words Chris Zacharia
So it’s come to this: London finally has a neighbourhood Japanese restaurant. Housed in a former boozer near the Gray’s Inn Road, Wazen serves as a fine example of London’s foodie revolution: cultures and cuisines merrily colliding, and in this instance at least, producing something innovative and accomplished.
Wazen is an excellent addition to the city’s repertoire of Japanese restaurants. Rather than centreing their menu around sushi, Wazen focus instead on bringing lesser-known favourites back from the land of the rising sun.
The name ‘wazen’ refers to the rustic Japanese family dinner table, reflecting the emphasis on traditional, homely family meals which are less known on these shores. Within the tasteful surroundings of the dining room, its large street-facing windows and long wooden bar, these dishes feel surprisingly at home. There’s a minimalism at work here, a sparseness which speaks of a deep respect for empty space, bringing focus to the ingredients.
Agedashi tofu brings deep-fried wonton-wrapped tofu dumplings into a mushroom sauce, topped with a quiff of dashi foam. It looks fabulous, like some miniature garden topped with bubble-bath. Evidently, precise assembly on the plate is one of Wazen’s specialties. Complex, warm and savoury, it’s a starter which really stirs the appetite. Chicken Kakinotare, meanwhile, is one of those dishes that has all the ingredients to be a real hit in London. Fried chicken? Check. Funky salad? Decadent twist? Check. Of course. Crumbled Japanese rice crackers add an essential textural contrast.
Despite the dominance of the hot plates, there’s ample evidence to suggest that Wazen know what they’re doing with sushi. Isabiri features three hulking, tractor tyre-esque nigiri rolls, with wedges of salmon embracing a thick, ripened smear of avocado. Sazanami brings thick-cut sashimi of tuna, salmon and whitefish, fresh and succulent.
Although chicken has not been in short supply so far, Chicken Namban manages to impress with its sticky, vinegary sauce. ‘Namban’ refers to the ‘savages from the south’, the Portuguese who brought their alien spices and flavours from afar. It’s one of those dishes which has inspired endless variations, but essentially it’s battered and deep fried chicken doused in a brown sauce of vinegar and other flavours I can’t detect. It’s good, in the same way an underground rave is good: it’s an assault on the senses, a foul-mouthed barrage of sharp, savoury sensations. For those used to polite, refined Japanese flavours, be warned.
Thankfully, we’re heading back towards delicacy and finesse for dessert. Both are entirely defined by their coating of matcha. First there’s a tiramisu, shamrock-green from a liberal dusting of green tea powder. Given that tiramisu’s flavours traditionally lean towards the soft and creamy, the tart volley of acrid tea doesn’t really blend. Yet there’s enough going on here to make it enjoyable, with the richness of the middle going a long way to diffuse the bitterness, so that it doesn’t ever get out of hand. Meanwhile, a chiffon cake has nowhere to hide: it’s matcha or bust, and the soft, delicate crumb of the cake is overpowered by the green tea.
Notwithstanding a few hiccups, Wazen’s experimental menu brings something new and interesting to the city. With Korean food getting big and the fried chicken dirty food carnival showing no sign of abating, Wazen’s everyday, family dinner table dishes are sure to find a willing audience. And although the wine list and desserts are nothing to shout about, we should be grateful: we’re living in an age where ‘neighbourhood Japanese’ is a thing. Rejoice.
For more information visit the Wazen website
words Chris Zacharia