I really didn't think I would find Japanese Izakaya in London. One thing I loved about New York City was the abundance of Izakayas. My husband and I had specific ones we would go to regularly because the food was always good, the cocktail mixing was entertaining to watch, and it had that relaxed atmosphere you were looking for after work or late at night. But would I find all of this familiarity in London?
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If the concept of Izakayas are new for you, here's a little run down. Izakayas are basically Japanese bars that also provide a variety of snacks - from skewered meat, to grilled fish, to sushi, to noodles - depending on where you go. When it comes to atmosphere, It's similar to Spanish tapas or an Irish pub. I always find it cozy, which is perfect for a date or a small group of friends.
The best times in the year to go to Izakayas in New York City are in the winter. When it's blistering cold outside and you you want to eat something warming, nothing beats that smoky, chargrilled meat on skewers. It warms your senses up immediately. Having moved to London in the winter, I was definitely looking for foods that were warming.
I stumbled upon this Japanese sushi and whiskey Izakaya called YoKOYA. I saw a poor review about this place online, but it was obvious that the reviewer had never been to an Izakaya before since they complained about small portions and expensive prices.
Also, if you remember from my previous posts, you never trust the online food reviews in London because they are usually very incorrectly reviewed by the users, meaning that fast food places get 4+ stars, including Pret-A-Manger and Itsu while decent sit-down restaurants receive 3 stars. The reviews are not credible. So if you haven't been to an izakaya before, like many of the reviewers, let me give you a crash course.
First, you can't come in with the expectation of cheap street food or full entrees. Then, you're in the wrong place. It's small plates, like tapas, meant to be for snacking as you have a drink. The food is not supposed to the be star of the environment, but it's your conversations over drinks with friends or colleagues that's supposed to be the highlight of the night. I'm not saying the food isn't tasty. Of course it is. What I'm saying is you're going to an Izakaya for a total experience.
When you go to one of the many English pubs in London, you're not usually going there to eat a full meal alone. You can. But you're usually going there to meet up with work friends to grab a pint while maybe picking at some fries while rooting for your football team on the big screen.
That's the idea at an izakaya except take away the big screen televisions and replace the beers with sake or cocktails. Hence, this is the reason why these places open their doors after normal dinner hours such as 6 o'clock in the evening until 2 o'clock in the morning. Are you still with me?
Second, don't come extremely hungry. If you skipped the last two meals of the day and arrive at an Izakaya, you're appetite is not going to be satisfied unless you break your wallet.
Izakayas are meant to be small shared plates for snacking or a light meal. You can come expecting to fill your stomach, but you'll need to order about 5 or so plates just for yourself to make up a meal, which also means your bill is going to be mighty expensive. I've done this at Spanish or Meditteranean tapas bars. My appetite wasn't satisfied until I had several plates of food to myself and I'm a pretty small person.
Having said that, I still went hungry to this particular Izakaya because I planned on ordering several plates to try while I sipped on my favourite spirit: Japanese whiskey. They have some smooth Yamazaki at YoKOYA that are fantastic to pair with your food.
We started off with the chutoro tuna which is fattier than regular tuna but not as fatty as otoro tuna. It was as thick, tender and decadent as it looks. Despite my hunger, I didn't want to inhale this dish. It's meant to be savoured as you enjoy the texture and flavours.
Then, we moved on to the lightly broiled salmon sushi. It was smoky, rich, and decadent. There were some other dishes we wanted to try like the wagyu beef, but unfortunately, the kitchen had run out of many of the dishes by the time we arrived at 8:30 in the evening. It didn't surprise me since most of the tables were full of customers. I snooze, I lose. But that's fine. Irregardless, there were plenty more small plates to try out.
At least we were still able to order some of our first choices, which included this takoyaki. Takoyaki is octopus baked into a wheat-flour based batter with a sweet, tangy sauce drizzled on top. It's savory, warm and soft like biting into a warm pancake. If you've never had it before but you like donuts, you'll probably like this dish. It's not very sweet like a donut, but the texture reminds me of one. The centre is more savoury because of the octopus and is balanced out by the sweet sauce drizzle.
We couldn't skip over the shrimp tempura. Making tempura light and clean despite it being deep fried is a true Japanese art. When you're at an Izakaya, I highly recommend tempura dishes. The quality and flavours of what you get at a takeaway restaurant versus at a proper Izakaya is very different. The light batter, clean and light oil, the proper technique of deep frying tempura, along with even the shaved radish on the side with spice yellow mustard all make for an entire flavour experience for your palate.
This dish checked off all of the boxes for an explosion of flavours and textures. It was crispy and crunchy on the outer layer that surrounded a warm, tender, sweet shrimp on the inside. There was no nauseating, heavy oily taste left in your mouth afterwards. Absolute perfection.
My husband and I love ordering a miso cod when we eat at an Izakaya. We've attempted to make it at home, but it's never the same. The flavours may be there, but getting the right texture is a whole other subject.
Here, we did something slightly different and tried one of the specials on the menu which was grilled mackerel. It was warm, tender and perfectly seasoned with nothing but salt. The chef balanced each of the savory dishes with some pureed radish to balance the heaviness that you may get from naturally oily fish. It's the little details to the dishes that make it complete and truly an art form.
It was a pretty and quaint spot to try. The all-wood furniture, quaint booths, openly visible kitchen upstairs, and the cozy main dining area downstairs all gave it the familiar feel of an Izakaya that I'm used to. Check it out when you want to try something different from everything else you see in London. There are not several good Izakayas in London, so it's a treat to be able to go to one. Leave me a comment below to tell me about your Izakaya experience.
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