar wood counter where you can watch the chef prepare sushi and sashimi. Head sushi chef Akinori Yasuda has been crafting sushi in Japan and London for 20 years, including six years at Zuma, so it’s a treat to watch him moulding little handfuls of rice and slithers of sparklingly fresh fish. Our selection of five nigiri included tuna, salmon, scallop, squid and sea bass, the first three super soft and fresh, but the latter a little less.
Desserts scored much higher than a lot of Japanese restaurants, with inventive and indulgent choices including a thick yuzu and white chocolate mousse (like a Japanese cheesecake) with an intense yellow layer of yuzu jelly and a whipped yuzu cream on top. If you’ve got plenty of room left, go for the wagashi dessert, like a sundae of Japanese ingredients – mochi rice cake, black sesame ice cream, peanutty red bean sorbet, matcha yogurt and whipped cream with a crunchy caramel twist.
We finished with a sloe gin-like plum liqueur mixed with white wine served on the rocks, and there is a fantastic selection of Japanese nikkas for whisky drinkers. Our food was paired with sakes, including a sparkling sake from Hyogo in south west Japan that was presented on ice in a beautiful wooden box, but is only 5% alcohol so drivers can still treat themselves to an aperitif.
There’s an extensive wine list, specialising in Burgundy grapes. This may seem surprising for a Japanese restaurant, but considering its original location in Paris, the sommeliers are well educated/practiced in French wines.
Menu must-order at Yen
The soba noodles are handmade twice daily in a small glass room in the middle of the restaurant. Head in at 5.30pm to watch noodle guru Katsuki Sakurai or Maruno Hidenori roll freshly ground buckwheat dough (imported from Japan and ground in house on a traditional stone mill) to 1.2mm thick, before folding and finely chopping. This is a true art form, and both trained with the soba master Takahashi Kunihiro in Yamanashi, Japan, before becoming soba masters themselves.
The soba noodles (80% buckwheat) are served hot or cold with a variety of toppings (tempura, duck, scallops). The springy noodles were extremely delicate in flavour (we were recommended cold to appreciate the fresh nuttiness), enhanced with a stone mug of dashi broth, punchy fresh wasabi and spring onion. We were advised to dip noodles in the sauce and then slurp up noisily to release the flavour (evidently, it’s not rude to slurp in Japan). Once we finished our basket of noodles, our waiter brought over a teapot of nutrient-rich noodle water to mix with the remaining sauce and sip on. Very comforting.
Skip the blanched spinach with carrot and ginger mousse, as it had an odd and unbalanced mixture of textures.