Uniquely Japanese in more ways than one
Eccentric cultural institutions usually lose something in translation when they’re transplanted outside of their home country. Monster truck rallies, Eccles cakes and Viz magazine are prime examples. The izakaya is another. A Japanese staple, these bar-cum-restaurants are often translated as pubs or gastropubs, but none of those names really quite fit as izakayas are subtly different from their rough British equivalents.
You can just drink at an izakaya, plump for a big meal from the get-go or order dishes in dribs and drabs to go with your drink as the night progresses. Patrons usually sit rather than stand at an izakaya. They tend to be relatively calm and peaceful places, but can still be very convivial nonetheless. Food usually gets just as much care and attention as the booze.
Previous attempts at izakayas in London have fizzled, flopped or just missed the point. The Woodstock folded quickly, perhaps due to its odd split personality with a deserted dining room on the ground floor and a more boisterous drinking den downstairs. Yumi Izakaya served top-notch yakitori, but has sadly since closed. The Marble Arch branch of Kurobuta is so popular that the high-pitched screeching of its sozzled clientele often threatens your aural health. But I found the food there to be so overwhelmingly mediocre and/or overwrought, that it’d be laughed out of the country if it was served in Japan.
New entrant Jugemu is far more sedate than Kurobuta, but not for the lack of customers – this small Soho eatery is popular with couples and Japanese expats, enjoying varying quantities of food and booze. Ordering takes a leaf out of Chinatown’s Dim Sum playbook with paper ordering slips on which you write in or tick a check box for what you want. Although probably designed to compensate for the shaky English of the Japanese waiters, it works well enough.
There’s a lot to choose from, with both a standard and a specials menu, plus even more specials listed on a series of flyers running around the ceiling skirting board – but the latter is written only in Japanese. This is irksome, but the staff will patiently translate and explain the options if asked.
And yet the selection of tapas-sized plates doesn’t follow the cliched structure of typical Japanese restaurants in the West which attempt to cover everything from tonkatsu to udon. The range may seem dizzying at first, but there’s usually just one or two choice representations of classic izakaya staple genres – pickled, cured, raw, stewed, noodle and deep-fried dishes plus a wider selection of fish available in sushi or sashimi form. Jugemu’s menu, aside from the addition of sushi, and its atmosphere hew far more closely to the classic izakaya template than any other would-be claimaint I’ve seen in London.
First things first
Prawn dumplings were very wonton-like with soft, thin, supple and crimped skins stuffed with meaty prawns and a herby hit of chives. A good start.
Vicious Alabaster wouldn’t touch the squid innards after her encounter with them in Japan, despite the fact that Jugemu’s version is much gentler than the usual standard. The typically astringent salty bitterness was tempered by an orange blossom-flavoured sauce – a combination of sweet and sour that managed to win over Templeton Peck. I love squid innards either way.
Jugemu has a couple of dishes consisting of bizarrely odd pairings, at least from a Western Euro-American perspective. Sheets of nori came with light and airy dollops of cream cheese, a creamy umami combo that worked reasonably well despite its freakish appearance.
Far less successful was the camembert paired with spicy cod roe. The cheese turned out to the tamest tasting camembert in the history of dairy products. The code roe was smooth with an occasional hint of grit and a fishy tang, but it wasn’t especially spicy. A double act of two underachieving stars made for a disappointing performance – this could have been a real winner.
The takoyaki were squidgy soft, but not excessively so. The bonito flakes, brown sauce and kewpie mayo were all surprisingly muted, but there was at least a firm octopus tentacle at the centre of every dough ball.
Dimpled and supple strips of tripe came bathed in a moreish sauce along with tender turnips and and squidgy, delicate tofu. Like the prawn dumplings, this dish wears its Chinese influences on its sleeve but that’s no bad thing.
Chewy, crisp and moreish deep-fried rice ‘cakes’ were made even better by the gently umami sauce. These deep-fried cubes were essentially a concentrated version of the delicate skins from a helping of agedashi tofu, rather than the joyless husks sold in health food stores. It’s a rare deep-fried dish that leaves you panting for more, rather than wanting to fall asleep or take a breather.
Slices of monkfish liver were unsurprisingly reminiscent of foie gras and other forms of poultry liver in its creaminess. A hint of fishy sea salt tang added another layer of flavour that was further enhanced by the umami sauce, while the crisp veg garnish cut through all the relative richness.
Jugemu’s smoked duck wasn’t as densely textured, nuanced and sophisticated as the version available at Tokyo’s Kanda Yabu Soba, but it was still a crowd pleaser. The meat was powerfully smoked to the point of being almost ham-like, but the sharp sweetness of the sharon fruit slices offset this potency and prevented it from becoming overwhelming.
There’s usually just one noodle dish available at Jugemu, but it’s a corker. Proper buckwheat soba noodles were cooked just so and served in a broth. Both were served at room temperature, the latter blessed with a deep umami. The prawn tempura layered on top was more like a big, loosely-packed patty. It’s very different from the classic tempura served at Tokyo’s Tempura Tsunahachi, but it’s still a winner. The exceedingly light, crisp and airy batter allows the umami of the springy prawns to shine through. It all makes for a beguiling bowl of noodles.
