Piccadilly Japanese is just going through the motions
There’s a curious glut of Japanese restaurants on Lower Regent Street, a short walk away from Piccadilly Circus. If you have a lot of money, the hilariously small branch of Japanese department store chain Mitsukoshi has its own high-priced restaurant. If you’re on a budget, then the Japan Centre supermarket has a couple of tables and a take away counter where you can nosh on cheap eats. If you’re superficial and easily impressed, then there’s a branch of Inamo. If you’re petrified by the very idea of Japanese food, then there’s a branch of slop shovellers Itsu. Then there’s Toku.
Toku is a mid-priced restaurant from the folks behind the Japan Centre. The decor is pleasant enough, although not especially remarkable. The service won’t win any marks for warmth or friendliness and the busier it gets, then the less attentive the service becomes. Although it serves up everything from sushi to ramen and Japanese curries, its proclaimed speciality is tempura. Since it’s within spitting distance of one of my safe houses, I had the opportunity to try a fairly broad cross section of its menu.
First things first
A fairly broad assortment of seafood and vegetable tempura is available at Toku and on my first visit I had a grab bag of scallop, prawn and fish tempura. The quality of the seafood was generally impressive – highlights included the firm, dense and buttery scallops as well as the fresh prawns. The batter was smooth, crisp and free from excess oil, but not especially fluffy or light which was a worrying development given that tempura is supposed to be Toku’s signature dish.
The Lensman was nonplussed by the tonkotsu ramen. The noodles were firm, but there wasn’t much pork and the broth lacked the startling depth of flavour found in Tonkotsu’s version. The dish was instead dominated by the taste of seaweed which wasn’t surprising given the huge amounts of the stuff floating around in the broth.
My barbecue pork miso ramen was a little better. The noodles were firm and accompanied by lots of smoky chargrilled pork, but the meat doesn’t have the same fatty, salty savouriness found in the equivalent dishes at Ittenbari and Tonkotsu. Toku’s ramen chefs clearly like shovelling in seaweed where they can as there’s yet another healthy dollop here. An interesting touch was the addition of pickled radish and ginger.
Toku’s ice creams are surprisingly good. The green tea flavour actually tastes of green tea without being too weak, too strong or too sickly – it’s just right. The chestnut ice cream is an oddity, but in a good way – it has a toffee-like flavour with a slight bitterness underlying its tangy sweetness.
I chose to wash my meal down with an unusual-sounding green tea-flavoured latte. It was refreshing and the green tea taste was distinctive without being too overwhelming, but the coffee itself isn’t very strong.
Going back for seconds
Tempura may be Toku’s alleged speciality, but it has also a sizeable section of its menu devoted to ‘dynamic sushi’ which is, as far as I can tell, Westernised sushi in the vein of California rolls with little in the way of actual raw fish. The Dragon rolls have a filling of avocado and prawns and each roll is then topped with teriyaki eel. It isn’t bad, although the dish suffers from the eel lacking a crispy layer of skin and the flesh is rather bland too.
The Tower of London rolls are filled with avocado and prawn and then topped with a minced mixture of squid, prawns, scallops and tobiko. The entire tottering structure is then dressed with a mild wasabi mayonnaise. It’s hard to make out any of the individual ingredients though – it all just blends together into a salty, creamy mélange that’s not especially satisfying or interesting.
Soft shell crab is popular fodder for tempura and it’s not hard to see why – it’s soft with a creamy taste that somehow survives the rigours of deep frying. It’s a shame that the batter is, yet again, rather uninteresting but at least it’s not too oily.
Combining ice cream with mochi, a traditional Japanese dessert, could have been an unmitigated disaster but at Toku it works reasonably well. The sticky rice flour wrappings weren’t soft and pliable with a slight chewy edge as they should have been but were instead a touch too tough and rubbery. The ice cream fillings were satisfyingly refreshing and tasty though from the distinctly flavoured green tea variety to the zesty, sweet yuzu and the nutty, peppery black sesame.
Third time’s the charm?
I was seriously famished on my third visit to Toku. I started off with the pork and vegetable gyoza. The skins were soft and not too flimsy. The meat filling was satisfying although it also had a slightly bitter undertone to it while the addition of chives made them resemble Chinese jiaoti dumplings. The mildly spicy dipping sauce was pleasing with a throat tickling kick to it. They’re pretty decent gyoza overall, although they’re not nearly as good as the gyoza available at Tonkotsu.
The assorted nigiri sushi was competent if unremarkable and consisted of boiled prawn, salmon, tamago omelette, octopus, grilled eel and some rather bland tuna and yellowtail. The tamago could also have done with a few extra licks of mirin. Compared to Ten Ten Tei, Toku’s sushi isn’t as tasty or as good value.
Large chunks of fresh poultry are used in the chicken karaage, but the battered coating is rather stodgy and there’s only a small hint of ginger in it. Most of the flavour comes instead from the sweet and tart vinegar-based dipping sauce which bore a passing resemblance to katsu curry sauce. A slightly underwhelming dish of two halves, especially when compared to Tonkotsu’s rather splendid version of the same dish.
Brownie purists may regard Toku’s green tea brownie with a certain amount of horror, but I found it surprisingly tasty. It has a well-balanced texture that’s a little chewy and a little crumbly and it has that distinct taste of green tea. It’s paired with the bitter toffee-like flavours of the chestnut ice cream and the two compliment each other well.
Go fourth and multiply
Chicken katsu curry is great comfort food and Toku’s version is pretty good. Although I would’ve preferred plumper chunks of chicken, the meat is perfectly edible and is coated in a thin, crisp crumb. The pickled peppers provided a slightly sharp kick. The thin chip shop-style curry sauce is sweet although it lacks the pepperiness of Ten Ten Tei’s more satisfying version.
The quality of the chestnut ice cream is nothing if not consistent – it’s still as good as ever.
It was a mistake to wash it all down with the chilled green tea. It had a strangely sharp, acidic taste and a very odd oiliness to it that was very unpleasant and hard to swallow.
Toku isn’t bad but of all the dishes I tried, none were especially noteworthy and better versions are available elsewhere. Tonkotsu is far better for ramen and gyoza while Ten Ten Tei is the place to go for katsu curry and reasonably priced quality sushi.
It’s also difficult to figure out who Toku is aimed at. It’s a little too pricy for those on a budget, it’s not good enough for serious aficionados, but its menu is a little too large and the staff a little too scatty for the place to serve as an accessible potted introduction to Japanese cuisine for novices. In other words, unless you are really stuck, just go somewhere else.
Address: 16 Regent Street, London SW1Y 4PH
Phone: 020 3405 1222
Opening Hours: Monday-Wednesday noon-21.45. Thursday-Saturday noon-22.00. Sunday noon-20.45
Reservations: probably a good idea.
Total cost for one person inc drinks: £20-25 approx – £43 approx if you’re ordering sushi or you’re a glutton like me