Soho vs Marylebone yakitori face-off
Disclosure: the first of my meals at Junsei occurred during the discounted soft launch period. I had thought the soft launch had ended as I prefer to avoid them whenever possible and proceeded only to avoid inconveniencing my dining companion.
If you’ve ever read anything about restaurants in Tokyo, there’s inevitably a line about how the city has more restaurants per person that any other major metropolis. Brandished as some sort of proxy indicator for quality, bellowers of this factoid usually fail to mention that a substantial number of Tokyo’s restaurants are tiny in the number of covers they can serve and highly specialised too – a mundane pair of facts that help explain the huge number of restaurants.
The highly specialised nature of restaurants in Japan is a quality that’s often missing from most Japanese restaurants in the UK and much of the western world. Here, eateries attempt to straddle the entire pantheon of Japanese dishes from sushi and sashimi to ramen and tempura – often to drab, lifeless effect.
That has started to change somewhat in recent years, most notably with restaurants dedicated to ramen, and now – tentatively – with yakitori. Both Humble Chicken in Soho and Junsei in Marylebone are among the few London restaurants focussed on these grilled skewers of various chicken cuts. Both serve their dishes as omakase or as a la carte. But no matter which way you order, there are some odd similarities – and differences – between the two restaurants.
Omakase at Humble Chicken
Occupying the former site of the original Barrafina, the bar/counter seating of Humble Chicken should lend itself well to omakase – the style of ordering where you leave yourself entirely in the hands of the chef – as you can not only see the chefs at work but chat to them too (the course of the pandemic permitting). Depending on where you’re perched, you certainly get a fine view of the charcoal grill laden with skewers.
But Humble Chicken’s omakase feels more like a budget-minded set menu than a chef’s reasoned selection of what they think is the best of the best, which is the omakase ideal. For example, including a skewer of chicken breast felt like a wasted opportunity given that it’s usually the blandest of all a chicken’s parts. The neatly trimmed breast here was reasonably tender and moist, but would passed almost entirely unnoticed if not for the possibly ponzu-based garnish which added a zesty zing.
The meat parade picked up with the arrival of the wing with its crispy skin and smoky, springy flesh. If only all chicken wings everywhere were as multilayered and enjoyable.
Humble Chicken tends to be playful when glazing its yakitori, the exemplar of which was the thigh. The umami and sweetness of the glaze came on thigh meat that was bouncy and firm, then tender with an almost offaly earthiness.
With the achilles part of the thigh, the kitchen seemingly tried to combine the crispness and smokiness of the wing with the mouthfeel and nuanced tasting glaze of the other thigh skewer as detailed above. It was only partially successful though, leaving me wistful for more thigh instead. When your omakase only consists of five dishes, having two iffy ones seems especially wasteful.
Kofte-like tsukune was finely ground, but packed the crispness of spring onions as well as touches of smoke and char into its moist meat lozenge form. Its multifaceted qualities were enhanced by the dipping sauce, a tare that was more eggy richness than soy and thus all the better for it. I’ve had a few tsukune in my time and it was here at Humble Chicken that I finally saw what the fuss was all about.
A la carte yakitori at Humble Chicken
The key to unlocking Humble Chicken’s a la carte menu is familiarity – the less commonly eaten cuts of chicken (less commonly eaten in the Anglo-American world at least) turned out to be the most rewarding.
A selection of offal were reasonably crisp and bouncy, their glaze imparting a lightly sweet umami. Liver was unexpectedly light, almost more like kidney, and daubed with a touch of mustard.
The shoulder’s charred bouncy crust was succeeded by a tender follow through, while the vaguely coxcomb-shaped garnish added an unexpectedly delightful citrusy spicy pep.
Inner thigh was tender and juicy, but let down by a forgettable glaze. Knee and cartilage was a textural tour de force with its bouncy, crisp snappiness. Don’t opt for the ‘soft’ variant of the knee and cartilage though. While roughly comparable to its sibling, it was more muted in every way.