Jugemu serves up a very respectable selection of Japanese-style pickles that are the closest London-based equivalents yet to the impressive varieties that I sampled while trekking across Tokyo, Kyoto and Wakayama. The array here ranged from vinegary to sweet, earthy and then tart. Umeboshi, my usual favourite, was more subdued than usual which made it more palatable to Templeton Peck, but its sour bitterness was still strong enough to turn off Vicious Alabaster.
Your selection of sashimi will vary from what I had, depending on which fish is at its best at the time of your visit. Highlights from my board included meaty yet yielding tuna, delicately sweet yellowtail and noticeably citrusy squid that nevertheless maintained its clean after-taste.
Jugemu’s sushi is similarly dependent on nature’s bounty, but I’d be astonished if it’s ever anything less than outstanding. Although the number of nigiri pieces you’ll get in any preset selection will be scant, the quality on display is uncommonly good. Some fish eluded identification, but highlights included a wonderfully citrusy sweet white fish, a crunchy and lightly umami deep-fried prawn roll and another white fish with a more herby, floral sweetness and a clean aftertaste. Delicately creamy wasabi with a strong, but not inflammatory level of heat, is also available in the form of maki rolls if you can’t get enough of its charms.
After a run of such superlative seafood, a brought-in dessert of sesame mochi ice cream inevitably struggled to provide a suitably well-polished finish. While boldly nutty and refreshing, the mochi skins just weren’t elastic and chewy enough.
Going back for seconds
Don’t order the oysters with sansho pepper if you’re expecting your usual Wright Brothers-style raw molluscs. This dish was more unusual and satisfying that that – these oysters were almost certainly dried and then rehydrated. This would explain the intense taste of the dense flesh – profoundly earthy and tangy.
Jugemu’s menu is occasionally oddly worded, probably as a result of awkwardly translated Japanese food terms that probably wouldn’t be known to most Londoners. The surimi kamaboko, for example, is called a ‘fish cake’ instead. The smooth and cool cured fish loaf slices acted as a conveyor for the creaminess and warmth of the freshly grated wasabi – a titillating combination of coolness and nasal heat.
The oden, a Japanese stew of fish patties which is what I would’ve called ‘fish cakes’, was instead called ‘Japanese pot-au-feu’. This warming winter staple hewed closely to the version I had in Wakayama, with smooth, earthy and sweet fish patties stewed in a thin yet moreish broth along with a few choice slices of pork and root veg as well as a whole egg. I’d happily pay extra for a larger version of this stew and eat nothing but this when the temperature drops to below zero outside.
Jugemu’s chicken karaage was an oddity. The soft and supple batter was more like actual chicken skin that the crisp crunchiness I had been expecting. While this deep-fried coating will therefore prove divisive, the moist and unctous poultry underneath was an undoubted success – especially when paired with the moderate heat of the dipping mustard on the side.
Lightly battered and expertly deep-fried mini-loaves of minced prawn had their umami greatly complimented by the sweetness and light pepperiness of the Japanese-style curry sauce. The latter transcended its British chip shop origins, punching well above its drizzled weight.
Slices of grilled pork were more like stewed pork due to their stodginess and seeming lack of browning. Although the lick of miso didn’t have the umami kick I was expecting, its unexpected fruity sweetness was seductively delightful nonetheless and made up for the frown-inducing quality of the pork.
In a rare instance of misjudged balance, the scallops were easily lost amidst the fluffy rice, buttery avocado and umami nori of a temaki handroll.
I couldn’t help but opt for the sushi once again and, as expected, the selection this time around was different from before but no less joyful. A dense and umami-lacquered squid was one of the highlights, along with a tangy and meaty slice of dark red flesh, a buttery white fish, a transparent carapace of citrusy sweetness and a delicately sweet white and pink hued fish. My fish identification skills are terrible; Jugemu’s knack for choosing the fish, on the other hand, is spot on.
A dessert of dorayaki was fine – fluffy pancake slices sandwiching a moderately nutty red bean filling. The portion size was titchy though, even by izakaya and tapas standards.
Despite the breadth of its menus, the food at Jugemu is deeply satisfying thanks to its generally well-judged and sublime execution. The only real flaw, apart from the relatively high prices, is the sometimes glacial pace at which dishes emerge from the open-faced kitchen. There appears to be a good reason for this though – there is just one chef. There is, of course, a separate prep kitchen at the back which you pass by to get to the lavs – but it was conspicuously empty on both of my visits. The longest delays seem to be with the sushi, so if you’re in a rush then – sadly – that would be something to avoid.
If you have time to spare though, then park yourself at Jugemu with the comfort of good friends and enjoy some of the most archetypal Japanese food in London – deceptively simple at first glance, but deliciously deep once you bite in.
What to order: Sushi; Sashimi; Prawn dumplings; Squid innards; Deep-fried ‘rice cakes’; Miso tripe stew; Monkfish liver; Pickles; Prawn tempura soba; Oysters; Oden; Minced prawn in curry sauce
What to avoid: The desserts and possibly the cheese dishes
Address: 3 Winnett Street, Soho, London W1D 6JY
Phone: 020 7734 0518
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday noon-14.30 and 18.00-22:30. Saturday 18.00-22.30. Closed Sunday.
Reservations: highly recommended the closer you get to the weekend. Best done by phone, contrary to Jugemu’s online instructions to use email instead.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £44-70 approx.