Masterminded by a MasterChef
Disclosure: upon asking for the bill, my fourth meal here was given free of charge by the management in light of my repeated custom. This was not asked for and was accepted out of politeness.
There’s no shortage of casual Japanese restaurants in London, but Nanban is different. Although headed up by 2011 MasterChef winner Tim Anderson (no, I don’t watch the show), Nanban doesn’t just depend on name recognition of its celebrity chef. Originally slated to open in Shoreditch years ago, Nanban is now on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane and has thus adopted some West Indian influences into its menu which makes for Japanese food that’s quite unlike anything you’re likely to have had before.
First things first
The exemplar of this hybrid approach has to be the curry goat tsukemen. This is a traditional form of ramen, but with the soup served separately from the noodle and used as a dipping sauce. The thin, firm and wrinky noodles were top-notch and can hold their own against those from any ramen restaurant in the city. What’s decidedly untraditional is the curry goat used for dipping – earthy, unctuous and dotted with dense morsels of ginger-flecked meat. It’s a stunning combination made even better by the unexpectedly fiery bamboo shoots and the ‘seafood sawdust’ grated over the noodles. The latter was part bonito flakes and part crustacean-based crack – an umami bomb that, at the risk of overloading the dish, I could happily have had more of.
Far less successful were the ackee and saltfish korroke. They were essentially fishcakes with occasional hints of salty whitefish and fleshy ackee drowned out by starchy potato filler. At least the breadcrumb exterior wasn’t too greasy.
Better, but still unbalanced, was the Electric Eel. The dense, smoky, meaty slivers of eel were utterly delightful and didn’t need the overwhelmingly crisp, sweet and sharp toppings of onions, peppers and a ginger-vinegar sauce. It’d be best to just scrape them off and eat them separately.
Nanban’s kitchen doesn’t appear to have settled on a permanent dessert menu at the time of writing, experimenting with dishes such as ice cream mochi. The balls of ice at the centre of the mochi ice creams were too frigidly cold, but the punchy and distinct flavours of yuzu and coconut were enjoyable. The elastic rice flour skins were perhaps a little too giving and needed a little more resistance, but were still good enough.
Going back for seconds
Although not advertised as a tonkotsu ramen, the broth of the Kumamoto Ramen is described as similarly ‘rich pork’ in nature. Sadly, the cloudy broth was far too dependent on nutty sesame oil for flavour. It was far from a lost cause though – the thin, wrinkly, eggy, wheaty noodles were reasonably firm and a delight to slurp down with the punchy mustard greens and the rich and runny egg. Although the slices of pork weren’t quite as good those available at dedicated ramen restaurants such as Muga, they were still pleasingly fatty and unctous, while the roasted garlic sauce and garlic flakes added a kick of smokiness and a crunchy bite.
I’m a big fan of tripe from its coarse texture to the way it absorbs the flavours of whatever it’s cooked in. This makes Nanban’s Horumon Yaki all the more disappointing. Smooth and served with a tame mix of stir fried cabbage and bean spouts, it resembled a slightly gussied-up take-away stir-fry. The only point of interest was the mandarin-esque flavour to the slices of pickled radish on top.
While firm, meaty and slightly vinegary, the mackerel was lacking the zingy punch I usually associate with that fish. It was livened up immensely though by the the moreish miso and sesame dressing as well as by the crisp daikon, vinegary carrots, fiery pickled ginger and sweet cucumbers.
I’ve often said that I’m not bothered by fried chicken, but chicken karaage is a mild exception to that rule. Tonkotsu does the best chicken karaage I’ve had in London, or at least it does sometimes given its highly variable quality output in this matter. Nanban’s version was free from excess oil with a thin batter that was soft, pliant and dotted with vague hints of ginger. The chunks of meat underneath were moist and meaty. It doesn’t quite measure up to Tonkotsu’s best, but it’s not far off.
