Over 20 years ago, Fumio Ichibangase and Charles Fontaine arrived in London, the former from Tokyo ostensibly to study English, the latter after his national service in the French Army in Alsace to pursue his original profession as a chef. Their subsequent careers reveal just how much the current exciting reputation of London’s restaurants is due to such highly committed outsiders.
When I asked Ichibangase why he had subsequently moved into the restaurant business he smiled and replied, "Because I like food," a sentiment which underpins everything he has done since he opened Sakana-Tei, a modest establishment just off Regent Street nine years ago. And its food still remains the main reason for anyone choosing to eat there.
In fact Sakana-Tei (which roughly translates into English as ‘appetiser house') reminded me very strongly of the best but equally unassuming restaurants in Tokyo. You could easily overlook the entrance which is signalled by a single small sign with a phone number that has not been changed since the days of the 0171 prefix. In the window are a couple of trays of plastic food that could easily put off the undecided. The interior is simple and probably in need of a lick of paint with the walls merely revealing shelves holding a range of trays for the food and several bottles of sake and expensive malt whisky.
But once seated at a table or at the counter the emphasis on the most authentic Japanese food and service is obvious. Ichibanagase stands at a small desk by the door where he is able to keep a watchful eye on his two chefs behind the sushi counter, his young waitresses on the ground floor and his more experienced waitresses who look after the tables downstairs. And above all this position allows him to take great personal care of his customers.
In fact this is how we met because just as I was finishing an excellent lunch of grilled eel, miso soup and a cup of the restaurant’s top quality green tea, Ichibangase approached me and asked whether this wasn’t my first time in his restaurant. This attention to detail subsequently led him to explain why, despite the popularity of his restaurant with London’s Japanese community and many who work nearby, Ichibangase has refused to move to bigger, perhaps more glamorous premises. "If I were to expand," he explained "how could I look after my customers ?"
While the lunch menu concentrates on a range of keenly priced and quickly served dishes – and my second lunch of a bowl of Udon noodles alongside six pieces of nigiri sushi, the fish including the sought-after toro, or fatty tuna, squid and salmon roll at £12 was even better value than my first – the restaurant’s most distinguishing feature is a small blackboard which is shown to customers at dinner . On this are written in the most meticulous Japanese a collection of about forty dishes (another twenty are on small pieces of paper attached to the blackboard’s wooden frame) which include the kitchen’s rendition of dishes normally eaten in Japanese homes and concentrate on only the most seasonal ingredients, most significantly in Ichibangase’s opinion, their vegetable component. "The four very different seasons are crucial to Japanese cooking and so this is the path we must follow," Ichibangase told me.
Over the past decade Fontaine, as chef/proprietor of The Quality Chop House in Farringdon Road, EC1, cooked in equally modest albeit more characterful premises. But after selling the Chop House to his partner and then travelling for a year, he has fortunately resurfaced in the rather wonderful Throgmorton’s in the City.
Fontaine and his business partner Farika Skilton are the first to admit that the initial allure of this vast complex of deli, bars and restaurants (they reckon it is just under a kilometre from the front door to the back of the furthest kitchen) owes a great deal to its Victorian interior designers. The gold-tiled spiral staircase which leads from the deli to the restaurant seems just like a leftover feature from a Hollywood gangster film from the 1930’s, its sinister feel somewhat enhanced by the extraordinary chandeliers and light fittings which were specially made in Egypt.
If all this seems slightly incongruous for a setting no more than a short walk from the Bank of England, Fontaine seems to acknowledge this by creating menus in the deli and in the restaurant which are quintessentially English and absolutely in keeping with his local clientele’s demands.
The deli offers hefty sandwiches (using St John bread, although Fontaine plans to start baking his own shortly); simple hot food, such as sausage and mash, fish pie and spinach pasties) and a range of cold dishes as well as a small retail outlet for the best British produce. It is all honest, clean food, the kind that no-one working nearby is ever likely to tire of eating.
The same philosophy underpins the restaurant downstairs although what distinguishes this room to even greater effect is the original banquettes and booths which have now been tastefully restored. The line of intimate booths for two down one side of the room is likely to become extremely popular whether for business assignations or otherwise, and this overall impression of solid comfort is enhanced by good acoustics thanks to the wooden panelling and carpeted floor.
And as in the deli, the restaurant kitchen delivers uncomplicated British food extremely well and at eminently sensible prices. A lunch that encompassed a large plate of crisp, fried whitebait, leeks vinaigrette (the latter perhaps not quite piquant enough), steak and kidney pie, a plate of gammon steak with fried eggs so satisfying that it reminded my business associate from Northern Ireland of meals he had had as a child when out with his parents in the 1960’s, a couple of desserts and four glasses of wine came to £57.60.
Only our emergence from this rather louche interior into the bustle of the City came as an unwelcome, if necessary, shock.
Sakana-Tei, 11 Maddox Street , London W1S 2QF, 020-7629 3000, Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday. Lunch from £10, set dinner £30 although it can be considerably more.
Throgmortons, 27A Throgmorton Street, London EC2N 2AN, 020-7588 5165. Deli 1000-2000, restaurant 1200-1500. Monday-Friday only.