In Japan, the fax machine is still king of the office. While the western hemisphere abandoned it at the first whiff of email, the Japanese persevered, appreciating the personal touch that comes from a hand-written note, even if that note has been broken down into a series of blips and hisses and reassembled somewhere far away. And not only do fax machines still sell in their many hundreds of thousands, they’ve also continued to develop – they’re now wireless, with internal hard-drives and touch-screens.
In Japan they call this Galapagos Syndrome (actually, they call it Garapagosu-ka), where products and ideas evolve in isolation from the rest of the world (see also: toilets on which you can control everything from the temperature of the seat to the force of the water that sprays your undercarriage). It’s part of the reason the west finds Japan so fascinating, and so impenetrable.
Traditional Japanese cuisine – “washoku”, which was last year placed on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list – has Galapagos Syndrome. Its preparation is a meticulous, quasi-philosophical act that requires decades of training. You don’t just cook it; you live it. And Engawa, the new restaurant at Soho’s Ham Yard, is the best place in London to eat it.
It’s a million miles from the bright, modish dining rooms of Nobu and Koya and Roka. Barely big enough for 25 people, it’s divided into a narrow row of tables and a bar overlooking the kitchen. It feels – and bear with me, I don’t use this word lightly – authentic, like the back-alley restaurants you find in Kyoto or Osaka, where a dozen sweaty businessmen cram into a space big enough for three people and a dog, to be fed whatever the chef has to hand.
At Engawa there are only three dinner options: three courses (£60!), five courses (£80!!) or eight courses (£100!!!). Perfect, the less choice the better, I say. I get choice in Tesco; when I’m eating out I want to make as few decisions as possible. Almost all the dishes involve kobe beef which, as you’ve probably heard, is kind of a big deal. Kobe cattle are exclusive to Hyogo Prefecture west of Osaka, and are raised to exacting standards, involving a prescriptive diet of grains and grasses (people say they also get massages and drink beer but that’s an urban myth). The result is an exceptionally tender, marbled meat, the Holy Grail of the steak world. It’s only been available in the UK since last May due to EU import restrictions, and only 300 cattle’s worth leaves Japan each year. Hence the prices.
Half a dozen chefs (all Japanese) work in contemplative silence, constructing towers from nigiri, radish, beef, roe and kumquat, agonising over the placement of every sliver of chive, sifting through containers of pine needles and rosemary for perfect specimens, all the time spraying their creations with water vapour to stop them drying out. I was transfixed, like Frank Underwood gawping at the Tibetan monks in the latest season of House of Cards. When one chef had the audacity to drop a pan the others glared at him like he’d stomped on a kitten.
The first course came atop a block of ice the size of a rugby ball, with a divot carved at its apex to house a tiny glass bowl. It would make a fine addition to the WeWantPlates Twitter feed, which showcases alternatives to crockery including a shovel, a bookcase and a shoe. At Engawa each thimble-sized element of each course is served on a different style of dish, and the eight course menu is made up of approximately three million individual dishes, some stacked on miniature tables, some lined up in rows in a bento box, some hidden under decorative pine needles, some even placed on something resembling traditional crockery.
A shot of egg custard, dashi stock and shaved truffle was both intense and delicate in the way Japanese cooking manages to be. Prawn and asparagus tempura was impossibly light. The crimson tuna sashimi was outstanding, as were two pink folds of sea bass. The scallop sashimi was excellent. Neat, chewy little squares of squid were unremarkable. Kobe was served in every possible style: raw, seared, reduced to stock, grilled, slow-cooked, boiled (“shabu shabu” style). It really is as fine as they say; buttery, intense, delicate, almost fruity.
Engawa’s cooking doesn’t blow you away, but that’s not the point. It woos you, draws you in with its presentation and quietly surprises you. There were empty tables when I visited on Monday night – book now, I doubt they’ll be there for long.
First published in City A.M.