Spaghetti in chilli-cured cod roe sauce with Parmesan, pancetta and black pepper sounds suspiciously Italian. It’s not as incongruous as it sounds given the long-standing culinary exchange between Italy and Japan, plus there was the addition of an onsen egg and seaweed too. There were no surprises with the spaghetti, but the cod roe sauce was muted both in its spiciness and in its fishiness. The sauce wasn’t a complete dud, adding some moreishness to the dish which was boosted by the grated seaweed. The crispy pancetta was fine, if a little generic – perhaps jowl-based guanciale would’ve been a better choice. The parmesan was surprisingly muted too – lightly creamy, but lacking in depth of character. While the egg was rich and runny, it couldn’t quite save this dish from mediocrity.
Gyoza are common fare in many Japanese restaurants – deep-fried gyoza much less so. Lightly crisp and unoily, the golden shells contained a mildly creamy filling fleetingly evocative of brown crab meat. My shoulders barely registered a shrug as I ate them.
May the fourth be with you
A grapefruit and chilli salad sounds daft, but it really works. First sour and tart, then startlingly spicy.
To classify the Miyazaki ramen merely as a chicken and shoyu (i.e. soy sauce-based broth) noodle soup would do it a grave disservice. Firm, wrinkly noodles and a rich runny egg were joined by a moist, meaty, intensely satisfying chicken thigh. The whole lot was served in a lip-smackingly meaty, lightly salty broth. It’s more than the sum of its parts – it’s as if the kitchen has managed to mash up Jewish chicken soup, Cantonese soya chicken and a shoyu ramen into one glorious dish.
Five get lashings of ginger beer
Accompanying me on my last visit to Nanban were The Lensman and Foul-Mouthed Teacher. The latter greatly enjoyed the Miyazaki ramen, which was just as good before, and shared my low opinion of the deep-fried gyoza and the tame ackee korokke.
The Lensman and I shared the Japanese vegetable curry. Although the somewhat congealed sauce looked as if it’d been left in the oven a bit too long, it tasted pretty standard – a chip shop curry sauce of moderate thickness and sweetness. The odd addition of cheese and the random selection veg was neither here nor there, but at least the egg was as good as ever.
I specifically wanted The Lensman’s opinion on the chanpon, a Nagasaki noodle soup dish that he’s very fond of but is very rarely found in the UK. Nanban’s version started off right with milky, lightly wrinkly noodles. It soon dawdled into disappointment though with its pork-chicken-seafood broth turning out generically moreish. The ragbag selection of squid, prawns and cabbage were fine, if not especially memorable, leaving it to the egg to pick up the slack once again. To paraphrase The Lensman, it’s a decent stab in the direction of a quality chanpon – but it’s not there yet. Not even close.
Tuber traditionalists who insist that their root vegetables be savoury and nothing else will want to avoid the baked sweet potato. While not excessively sweet, the sprinkling of yuzu added a sharp citrusy hit which I liked. It will doubtless anger the potatotalitarians though.
A smooth, very firm plum jelly formed the core of the only dessert available on our visit. Its faint flavour and odd texture weren’t crowd pleasers – you’ll have a better time of it if you’re used to traditional mochi fillings or Chinese jellies to which it was somewhat similar. The pickled plums hanging jauntily off the side weren’t that different from the fresh variety, while the wispy white peach cream was mildly flavoursome at best. Ho hum.
If everything on Nanban’s menu had been as rollicking as the curry goat tsukemen or the Miyazaki ramen, then it would romp home with at least a Four Star rating and an unconditional recommendation. As it is though, the menu is far too uneven with too many duds and unbalanced, so-so dishes which is disappointing given Nanban’s long gestation. This is a real shame as the idea of mashing up Japanese food with West Indian ingredients and more besides is a sound one (with plenty of antecedents in what we now consider ‘traditional’ Japanese food). Still, this shouldn’t stop you from scuttling down there right now and feasting on curry goat ramen. I have great hopes for Nanban’s potential.
What to order: Curry goat tsukemen; Miyazaki ramen; Grapefruit salad; Eel
What to skip: Tripe; Saltfish and ackee korokke; Deep-fried gyoza
Address: 426 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, London SW9 8LF
Phone: 020 7346 0098
Opening Hours: weekdays noon-15.00 and 18.00-23.00; weekends noon-23.00.
Reservations: highly recommended on or around weekends
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £35 approx.