Jonathan R Jones goes in search of umami at a new Japanese gastropub in London’s Soho.
An ‘izakaya’ is the Japanese take on a gastropub: a laidback place for drinking and casual dining. Yumi Izakaya, a new bar and restaurant on the edge of Soho, is bringing that easy vibe to Shaftesbury Avenue.
Food and drink
The short menu is divided into three sections: sharing dishes, grilled skewers and bacon-wrapped vegetables. Of the sharing options the ‘Yumi Fries’ were the discovery of the evening. You’ve never tasted fries like these. They share the naughty but nice stodginess of Canadian poutine or British chips with curry sauce, but frankly to compare them to either is to do them a disservice. Gossamer fine bonito flakes (dried fish) literally ‘dance’ on top of the hot fries which are smothered in okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise. They are a carby, fatty, fishy, messy triumph.
Another sharing dish of aubergine melted in the mouth but was literally drowning in the soy, mirin and sake it had been braised in. The zippy chilli-fried cauliflower was much more successful – delivering a real bang of flavour thanks to a generous coating of gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste), chilli and yuzu.
After the flavour explosion of the sharing dishes, the skewers were more subtle. The chicken breast was moist and tender and the rib-eye beef had a delicious chargrilled flavour, enhanced by the accompanying chilli miso sauce. Be brave and try the chicken hearts – once you get over their unusual texture, they’ve got a lovely rich meaty flavour perfectly complimented by the sweet and sticky tare sauce. The prize for cutest presentation went to the bacon-wrapped shimeji mushrooms. Skewer portions are small and work best as bar snacks – at £3 to £4.50 you’ll burn through a few quid if you order enough for dinner.
Be ready to drink a lot because all of the food here is seriously salty. Luckily, there’s an inspired cocktail list and a great selection of beers. I can recommend the Grapefruit Beringer – a truly refreshing concoction of tequila, lemon, peach and grapefruit. Draught beers include IPA OK from nearby Long Arm Brewing Company in Ealing, and the house lager Yumi Dry has a delicious, wheaty flavour. There’s also a small wine list and – of course – sake and Japanese whiskeys to really make a night of it.
We finished with sweet mocha ice cream balls. These are a ‘thing’ right now in culinary circles and consist of pounded sticky rice with an ice cream filling. Here they are flavoured with green tea and come coated in sesame seeds – delicious!
Look and vibe
The interior is all about wood – think sauna meets Japanese log cabin. Elsewhere there are touches of exposed brick, softened by fabric wall hangings. Lighting is low and industrial courtesy of caged filament bulbs. It’s an intimate venue with just 38 covers: the bar takes up around half the space and the cosy tables at the rear are tightly packed with bench seating.
It might be on the bustling and sometimes tacky Shaftesbury Avenue, but you’re a world away from the traffic and tourists once nestled in the back. We love an open kitchen but the traditional open robata grill was comically smoky and they’re going to need to invest in more serious extractor fans if they want customers to come back without fear of smelling like a barbecue.
Will Londoners ‘get’ this concept? Only time will tell. The service is friendly and fast and it would certainly make a good pre- or post-theatre pit-stop (the Apollo, Gielgud, Lyric and Queen’s are all literally moments away). But you’d never find it from the heart of Soho if you didn’t know it was there, even though it’s directly behind Compton’s as the crow flies. It was quiet when we visited on a Thursday night for early dinner but is sure to be busier later (and it’s open until 1am every night).
Sharing dishes are £4 – £6, skewers £4.50 for two (beef £3 each). Draft beers are around £5 a pint, cocktails are £8. Look out for their bottomless booze offer (unlimited prosecco or draught beer for two hours when ordering food). For dinner expect to pay around £20 for food per person, excluding drinks and service.
The bottom line
Salty grilled delights await you at this cosy take on the Japanese gastropub in Soho – don’t leave without trying those Yumi Fries!
Yumi Izakaya, 67 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6EX, 020 7871 6021