I’m a big fan of meat, but I can respect the choice of vegetarians to avoid the bloody stuff. Two of my regular dining companions, the Prancing Hippy and the Flame Haired Squelchie, are vegetarians. Technically, the Hippy is a pescetarian as he does eat fish and other seafood – presumably they don’t deserve his mercy since they’re not as cute as lambs and piglets.
Finding quality vegetarian cuisine can be tricky. Finding quality vegetarian Japanese food in London is especially tricky, since any Japanese restaurant worth its salt uses dashi, a traditional cooking and soup stock often made from fish, in just about everything. I was therefore intrigued by Mushu, a relatively new Japanese restaurant in the Fitzrovia neighbourhood just north of the West End, that proudly displays green vegetarian V symbols next to several of its dishes on its menu.
The two vegetarians and I popped along on a quiet midweek evening to try Mushu out. Wicket, a carnivorous little creature, joined us to back me up since the menu caters for meat eaters too. Mushu has a very stark decor with white walls, subdued lighting and, depending on where you are seated, wooden stools or low-back wooden chairs. Although billed as an izakaya, it bears only a passing resemblance to the traditional Japanese eatery of the same name.
Bottled Asahi and cans of Tsingtao beer were lapped up by my alcohol-loving chums, but only a basic selection of sake is available which would’ve disappointed Bleeding Gums Murphy if he had been dining with us. As a non-boozer, I settled on the lemon iced tea and the soya bean drink, or Lipton’s and Yeo’s, as they’re known in the outside world.
The highlight of the evening for both myself and Wicket was undoubtedly the finely sliced slow cooked pork belly. The thin slices of meat were remarkably soft, yet full of salty, fatty goodness, and melted in the mouth.
Hello little piggy
Agedashi tofu is one of my favourite dishes, but I was disappointed by Mushu’s version. It had clearly been deep fried for too long as the outside was far too crispy and the interior had lost much of its firm yet silky texture. The flavour also seemed a little off which I suspect was due to the absence of dashi to make it vegetarian-friendly.
Oh well, better luck next time
All four of us are big fans of dumplings. Mushu’s dumplings have a slight identity crisis – on the menu they had the Chinese names of jiaozi (steamed dumplings) and guotie (fried dumplings), but when they arrived at our table they had the thin skins of Japanese gyoza.
The thin skins of the vegetable jiaozi didn’t taste of much and the filling was mostly cheap cabbage. They were partially redeemed by the distinctively pleasant taste of peanut though, probably added in the form of peanut oil.
No, you’re nuts…
The fried beef and kimchi guotie had the opposite problem. The fried skins were crisp yet supple, but the beef inside was bland and there was barely a hint of the spicy, sour, tart taste of kimchi. A side dish of kimchi itself was also disappointingly tame.
Meaty sacks of fun?
The Prancing Hippy ordered a large bowl of vegetable yakisoba. We only discovered that yakisoba traditionally uses standard wheat noodles, and not the buckwheat noodles we were expecting, once the bowl had arrived, which disappointed the gluten-intolerant Hippy. Even so, neither the Hippy or the Squelchie were impressed with the quality of the noodles or the weedy selection of vegetables.
Despite the name, Yakisoba doesn’t actually contain any soba noodles
The Squelchie’s bowl of stir fried leafy greens was fine, if a little small. It’s hard to screw up stir fried greens after all.
Stir fried greens at Mushu
Neither the Hippy nor myself could come to a Japanese restaurant and not order sushi. The octopus nigiri was pleasingly soft but not too soft, while the Hippy greatly enjoyed the mirin sweet, silky, wrinkly skins of his tofu inari nigiri. The salmon nigiri was a little bland though, lacking the buttery creaminess we’ve come to expect from them.
Salmon, octopus and inari nigiri sushi
Both Wicket and I were looking forward to the chicken yakitori so we were disappointed by the skimpy, excessively sweet skewers of meat that arrived. They’re not up to the standard set by the sadly long-gone Ikkyu of Tottenham Court Road.
Skewered. One sympathises.
None of my three dining companions are fond of crab, so I had the soft shell crab tempura all to myself. Sadly, the batter was too crunchy and not slightly crispy as I prefer it. The batter also tasted a little too starchy for my liking. The crab legs themselves were fine if occasionally lacking in flavour, probably because they were frozen and not fresh. This is unsurprising at the low price of £7.65 which probably also explains the absence of the main shell (sorry folks, no photo).
At this point we really all should have stopped eating, but dessert beckoned. The Squelchie indulged in a scoop of green tea ice cream as well as a scoop of black sesame ice cream. She was clearly wrapped up in enjoying her green tea ice cream as she was too distracted to batt away my hand stroking her rapidly filling belly.
The Squelchie’s green tea and black sesame ice cream
The rest of all had a brownie served with black sesame ice cream. The bog standard brownie was nothing to write home about, but the black sesame ice cream had an interesting yogurt-like taste with a slightly tart, sour finish.
A dessert of two halves.
Like the food, service was a mixed bag. Although everyone was friendly, some of the waitresses had trouble understanding us when taking our orders and somehow forgot about the Squelchie’s dessert-related questions. To paraphrase the Prancing Hippy, what they lacked in competence, they made up for in cheerfulness and enthusiasm.
My quest for quality Japanese food suitable for vegetarians continues. Although none of the food at Mushu was bad, neither was it especially remarkable. The Squelchie would disagree citing the vegetable dumplings, but in my mind they were saved from mediocrity solely by the additional taste of peanut. At least carnivores have the attraction of the mouth watering pork belly.
This unremarkable competence would nonetheless have been fine if it wasn’t for two other factors – price and location. At around £30 a head, Mushu is almost unjustifiably pricy for average quality food. This is especially true given that Fitzrovia is home to Roka, the home of remarkably good robata grilled food, and Tsunami, a stylish purveyor of decent quality sushi and sashimi.
Sorry Mushu, but as much I want to like you, you’ve only just managed three stars out of five.
Address: 53 Warren Street, London, W1T 5NL
Phone: 020 7388 3629
Opening Hours: Lunch – Monday-Friday, 11:45 – 15:30; Dinner – Monday-Friday, 18:00-22:00
Reservations: Accepted for dinner only.
Total cost for one person including drink: £30 approx.
Updated 20/2/2011 – new star rating graphic added