Although neck wasn’t quite as multifaceted in its mouthfeel as the knee and cartilage, it was still an enjoyable morsel. Its charred mantle had a crisp snappiness, giving way to a moist tenderness.
A succession of tails strung one after the other, almost bulbous in their sphericality, were not only visually striking – they were remarkably mouth pleasing too. Springy then crisp, with a bit of crackle and a spicy hit that also squeezed in a drop of citrus. Its remarkable impact was lessened by a tasting on a subsequent visit where the mouthfeel wasn’t anywhere as electrifying.
Deboned ribmeat was almost as springy as the tails, but with a tender, meaty follow through with the whole shebang acting as a carrier from a sticky, smoky, umami glaze.
Non-yakitori dishes at Humble Chicken
Humble Chicken has a few non-yakitori dishes, mainly starters, a handful of larger main-sized dishes and of course desserts.
A fleshy, briney oyster came in a chawanmushi-style custard. It proved to be an unexpectedly complimentary pairing with the light creaminess of the chawanmushi-alike enhancing similar qualities in the bivalve.
Silken tofu was served chilled, its smoothness and nippy temperature contrasting neatly with a chunky fermented bean-style sauce bristling with heat – both in temperature and in spice. The whole thing was braced by a crunchy wafer, reinforcing this dish of surprising yet welcome contrasts.
Modestly punchy slices of mackerel were outshone by the oily rich, peppery smokiness and umami of what appeared to be roe. Despite its potency, the roe never became overwhelming and it was so utterly slurpable that it could easily be forgiven for upstaging the fish.
Thinly sliced medallions of tuna would’ve been utterly forgettable if not for the peppy citrusy hits of the marinade. Weak and unbalanced.
Humble Chicken tried to be clever with their coin-sized foie gras tart, but they were perhaps too clever for their own good. Reasonably rich and buttery foie gras came entombed under a mound of sweet apple and fine-grained, mildly flavoured ginger crumb. The overall effect was of a savoury apple crumble, the sweetness of the fruit largely, but not completely nullified by the foie gras and the crumble. It wasn’t inedible, just baffling.
I wasn’t expecting much from the endomame korokke, but this l’il morsel was unexpectedly winsome. While the deep-fried shell looked almost fruit-like, its evenly and delicately crisp mantle was unmistakably savoury and unmistakably a work of art. The moreish and bright green pea puree inside had a bold moreishness enhanced even further by the dipping salt on the side. Yes, yes and yes.
A helping of pickles wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t as deeply, subtly flavourful as the very best examples of the pickled arts in Japan. There were many variations on onion, ranging from essentially raw and lightly sweet to modestly tangy and snappy. The most striking thing here were the tomatoes with their almost candied, fruit-like sweetness.
The best part of the pork belly was the yielding, richly tender and well-rendered fat. The rest of the swine flesh was surprisingly uninspiring, absorbing neither the heat of the mustard nor the umami of the dashi. The daikon was crisp, but that was neither here nor there given the uneven nature of the pork.
Crispy chicken thigh arrived as a squared-off parcel atop a bed of rice, before being mashed apart before one’s eyes. The theatricality did little to disguise the surprisingly meek, blank slate meat underneath the admittedly crisp, oil-free crust. Another small bonus was the soft and fluffy small-grained rice. Even so, this was a let down.
The deconstructed strawberry ‘cheesecake’ was reminiscent of the many deconstructed Eton messes that scar the land. Milquetoast strawberries and whipped tangy soft cheese came pelted with crisp yet yielding bits of meringue, crumbly crusts of biscuit and sweet candied sheets similar to Fruit Roll-ups. I shrugged.
The purin is Humble Chicken’s take on the Japanese version of creme caramel. The custard-like confection would easily have been my favourite dessert here, its brown sugar notes melding easily with the strong taste of burnt caramel, the overall effect reminiscent of coffee-flavoured sweets. It’s therefore a shame that it wasn’t quite as boldly flavoured on a subsequent visit. Consistency issues abound, clearly.
