Updated: May 13, 2022
This is a re-blog of an item I first posted in 2019 before you know what came along. Post the 2021 lockdown, I thought I would revisit the locations to see whether they had survived. I didn't eat anything this time around, I just wanted to check that if you read this post, you will still be able to find the restaurants reviewed. The good news is that all the restaurants are still open...except the winner! But, don't worry - the winner has other branches within walking distance for you to try. If you just want to know where I recommend you spend your hard earned cash, just scroll down to the conclusion. And if you're thinking, "I thought this was a cooking website", you'll find two recipe ideas at the end two. I choose two items that I ordered and show you how you can make these dishes as well (or in most cases better) than the restaurant version in your own kitchen (and for a lot less cash).
The Original Post
I love making Japanese food...I also love eating out - so I often combine a trip into central London with lunch or dinner at a Japanese eatery - Soho is the place to go as you are quite spoilt for choice these days. Here are six short reviews of the places I have eaten at that I thought I would share with you. These are the sort of places you might like to visit after a shopping trip or before/after seeing a show for something simple, wholesome and fast.
PS: the restaurants weren't aware that I was reviewing their fare and service. I pay for what I eat, so my opinions are honest and unbiased....
Tokyo Diner, Newport St, Soho, WC2H 7JJ.
This is a small, two floor restaurant on the edge of Soho. Pretty busy at lunchtime when we visited although upstairs was less so. Inside, it's a little cramped and decorated in a “Japan-homey” sort of way - if you were in a less than generous mood, you might describe it as a little dowdy.
The menu was pretty comprehensive, including just about everything you would expect on the menu of a Japanese restaurant. Tokyo Diner is owned by an Englishman and has been in same place for over 30 years so they must be doing something right. We ate curry udon which was ok though not more than that and “tofu-don” (tofu served on a bed of rice) which was the first time we’d seen deep fried tofu fingers (think fish fingers but with tofu instead of fish) on a menu. The tofu fingers were served with a soy based, thick sauce - interesting idea and quite flavourful. Best of all (on a wintry December afternoon), there was a lot of it - the dish came served with miso soup.
The staff were very pleasant. In fact, one of the waitresses charged out of shop pursuing two diners who’d left both a handbag and a pair of glasses behind.
Cost £23 for two with complimentary green tea, so a great price. Tokyo Diner also does great deals on set lunches, especially if you arrive after 3pm!
Food ★★★☆☆. Ambience ★★☆☆☆ Value for Money ★★★★☆
Kintan, Great Castle St, W1G 0HY.
This is a modern, ground and basement restaurant specialising in yaki niku (literally, cooked meat) aka Japanese barbecue. You cook your food at your table over an electric grill. Kintan also offers non-grill lunch sets for those in a hurry at lunch time. Kintan has been in London for around 3 years - its first outlet was established in High Holbodn - and is Japanese owned. We visited during early evening “happy hour” before the rather pricey evening tariff kick in (starting at £30 per head.) Inside, Kintan is very well decorated, a nice blend of modern cum Japanese cum diner. The service was pleasant although the Japanese staff shouting out slogans in Japanese didn’t make much sense as there didn't appear to be any Japanese diners in the place - so did anybody understand what they were saying?
The menu is, unsurprisingly for a barbecue specialist, heavy on meat but also lists seafood and vegetables together with some salads. There were four of us, so we ate a variety of meat and fish barbecue dishes, each of which came with miso soup, edamame, salad and rice. Everyone liked the edamame which were just right and served with the right amount of sea salt. The salads were decent enough. Two portions of the rice were, sad to say, awful - had someone tried to mash it like potato? The meat and sea food were ok but no more than that, some of the meat was more scrap than slice sized. Kintan is a decent choice if you must eat grilled meat or just want to try the yaki niku experience.
cost £75 for 4 with complimentary tea. (not sure I’d pay the evening tariff but ok if you need to eat early and are a meat fan).
Food ★★★☆☆. Ambience ★★★☆☆ Value for Money ★★☆☆☆
Koya, 50 Frith St, W1G 4SG.
Anglo-Japanese owned Koya describes itself as a “simple cafe style Japanese serving udon and small plates served at communal tables.” There’s another, newer, Koya located in the City a stones throw from Cannon St station which is described as “a little more grown up” by its English co-founder. Neither location accepts reservations. We visited during lunchtime so the place was full and a queue formed while we were there - never a bad sign. The interior of Koya is dominated by a long counter for diners and the food is prepared behind the counter. I’d describe the decor as “factory folksy” with plenty of stainless steel and wood and a kitchen area that looked as if it had been transplanted straight from Japan.
