Shaftesbury Avenue yakitori that deserves your support
Update 14/2/17 – this restaurant has now closed
Location, location and location. It’s supposed to be one of the keys to a successful London restaurant, but a spot on the West End’s bustling Shaftesbury Avenue hasn’t helped Yumi Izakaya. Nestled in between the entrance to the Piccadilly West End Hotel (formerly a Best Western) and a tacky souvenir shop, this small Japanese pub and eatery was mostly empty across all four of my visits.
This is a real shame. Unlike many of the other so-called izakayas opening across London, you can just pop into Yumi for a drink and perhaps a skewer of yakitori of two, ordering as you go. Or you can just settle down and order a big gut-busting meal straight off the bat as I did. It’s an attractive place with a bar facing onto the small kitchen, a window counter and table seating. I’m not a drinker, but if you’re a big Japanese beer aficionado with some spare cash then the bottled Hitachino available here will appeal to you greatly.
First things first
Yakitori skewers of chicken thigh had a firm bouncy bite and an offaly quality that was made even better by the sweet tare glaze.
Skewered chicken liver was just as good. The airy texture contrasted neatly with the heavy offaliness, while a garnish of crisp spring onions helped ensure the heaviness wasn’t too overwhelming.
The quivering flesh of the braised aubergine was airy and gently buttery, but also needed more resting time – it arrived scaldingly hot. A little more problematic was the sauce. The mixture of soy, mirin and sake was a little too sweet for my liking.
Kimchi had a cumulative tingly heat and an occasional sour tang. A respectable rendition.
Yumi’s venison donburi was far better than the stodgy, half-hearted donburis available elsewhere. Fluffy small grained rice provided the carbs, while the richness of the runny onsen egg yolk was enhanced by the umami of the nori seaweed slivers. The punchy citrusy herbiness of the shiso leaf was a pleasing contrast to the tart and earthy enoki mushrooms. The slices of venison cooked medium didn’t fail to impress with their meaty, earthy woodiness. Everything came together beautifully as a satisfying whole.
Going back for seconds
Skewered chicken hearts had a kidney-like texture with their firm and taut bite, then a yieldingly soft follow-through. A distinct kick of ginger was neatly counterbalanced by a garnish of crisp spring onions.
Gizzards may not a widely eaten poultry organ, but they should be – especially when they’re as expertly prepared as they are at Yumi. The firm, crisp texture was akin to a cross between a kidney and an onion. It’s an acquired taste and I loved it.
The yakitori highlight of this second meal had to be the meatball though. More of a mini chicken kofte, the moist meat lozenge was delectable enough on its own thanks to the sweet and umami glaze. Add in the richness of the egg yolk swimming in mirin though and it became a dish good enough to die for. No, to kill for.
Yumi’s okonomiyaki is a far heartier affair than the light and comparatively wispy version of the dish available at the nearby Abeno and Abeno Too. The okonomiyaki here may be small in diameter, but it’s thicker than a hick Trump supporter. Layers of batter and taut, bitter cabbage laced with salty and fatty pancetta. The doorstop of a portion was topped with lashings of kewpie mayo, brown sauce and powerfully umami bonito flakes. It not only tastes good, it’s filling enough to fuel an arctic explorer.
Taut, slippery and lightly umami seaweed topped with tenderised slices of lotus root and briney cucumbers made for a fine side salad.
The only duff dish of this meal was the special of shrimp tempura. Although free from excess oil, the heavy and floury batter made for dour, joyless eating as did the bland and flaccid shrimp underneath.
Despite the mild Korean-style spiciness, the chilli fried cauliflower felt like a mediocre vegetarian version of Chinese kung pao/gong bao chicken with the thin, slippery batter easily sliding off the admittedly firm cauliflower florets.
The crab korroke was similarly unimpressive. The soft and oil-free breadcrumb exterior had the feel of an Iceland canape to it, as did the vaguely creamy and seafood-ish liquid filling. The modestly citrusy dipping mayo on the side didn’t help the korroke’s cause.
The chicken meatball yakitori was just as good as it was before, nearly overshadowing the skewers of pork belly. The belly’s smoky rendered fat and salty meat, slick with a sweet mirin glaze, really hit the spot. Fat, salt and sugar. Good. Very good.
If you’re going to order the duck udon, then it’s worth cutting back on the smaller dishes as this steaming bowl of noodle soup is, like the okonomiyaki, a very filling dish. Although thinly sliced and very smoky, the gameless duck verged on gammon territory. It was still pleasing enough though, especially when taken with the supple seaweed and umami soup. I’d prefer udon with a bit of chew rather than the soft tendrils here, but the only really disappointing element were the soggy tempura crumbs. It’s not the best bowl of udon noodle soup you’ll ever have, but it’s not bad either and was very satiating.
Go fourth and multiply
Chicken skin might sound like an odd part of the animal to have on its own, but not when it’s as unctuous, taut and lightly crisp as it was here.
Chilled sprouting broccoli had a firm bite and was dressed in a surprisingly thick and viscous sesame dressing. Its nuttiness was a bit too obvious and cloying – standard sesame seed oil would likely have worked far better.
Although the mushroom salad consisted of enoki, shimeji and shiitake mushrooms, all three merged into a indistinguishable melange. They were nonetheless pleasing with a taut slipperiness, while the soy dressing provided a sharp and umami hit.
Little pan-fried pork medallions and ginger sandwiched in between daikon moons won’t be to everyone’s liking as the daikon added a sharp crispness. It did offset the relative spice of the ginger, while the pork had plenty of juicy meatiness to enjoy.
The special of battered, deep fried chicken was oddly described as ‘Korean fried chicken’ rather than karaage. Like the chilli fried cauliflower though, it bore more of a resemblance to kung pao chicken. Taut and slick batter easily slid off the mini chicken drumsticks, just as easily as the meat detached itself from the bones. The lightly spicy and tangy sauce, flecked with sesame seeds to little effect, was more tart and vinegary rather than the fermented bean-ish taste I’d normally associate with Korean sauces. It’s not bad overall, but it’s clearly not a permanent fixture for a reason.
Dense, fatty, meaty cubes of pork belly were infused with a powerful soy-derived saltiness that was intensely pleasurable. The tempura egg was almost a worthy accompaniment – the almost-set richness of the egg yolk was pleasing. The thick, stodgy batter – bereft of crisp, airy lightness – most certainly was not.
It seems contrary and odd that the most touristy stretch of Soho has better yakitori than Shoreditch, but that really is the case – Yumi Izakaya’s skewered chicken dishes set the standard for everyone else. The donburi and okonomiyaki are top-notch too, with only the clumsy deep-fried dishes letting the side down. Still, such a trifecta shouldn’t be sneezed at when many eateries in Japan specialise in only one dish rather the sprawling smorgasbords seen over here. Don’t be like one of those daft tourists who passed over this unassuming eatery in favour of Bella Italia or Yo! Sushi – Yumi Izakaya really is worth your time.
What to order: Donburi; Salads; Okonomiyaki; Yakitori
What to skip: Anything deep-fried
Name: Yumi Izakaya
Address: 67 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6EX
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon – 00.30.
Reservations: not taken
Average cost for one person excluding soft drinks and tip: £45-50 approx. (you’ll pay around £15 less if you’re not as ravenous as I am)