A generous heap of bracingly cold and refreshing soft serve ice cream lay at the heart of the affogato. But it needed better partners than the overly crunchy granita and oddly brittle yet lumpy biscuit chunks heaped on top. While far from bad, the only reason you’d choose this ‘affogato’ over the purin is if the weather outside has turned swelteringly sticky.
Omakase at Junsei
Although Junsei’s omakase apparently features a mix of both a la carte and special dishes, the overall effect was still nonetheless oddly reminiscent of Humble Chicken’s formulaic and quotidian omakase.
The amuse bouche consisted of what were probably radishes – plump, scarlet-hued, juicy and mildly sweet radishes. They were quickly followed by reasonably moist and meaty chicken breast topped with surprisingly limp shiso and ume. An unimpressive start to the poultry.
Red mullet served as a brief intermission, the fish managing a meaty, citrusy presence despite being finely chopped. While served on a crisp cracker, the wafer largely stayed out of the mullet’s way.
More breast appeared, but this was a better effort – the delicately charred crust crimping and crinkling under tooth pressure, giving way to a bouncy, meaty follow through.
The wing was the best of Junsei’s omakase, the charred skin crackling with smoke as well as a crisp bounce. The juicy meat underneath didn’t break any of the charred skin’s promises.
Even though thigh is usually one of the best bits of a chicken, Junsei’s effort here was surprisingly unmemorable. While it was far from bad given its crisp crust and reasonably juicy flesh, it still failed to leave a lasting impression.
Sorry folks, I forgot to take a photo of this one.
That’s still a better outcome than the ‘oyster’ cut of chicken thigh which surprisingly tasted like a throwback to the charred breast, but not anywhere as accomplished.
Junsei’s tsukune was a finely ground heffer of a meatball. But it not only lacked the textural dimensions of Humble Chicken’s tsukune, it was also let down by the tare-yolk combo which proved to be disappointingly tame.
The savoury part of Junsei’s omakase was rounded off by a pair of kushiyaki. While far from bad, the crisp and fleshy padron pepper and the soft, fluffy potato weren’t really distinctive enough to help set this omakase alight.
Sorry folks, I also forgot to take a photo of this lot.
Finely shaved daikon acted as a palate cleanser, as did a cool and reasonably refreshing granita flavoured with what was probably yuzu.
The kuzumochi-style dessert was a touch too runny, but it still had much to recommend it with its sweet milkiness, the taste of what may have been plum and a tofu-like wobble to its puddingy mass.
A la carte yakitori at Junsei
Some of Junsei’s best yakitori is found outside of its omakase and only on its a la carte menu. For a start, there’s the bouncy and sweet heart, as well as the firm and gently salty gizzard.
Then there’s the liver, with punchy earthiness coarsing through its slender squidgy frame. Meanwhile, crispy skin had a fatty undertow that tickled my tongue. It wasn’t all golden though; the ‘tenderloin’ was a moist but otherwise plain jane cut topped with unexpectedly limp wasabi.
Non-yakitori dishes at Junsei
Junsei’s pickles were so unconvincingly pickled, they resembled crudites. Surprisingly, quality picked up once I ventured into some of the seafood dishes. Scallop, despite being finely diced, had a salty meatiness that successfully evoked the sea. Swirled in were equally well guillotined bits of mushroom, almost equally as plump.
A meaty, citrusy sheaf of red mullet with reasonably well-crisped skin came served atop a bed of loose, small-grained rice interspersed with flecks of chopped nori. Although I was sceptical at first, I was soon won over by its many charms.
Small but reasonably fleshy mussels came dressed in punchy miso and sesame.
Monstrously large prawns, marinated in citrus and soy then served raw on a nigiri-style roll of rice, was almost my favourite dish at Junsei – outclassing even the heart and gizzard yakitori. The quiveringly raw, curvaceously plump and teasingly firm bodies were also fruity sweet and delicately moreish, yet with a clean after taste.
