Izakayas are to Japan what the pub is to the UK.
An izakaya is a place for drinking and eating with friends, offering a great drinks list and plenty of small plate sharing dishes to pair with sake, beer or your tipple of choice.
Kiri Restaurant is the latest offering from Saga Japanese Restaurants, the group behind Chisou in Mayfair and Knightsbridge. Managing Director, David Leroy tells us how Kiri came about – several months ago, when it seemed likely that they would need to relocate Chisou Mayfair branch, they took on the old Gigi’s site on Woodstock Street in preparation for the move. When that turned out not to be the case, they decided to keep the new site and create something a little different to their Chisou offering.
In Chisou, they offer a fairly traditional Japanese restaurant experience. For Kiri, the group’s senior chefs put together a menu designed specifically to work with the drinks list; a more informal style of eating. The sake list features a range of bottles not available anywhere else in the UK and the drinks menu also includes a strong selection of umeshu and wine, plus a few Japanese beers, shochu and big brand spirits.
Like pubs here, izakayas in Japan run the gamut from cheap and cheerful to elegant and expensive. Kiri sits in the second category, though the prices are very fair for the quality of ingredients and cooking we experienced.
We tried three sakes through our meal.
The first was a punchy Fisherman junmai ginjo from Shiokawa Niigata that was full of fruit aroma, meaty umami, fresh green fruit but with a hint of sweetness. Recommended in the menu as a match for lighter dishes that would usually pair with white wine, we felt it would be a better substitute for red wine.
Likewise, its sister sake Cowboy Junmai Ginjo, which was suggested as an alternative for red wine drinkers, we found altogether lighter with clean pared back fruit notes, unripe pear, and less of an umami hit. We thought this one would be better as a substitute for white wine!
We also enjoyed a Red Label Junmai from Hakukko Hiroshima – a wonderful, easy-drinking sake with plenty of fruity aromas and the classic sake flavour profile.
I am a sucker for umeshu, and loved my glass of the Umeshu Gyokuro – an umeshu flavoured with green tea. It was super sweet, with little evidence of the green tea, but delicious nonetheless.
I love the subtle flavours of Agedashi tofu (£5) and this was no exception. Large, superbly soft cubes of gently fried tofu were served in a rich vegetarian dashi broth made from mushrooms and seaweed. On top of the tofu were slices of slippery, meaty mushroom, fresh spring onion and a generous pile of nori.
I’m not always a big one for salads but thought it wise to have some vegetables against all the fish and meat we ordered. The Kiri special salad (£6.50) was a superb choice, not only bright in colour but in flavours and textures too. The mix of tomatoes, beetroot, radish, broccoli and carrots in the house dressing worked beautifully, and we loved the crunch of the popped rice scattered over the top.
Oh my goodness, it took all my will power not to immediately order a second Hotate to ebi no gratin (£9.50) – a creamy gratin of crab, scallop and prawns. Under a perfectly golden and crunchy crumb topping, the seafood was just cooked, allowing the flavours and texture of the fresh seafood to shine. Superb!
Small but perfectly formed, the Kunsei maguro tataki (£8) arrived in a gorgeous pottery bowl. Perfectly seared slices of apple smoked tuna were served with a sharp onion sauce. This ticked all the boxes, and was gone far too quickly.
Next came a dish just perfect for soaking up delicious sake or beer! Satsuma imo no croquettes (£7) (sweet potato croquettes) were served hot out of the fryer on a generous bed of wasabi mayo. Soft and fluffy without being a pappy puree, and wrapped in crisp panko breadcrumbs, I could eat these every day.
The kitchen decided some rice would be in order, and sent out this extra dish of Kimchee cha-han (£5.80), kimchee fried rice with Japanese mushrooms and a fried quail egg. The rice was sticky, with just the right level of kimchee to provide flavour without overwhelming the light flavours of other dishes and the egg delivered a perfect yolk porn moment!
Our waiter suggested Uzura-niku no norimaki age (£12) and we’re glad we tried it, though it was not one of our favourites of the meal. The cylinders of quail meat rolled in seaweed and breadcrumbs and deep fried had a fairly unexciting Western flavour profile, even with the faint hint of seaweed from the nori wrapping. The tonkatsu (brown) sauce was decent, though I found the pink peppercorns a little too powerful.
What a fabulous rendition of Nasu dengaku (£5.50)! Instead of presenting a halved aubergine with glazed surface, we were served cubes of skin-on aubergine in a superbly rich, dark red miso sauce. The aubergine flesh was silky soft and the skin thin and crispy rather than the unpleasant chewiness I’ve sometimes encountered – this pleased me hugely as I love eating the skin.
We decided to try two kushiyaki items, starting with the Getsuyo kushiyaki (£3.80 per skewer). These marinated rabbit skewers were cooked to perfection on the robata grill, with no chewiness or toughness that is so often the hallmark of grilled rabbit – there’s a good reason it’s so often stewed long and slow! These were as soft as chicken thigh, and with good flavour.
Another winner was the Wagyu kushiyaki (£7.50 per skewer). I’ve had wagyu a few times in London restaurants and whilst it’s usually been good, it’s rarely had this level of marbling and tenderness, resulting it that signature melt-in-the-mouth quality that I so love about wagyu. The beef was cut into thin strips that were neatly folded onto the skewer, before grilling and serving with a black pepper sauce and sansho. Utterly superb!
On the date of our visit, there wasn’t a dessert menu available and the only offerings were a chocolate mousse or ice cream (£3.90). (Talking to friends who visited the week after, I believe there are now several more desserts available).
Since the ice cream offered far more interesting than the chocolate mousse, we went for one scoop of each. Matcha had a smack-you-around-the-face flavour, and I loved that it had not been over sweetened – a winner for anyone who loves the rich and slightly bitter green tea as I do, but too much for Pete. Black sesame was also punchy in flavour, and benefited from an utterly smooth texture – I’ve had other black sesame ice creams that failed to overcome a grittiness from the ground sesame seeds so this was a lovely surprise. Last of the three was a really unusual white miso ice cream, a very strange flavour that is hard to describe – a little like buttermilk or funky milk, but not quite like either. A good trio of ice creams with strong flavours and great texture.
What impressed me most was the quality of ingredients and cooking – not one dish was disappointing; though we naturally loved some more than others we enjoyed everything we tried. I’m still dreaming about some of them a couple of weeks later!
Kavey Eats dined as guests of Kiri Restaurant.