We ordered 3 dishes; Pork kakuni (Japanese style slow cooked pork) to share and bowls of Miso pork udon and Pork ginger donburi (minced pork with ginger, spring onion and onion on a bed of rice). The food was very good and the serving were pretty generous. The waiting staff were pleasant and dealing well with what is likely the restaurant’s busiest time of day. The one thumbs down in the restaurant is that few of the staff in the kitchen area seemed to wear catering gloves - while I have a problem with bare hands handling udon noodles, I have an even bigger problem seeing sauce being ladled into a dish with a bare hand rather than a ladle - seriously, I saw this with my own eyes! That eyebrow raiser aside, the meal was actually enjoyable and the food tasted comparable to what I'd expect to find in Japan.
Cost £35 for 2.
Food ★★★★☆. Ambience ★★★★☆. Value for Money ★★★☆☆
Tonkotsu, 63 Dean St, W1D 4QG.
Tonkotsu takes it name, literally, from the pork bones used to make its signature broth and thereafter, the thick, creamy ramen that has its home in Kyushu and which is also the restaurant's signature dish. The owners of Tonkotsu boast their own in-house produced noodles and broth, so we went there anticipating something a cut above the normal.
The Dean St outlet (Tonkotsu operates 6 bars across London and 1 in Birmingham) is a 10 min walk from Leicester Square station, midway up Dean St. we went for lunch and had to wait a few minutes to be seated upstairs. The interior was a little gloomy for my liking and didn't conjure up any flavour of Japan or ramen but it was clean and functional.
We ordered 3 bowls of ramen, 1 Tonkotsu (photo to left), 1 Tokyo and 1 Vegetarian curried pumpkin and spiced corn together with some deep fried sweet potato croquettes, pork gyoza and vegetarian shiitake and bamboo shoot gyoza. The croquettes appeared almost immediately and were very good, sweet, soft and creamy beneath a crispy crumb shell. We were set up nicely for the rest of the meal. The ramen dishes arrived some 10 mins later and turned out to be a mixed bag. The Tonkotsu itself was very hearty, too rich, in fact, for me but I'm sure some people might find it just right. The Tokyo ramen was pretty good although not outstanding. The vegetarian dish was disappointing with an almost tasteless soup and a curry flavour which we had to search hard for before we found it. The shop made noodles were fine but a little soggy for my liking (being Japanese I like noodles to have a little "bite" left in them) - they were probably just a little overcooked. We finished our ramen dishes but where, oh where, were the gyoza? 25 minutes and 3 requests later, they finally arrived (without an apology for the wait) and really, we wish they hadn't. The vegetarian filling fell out of the gyoza skins when we picked them up and these were about the most tasteless I'd eten in a long while. The pork gyoza really weren't much better.
All said and done, Tonkotsu was a bit of a disappointment - for a shop marketing in-house noodles and broth, the sum of the parts should really be better than this. I really wanted to like this place - the ramen dishes were better than average but the late, unapologetic service and awful gyoza means Tonkotsu isn't going to win my customer loyalty.
Cost £55 for 3.
Food ★★★☆☆. Ambience ★★☆☆☆. Value for Money ★★☆☆☆
Taro, 61 Brewer St, Soho, W1F 9UW.
Taro is Japanese owned and the original Brewer St site has been going for nearly 20 years - there's another branch in Balham and more recently, a take away in Cannon St in the City. Taro describes itself as unfussy which is pretty accurate as far as the Brewer St branch goes. The decor is very plain and when you walk in you get the impression that the place is about the food
and value for money - you wouldn't come here for the ambience. Diners are certainly packed in tightly and the staff do their best not to let diners pick a position of choice or spread out. The Brewer St branch kitchen is set at the back of the restaurant in full view of the diners (always a good thing in my opinion). The place was very busy when we arrived but we were seated quickly. We ordered chirashi sushi (a bowl of rice with various sushi arranged over the top- photo below) and a bento box with a generous portion of teriyaki duck on a bed of rice, 2 maki sushi, 2 nigiri sushi, small portions of tuna and salmon sashimi, edamame and bean sprouts. The bento also came with a bowl of miso soup - so, all-in-all a substantial lunch. table service was polite and efficient and we had our meals before us in under 15 minutes.
Both servings were generous and the food was pretty good although not outstanding. The teriyaki duck was good if a little tough and the sushi and sashimi were of a quality you would expect as part of a lunch set. Taro resembles Tokyo Diner in that both places are good value for money and serve satisfying portions of reasonably well prepared food. when all's said and down, we quite liked Taro - as they say, "it does what it says on the tin".
