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.