I’ve been keen to eat at Kikuchi for a while, having had it recommended to me countless times and after several false starts I finally made it there, not once but twice in the last fortnight. My first stop there was for a midweek catch-up with E (being half-Japanese she is always my first port of call when trying a new Japanese spot) and an enjoyable evening (plus a £5 loyalty voucher) spurred me to make last Friday’s dinner reservation for myself and B. I hadn’t intended to lump the accounts of both meals together, but I had left the first half-written for so long that a joint review seemed the sensible route to take.
Tucked away on a small street just off the busy Tottenham Court Road (and within spitting distance of Hakkasan), the restaurant is small and narrow with a sushi counter along one side, and a series of small tables along the other. Despite its size the eatery feels cosy rather than cramped and although the shabby interiors and fixtures are far from new, the place didn’t strike me as being particularly run down (as compared to say, Tomoe).
The menu is extensive and with everything sounding good, deciding what to order is a real challenge – admittedly not a bad problem to have. Don’t look to the waitresses (all pretty, young and with sweet dispositions – much to the delight of the many Japanese businessmen who frequent the joint) for any help with the menu though, their grasp of English is basic at best and any enquiries are met with blank stares and puzzled faces. Another tip: be very sure before relaying your choices as the waitress shouts them out as you order – on one occasion I changed my mind halfway but the sushi chef was already hastily slicing away. They really seem to thrive on getting food out at lightning speed – once the complementary mackerel starter has been eaten the dishes arrive thick and fast, pressuring you into wolfing everything down to make space for more.
Kikuchi is known mainly for its sashimi, and the raw fish dishes I sampled on both evenings were indeed remarkably fresh. The Horse Mackerel with Ponzu was lively and vibrant, the glistening slivers of raw fish complemented perfectly by myoga ginger, spring onion and a zesty citrus dressing. We were however a little confused when it was first set before us – we had expected grilled mackerel (it had been wrongly labeled as “House” Mackerel on the menu).
A chef’s special sashimi selection featuring Hamachi (yellowtail), Razor Clams, Chu-toro (belly tuna) and Salmon was equally decent, and I was especially impressed by the clean sweetness of the soft clams – I often shy away from raw razor clams as they can be chewy and distinctly fishy if not of the best quality.
If there’s Sunomono (a general term for vinegared dishes, but often refers to sashimi doused in a vinegar dressing) on the menu chances are B will order it. He loves the stuff. Kikuchi’s rendition wasn’t quite up to scratch, the sashimi itself was fine but the vinegar dressing was weak and lacked the sharpness needed to stand up to the fish. A sunomono of eel and cucumber (not pictured) was similarly pedestrian, suffering from the same seasoning issues.
The sushi on the other hand was terribly good; the special of Seared Toro Nigiri in particular was a real stand-out. Gently blow-torched to release the flavours of the melt-in-the-mouth tuna, it was a real exquisite mouthful. The Uni (sea urchin) Nigiri was also superb on my first visit, but sadly the one eaten on Friday didn’t have the same deep buttery richness and fresh taste of the sea.
The Prawn Nigiri served to us that night was lovely though, offered as a substitute to the larger Botan Prawns we originally requested (they were all out), the prawns (I didn’t catch the Japanese name) were sweet, fleshy and wonderfully creamy.
Besides sushi and sashimi, the restaurant’s deep-fried items appeared to be highly popular with the punters, and over the two nights I sampled a fair few of them. The dainty Maitake (a wild mushroom native to Japan) tempura was highly enjoyable, as was the Lotus Root stuffed with Prawns – a happy marriage of crunchy lotus root and spongy prawns.
Admittedly they were a touch greasy but the lightness of the batter did compensate somewhat, plus both were served with dipping sauces which helped to mask the oiliness.
Unfortunately the oiliness had nowhere to hide when it came to the undressed items, so was far more apparent. Some, like the Edamame (boiled, wrapped in wonton skins, then fried) weren’t overly unpleasant, although a gulp of green tea did follow each mouthful. A deep-fried Sea Bream fillet rolled around Umeshiso (a paste of Pickled Plum and Shiso) was also passable, thanks to the sourness of the plum cutting through the grease – too bad I didn’t care for it flavour-wise.
I assume the restaurant must re-use the oil over several days, which would explain why the fried items were noticeably worse on the Friday. The Octupus Tempura we had that evening left an unsavoury stale aftertaste, which stayed with us long after the meal. It wasn’t all bad though, one dish that was sublime on both occasions was the Tsukune – the skewered Grilled Chicken Balls laced with fragrant shiso were moist, juicy and extremely tasty, not from a thick coating of sauce but rather packed with flavour from within.
Most Japanese restaurants don’t have a huge selection of desserts, and Kikuchi is no exception, offering only ice cream (three flavours) for afters. Desperate to rid our palates of the lingering taste of tempura, we shared a scoop of the green tea ice cream before calling for the bill. It wasn’t cheap, but for the standard of fish the price was not unreasonable (there is a well-advertised minimum spend of £20 which seems unnecessary considering that the small dishes each average around £6-£8) and there is the bonus of a £5 voucher, given for use on your next visit.
Having said that, the cooked food can be a bit hit-and-miss and it definitely wasn’t fun being rushed through a meal – on both nights the food arrived at such a rapid pace that we were in and out within an hour. Of course I don’t want to make any overreaching generalisations on the standard of the kitchen, having only sampled an inkling of what the lengthy menu has to offer. But with Sakana-tei only a 15-minute walk away – which in my opinion offers higher quality sashimi (with a wider selection that often includes rarities such as conch, abalone and giant clam), consistently good food (their sunomono is impeccable) and a considerably more relaxed dining experience – I really have no reason to return anytime soon.
14 Hanway Street
London, W1T 1UH
t. 020 7637 7720