Cost £28 for 2.
Food ★★★☆☆. Ambience ★★☆☆☆. Value for Money ★★★★☆
Shoryu, 19 Air Street, Soho W1B 5AB.
Shoryu, like Tonkotsu, presents itself as a Kyushu ramen specialist. The chain (there are 9 branches in London as well as Oxford and Manchester) is owned by Tak Tokumine who also owns the Japan Centre stores and can probably take more credit than anyone else for having introduced Japanese food and culture to the UK in the last 20 years.
We went to the smallest Shoryu outlet (the Air Street branch) which has a counter with 6 seats and room for maybe 4 more at a counter by the window. (Note - this branch of Shoryu is now closed. However, you are spoilt for choice as Shoryu has 3 operating branches within a 10 minute walk at 9 Regent St SW1Y 4LR, and 5 Kingly Court W1B 5PJ and 84 New Oxford St WC1 1HB.)
My co-diner ordered gansu ramen (their signature tonkotsu dish - in the photo left) and gyoza and I ordered the hot, spicy tan tan tonkotsu. After 2 minutes, we were both nodding our heads with approval - this was very good ramen. If I wanted to be picky, I'd say that the egg was a disappointment - but that apart, the dishes were very good and reasonably priced. The other branches of shoryu might present themselves differently but the Air Street branch was just a simple, efficient little ramen shop serving an authentic product at a down to earth price - we both left thinking we'd try out another Shoryu branch soon.
Cost £25.80 for 2.
Food ★★★★☆. Ambience ★★☆☆☆. Value for Money ★★★★☆
So, with six eateries reviewed, who's on the stairway to heaven and who's on the naughty step?
Shoryu: very good food, good price, a little piece of Japan in London.
Koya: very good food and service and a pleasant atmosphere. But please, do something about the gloveless chefs!
Middle of the pack:
Tokyo Diner & Taro: good value for money but both looking a little tired.
Kintan: nicely presented but rather uninspiring food
The tail ender:
Tonkotsu : The ramen was OK but the gyoza were awful and making customers ask 3 times for part of their order..well, what can I say?
Or why not make it yourself?
We all enjoy dining out. But don't forget you can make Japanese food at home which will not only taste as good or better than what you eat out (or order in) and for a fraction of the cost too - what's not to like about that! I've listed two recipes below for items I ordered during my review. Just follow the links to the written recipes and Youtube tutorials.
Recipe #1: Curry Udon. The curry udon I ate at Tokyo Diner was acceptable but nothing more. That's a shame because curry udon is an easy dish to make and should taste very good every time. As long as you get the curry sauce right and serve with freshly cooked noodles, this is one of those dishes where it is more difficult to do it wrong than do it right. You can find my written recipe and Youtube tutorial by clicking here - Curry Udon. If you just wish to see the Youtube tutorial, click here - Curry Udon.
Follow the how to instructions and I hope you'll agree with me that this is a Japanese udon dish anyone can make and enjoy.
Recipe #2: Pork Kakuni. The Pork Kakuni we ordered and ate at Koya was very good. But don't think there's anything about the making of this dish that puts it out of bounds when it comes to home cooking. Just find the right balance of soy sauce, sake and mirin in your cooking broth and then let a pressure cooker or an oven do the hard work for you. You can find my written recipe and Youtube tutorial by clicking here - Pork Kakuni. If you just wish to see the Youtube tutorial, you can find the link here - Pork Kakuni. Follow the step by step instructions and you'll be eating your very own Japanese Pork Kakuni dish in the comfort of your own home for a fraction of the cost!
About the reviewer.
Hi, I'm Kurumi, a cooking writer and blogger. I'm Japanese but I have lived in London for the last
30 thirty years. Back in the days before the internet (and Youtube), I was a food writer. My first book published in English was called Japanese Cooking for Two which I wrote in 1994. It has become the 9th best selling Japanese cookbook ever… yippee!
My other books were ‘The Noodle Cookbook”, “The Soy for Health Cookbook” and “Healthy Noodles.” I also published a book in Japanese “English Home Cooking”. Then I had children and my life changed!
By the time my children had grown up, the world had changed quite a lot too! Internet, Youtube, Insta etc. So, these days, instead of books, I publish recipe and articles on my website and on my Youtube channel. I hope you'll check out my recipes - they are all tried and tested (some more times than I care to mention!) until I think you will get them right first time when you make them and enjoy eating them.
If you’d like to read more about me or my books, then follow the link here:
Happy eating! Kurumi XXXX.