Japanese restaurants in London, especially those serving sushi and sashimi, tend to be expensive. Unfortunately, the more reasonably priced ones usually aren’t very good either <cough, Yo Sushi, cough>. An exception to this rule is Ten Ten Tei, a small restaurant in Soho on Brewer Street. The place has a ramshackle, threadbare look to it. I find it oddly charming, but even if you don’t it’s worth putting up with given the good quality of the food available.
I’ve been to Ten Ten Tei countless times over the years. On a few occasions, I’ve eaten with a gaggle of my dining companions. However, there are times when I only desire my own company and Ten Ten Tei is a good place to do so. Singular diners can sit at the bar and eat in peace, surrounded only by other parties of one to either side. There are few things more self-consciously isolating than sitting by yourself at a table for two.
If you’re an old hand at the raw fish game, the sushi and sashimi can be ordered a la carte. If you’re a newcomer, or are simply feeling a little lazy, you can order one of the keenly priced platters of sushi, sashimi or a mixture of the two. There are also some set lunches/dinners which are essentially bento boxes without the box.
I usually prefer to pick and mix from the a la carte menu. The quality of the fish has remained remarkably, consistently good over the years from the strongly flavoured salty tang of the mackerel to the delicate, soft, creaminess of the scallops to the buttery flavour of the salmon. The rolls of rice haven’t been overlooked either – they hold together very well with a dab of wasabi on top. The short grain rice has just right the level of fluffiness – neither too soft nor too hard.
I’m also a big fan of the inari sushi. The fried, wrinkled yet pleasingly supple tofu wrapped around a roll of rice is delicately sweet. Don’t go overboard with the wasabi though – judging from the coarse texture and the intense nasal burning if you use too much of it, it’s almost certainly the real stuff and not a poor imitation made from horseradish.
Another favourite tofu dish of mine is the agedashi tofu. Ten Ten Tei’s version is just right – the thin, ever so slightly crispy crust gives way to the silky yet firm curd. The soya sauce adds just the right amount of sweet, slightly salty flavour – but don’t leave it to soak too long otherwise it becomes too soggy. I used to hate tofu, but the agedashi and inari tofu here turned me around.
To wet my whistle, I choose a drink which is rarely found even at other Japanese restaurants – calpico, or calpis as it’s known in Japan. This watery, sweet yet slightly acidic yogurt-like drink won’t be to everyone’s taste but I can’t get enough of it.
Japanese food isn’t all about raw fish though, so I went back to Ten Ten Tei on another night to indulge in some of the other dishes. I have yet to find the perfect gyoza dumplings, but Ten Ten Tei’s version comes pretty close. The paper thin skins are moist and slightly crispy at the same time. The pork filling would be bland and uninteresting though if it wasn’t for the hint of ginger.
The prawn tempura at Ten Ten Tei is far too oily for my taste. I much prefer the sweet potato tempura which is far more interesting in any case. The sweet, starchy flavour of the soft vegetable has been preserved beneath the soft, slightly crispy batter that’s neither too crunchy nor too oily.
Is sweet potato even a traditional Japanese ingredient? In this case, I don’t think it really matters.
A dish which you’ll either love or hate is natto, a dish of fermented soy beans. They’re gooey, sticky and very strongly flavoured – a tangy nuttiness is the best way I can think of to describe it. It’s very much an acquired taste – I love it!
A refreshing counterpart to the unmistakable natto and the relatively heavy tempura are a couple of futomaki rolls. Here, they usually consist of fish roe, avocado, egg and crab stick. They don’t taste particularly interesting, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing after the bold flavour of the natto.
Ten Ten Tei has an extensive selection of rice and noodle dishes. Some are decidedly better than others. For example, the inari soba isn’t bad, but you do feel slightly cheated by the small rectangle of inari tofu floating in an ocean of soup surrounded by soba noodles.
Far better value, as well as more interesting for the palate, is the yam and tempura crumb soba. I can’t remember the rather long Japanese name, but it’s one dish I have yet to find anywhere else. The white, grainy pureed yam is quite different from other root vegetables of the same name. It’s gooey and slightly salty. Mix it together with the crunchy tempura crumbs and the soba noodles and you have a tangy, addictively moreish comfort food that’s like a salve for the soul.
The hit-or-miss nature of choosing a winner from the large selection of rice and noodle dishes (and the similarly extensive list of starters) wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the equally erratic nature of the service.
If you’re lucky enough to be served by the middle-aged Japanese man or his glamourously young-looking wife/sister/accomplice then you’ll get friendly, helpful advice mixed with a healthy dollop of small talk if that’s your thing.
If you’re served by one of the young waitresses on the other hand, then be prepared for some seriously sulky service. It’s as if all the waitresses are actually trust fund kids going through their emo phase, but have been cut off from the family money and been pushed out into the harsh world of work by their exasperated parents. Perhaps the moody brats would be a little more helpful if they had to work for tips, rather than rely on the service charge.
Although you’ll find even better quality sushi and sashimi elsewhere in London, few of them will be as good value as Ten Ten Tei. Unlikely as it is to happen, I do wish the menu was pared down since the non-raw fish dishes can be just as good, but only if you know what to order. Combined with the erratic nature of the service, Ten Ten Tei just misses out on a full five-star rating. Four stars.
Name: Ten Ten Tei
Address: 56 Brewer Street, London, W1F 9TJ
Phone: 020 7287 1738
Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday. Lunch noon-15.00, dinner 18.00-22.00 (last orders 30 minutes before closing).
Total cost for one person including soft drinks: £20-25 approx. It’ll cost less if you’re not ordering sushi/sashimi or if you’re not as greedy as I am.