But only almost as there were some consistency issues. On a subsequent visit, the prawns’ previously many-splendored qualities were far less pronounced, from plumpness to flavour. Even the mouthfeel and aftertaste were slightly off, with a mild but nonetheless offputting stickiness.
Fried mini-soldiers, but of tofu rather than bread, arrived in a loose formation atop a salad of citrusy sweet, umami tomatoes. While the tomatoes were pleasing, the tofu was too wan, dainty and fleeting despite almost resembling robust Shan tofu.
There’s a whole section on Junsei’s menu devoted to donabe. This seems odd for an ostensible yakitori specialist, so I didn’t hold out much hope for it. If the chicken and mushroom donabe is any indication though, it’s well worth exploring.
While the mushrooms were too bitty and soft, the sticky small-grained rice was neatly done sitting somewhere midway between fluffy soft and al dente. It was a fine partner to the chicken, which was no ordinary chook. Cooked just so, the light yet juicy and springy chicken had a gentle moreishness helped along by a judicious application of spring onions and ginger. This unexpectedly superb dish was a cut above your usual bowl of chicken and rice.
The face-off between Humble Chicken and Junsei turned out to be far more evenly matched then I had anticipated. Both of their omakase played things far too safe, with far more satisfaction and multilayered pleasure to be found by picking and choosing from the a la carte menu. Generally speaking, with both of their menus, the more unusual the cut of chicken the more splendiferous it’s likely to be. While Humble Chicken’s yakitori reached headier heights than Junsei’s, the latter seemed better able at maintaining a consistent level of quality. Humble Chicken, on the other hand, was a bit more wobbly. Although there will undoubtedly be variations in the standard of a grown product like meat, that’s what flexible menus are for, surely.
When it comes to the smaller, starter-sized non-yakitori dishes, it’s a bit swings and roundabouts with neither gaining the upper hand. Both are capable of knocking out belters and whimperers a like, but with Junsei appearing to have consistency issues here. It’s a more decisive affair with the handful of large mains-sized dishes – Junsei’s chicken donabe is not only leagues ahead of Humble Chicken’s effort, but may well claim a perch in this city’s pantheon of chicken dishes that are actually worth eating.
It remains to be seen whether this miniature yakitori boom leads to a permanent poultry pole presence in London. As it often does, it all comes down to how much we truly value diversity in culinary expertise and those who wield it. Chefs born in Japan may well prefer plying their trade in the Home Islands which, despite its many challenges, at least seem to value their skills. That may be preferable to the challenges of the UK, from the perfidious shysterism and drooling halfwittery of TripAdvisor ‘reviews’ to the Kafkaesque indignity of hostile environments. Foreign-born chefs, who learn their craft either in Japan or from Japanese chefs, will have to weigh up whether they really want to risk setting up a yakitori-ya, or indeed any other type of Japanese restaurant, in a culinarily conservative country that still equates the entirety of Japanese cuisine with just sushi.
Chicken may be a humble meat, but it takes real skill to make it truly sing.
Name: Humble Chicken
What to order: The odder the cut of chicken the better; korokke; mackerel
What to avoid: Pork belly
Address: 54 Frith Street, Soho, London W1D 4SJ
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 12.30-14.15 and 17.15-21.45, closed Sunday-Monday.
Reservations? highly recommended
Average cost for one person inc soft drinks: £40-50 approx. (£70 if you push the boat out)
What to order: The odder the cut of chicken the better; chicken donabe
What to avoid: Tofu tomato salad
Address: 132 Seymour Place, Marylebone, London W1H 1NS
Phone: 0207 723 4058
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Sunday noon-15.00, 17.00-22.00 (donabe must be ordered 45 minutes in advance). Closed Monday.
Reservations? probably a good idea.
Average cost for one person inc soft drinks: £50 approx. (£70-80 if you push the boat out)