Restaurants consist of three things – food, service, and ambiance. Yoshino has them in such perfect balance that, when I hear its name or simply walk past, a smile always comes to my face. I’m hopeful about all in the world.
I was first introduced to Yoshino by a friend my partner and I bumped into while having a drink at our club. One thing naturally led to another, and before long we had settled on having dinner at this little Japanese place off Piccadilly he recommended.
We found ourselves in Yoshino. Around since 1984, this small, two-floor, Japanese dining house – in a former pub and marked by a neon sign reading “sushi” – became key to the Japanese restaurant scene in London in the mid-nineties. Like many long-surviving restaurants in London, it has had its ups and downs over the years, with ill-fitting menus and falling client numbers. Kept going through the lean times by a steadfast and devoted group of regulars, it is once again clearly flourishing under the combined direction of Lisa, the ever smiling, charming, attentive, and self-sacrificing manager, and the right menu. Today it’s one of those little out of the way places that the regulars jealously guard, letting only their closest of friends in on the secret.
On our first visit, we were greeted by Lisa, who came round from behind the open kitchen bar that fills much of the small ground floor dining room, to give us a choice of table or the bar; we chose a table (the ground floor tables contain their own barbeque grills). Our friend ordered the Chirashi Sushi while he gabbled away with Lisa about a bit of this and a bit of that and, of course, which sake we should have. While we were chatting with Lisa, two gyoza were placed in front of us. Made of the thinnest wrapping and stuffed with mince and veg, they were beautifully delicate, with a sharp yet slightly sweet vinegary dip.
In the true style of small Japanese restaurants, Lisa is both chef and spectacular front of house. She makes all feel welcome, and is so modest that she hates anyone drawing attention to how key she is to the success of the place.
Edamame beans were brought along with the sake – served in the traditional way in square bamboo boxes. This was quickly followed by a bowl of miso soup and then the main part of our meal, the Chirashi Sushi. This two tier bento box was opened up to reveal Yoshino’s original Chirashi rice – sticky rice topped with shredded cabbage, Japanese omelette, and salmon roe – and four kinds of sashimi, all thickly sliced and beautifully atop a tray of crushed ice – tuna, two salmon and otoro (the fatty underbelly of the tuna). Accompanied by soy sauce and real wasabi, it is among the finest sashimi and bento boxes available in London and makes for a perfect lunch or light dinner.
To say that this represents all that Yoshino has to offer, though, would be like saying that Donald Trump is a champion of women and Mexicans. While the menu has changed, both in layout and offering, since I first went, at its heart remains an a la carte, offering a fine selection of sashimi, sushi, tempura, and Japanese barbeque, along with other staples like miso soup, dumplings, seaweed, and edamame beans. You can of course order whatever you want – it isn’t an issue of ordering courses – but, if you are unsure what to have, there are a number of set menus that provide a taste of what’s on offer.
I would always suggest ordering a la carte and, luckily, I have now eaten everything on the menu at least once. Let me guide you to the very finest of all the fine dishes on offer.
The salmon salad – also available with tuna – is, as far as I can see, the only reason for baby watercress to exist, and is pure perfection in just three ingredients: chunks of raw salmon topped with crisp, clean, mustardy cress, and a salty soy sauce dressing. Along with the miso soup, edamame beans, and the gyoza, it makes for the perfect entry to the meal. If you’re open to it, and the fact you’re at a Japanese restaurant suggests you probably are, try the seaweed salad, if for no other reason than to sample a few varieties – served unadulterated.
Sushi and sashimi are, of course, a must. Sashimi-wise I’d suggest the salmon and both the tuna and the fatty tuna, but the star is the scallop. In Japan, the fatty belly of the tuna is the most highly prized, but it’s rarely seen in the UK, so take advantage of the chance to try it and order the normal tuna as a comparison; it is soft and unctuous against firm and irony. You’ll find familiarity and comfort in the sushi with avocado, king prawn, spicy tuna, and salmon. There is a new otoro sushi and a tempura soft shell crab sushi that are both larger and worth having if you’re open to something less ubiquitous. I’d also encourage you to try the eel. The eel sushi in fact is eel nigiri (blocks of rice with the fish laid on top). The eel has been barbequed and the lemon the nigiri sits on perfumes it beautifully.
As you’d expect, the tempura is beautifully light and comes with a dipping sauce. This has a spongy radish element to it that soaks into the batter and brings a wonderful saltiness and kick. Over my visits, I’ve had tempura cod, avocado, asparagus, soft shell crab, and king prawn, amongst others, all of which were cooked to perfection. I must admit, though, that one of my favourite things about the tempura dishes (and a few others) is that they are served on a bed of tempura shredded carrot, as fine as hair, filling an ice cream sundae glass. They also have a potato or noodle version that garnishes some dishes. All are wonderful dipped into soy sauce with the fresh wasabi mixed into it.
The Japanese barbeque is the best part of the menu. Tenderly grilled chicken, salmon, king prawn, wagyu beef rib eye, and beef tenderloin are all up for grabs. Each is cooked so delicately and served with either a red miso or aioli dipping sauce. The chicken and the salmon are the best; the former is succulent and juicy, while the salmon is done with such a light touch it has a beautiful buttery quality and melts in the mouth. The beef, in fact, is an uncommon feature on a Japanese menu as its not eaten much in Japan where it’s seen as too heavy. Given the Anglo Saxons’ love of it, the Yoshino menu obliges.
London is full of great Japanese restaurants, and restaurants with great ambiance, great food, or great service but, even among the best restaurants, its hard for them to pull off all three. Yoshino does just this. It’s a tranquil space in a noisy and busy part of town, where you are made to feel comfortable and at home while being served food that has been prepared with the utmost care and respect that is central to Japanese food culture.
I can’t recommend Yoshino more highly. But, come to think of it, do me a favour and don’t go. It’s perfect just the way it is, and I’d hate for that to change if the secret got out.
3 Piccadilly Pl Mayfair London W1J 0DB