Akira (at Japan House London)

I went to visit the Windowology exhibition at the Japan House, and I decided to try their restaurant while I was in the area (given we know there isn’t a lot of great choices anyway).

So up I went into the restaurant, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it was fairly empty and quiet. They briefly hesitated initially, but managed to find me a table. I was mildly amused slash intrigued, because there were perhaps four or five more people in the spacious and nicely designed restaurant, but hey: they knew best.

I sat down and before I finished opening the drinks menu, someone was asking me what did I want to drink. I like the eagerness, but it felt a bit disjointed. It wasn’t the last thing to feel like that…

And then I hesitated about what I wanted to drink for a good while. Principally, because I did not know what I wanted to eat. If I chose wine, and if I wanted to pair the food with the wine, how do you choose one when you don’t know what the other one is? Also, my favourite sake sommelier wasn’t with me, as I was lunching solo. I recognised some of the names in the sake list, but I didn’t want to commit to any because I was feeling quite uncertain. So with both wine and sake out of the question, I settled down on some ginger beer, and tap water.

Now for the food. I again didn’t know what I wanted. Was I hungry? Was I not that hungry? Were the portions big? Small? There didn’t seem to be much inclination from the waiters to help—mind you, I also didn’t ask as I did not have a lot of energy at that time. I was tired and I didn’t want to think. So I thought: bah, I will just have one of the set menus. Given we very rarely eat meat at home, let alone cooked on a charcoal grill, I chose the robata omakase menu, hoping to be presented with something I would never eat at home. Little did I know…

First came the starter. This was very promising!

It consisted in some sort of burrata, with a fig and what seemed to be a combination of jellies flavoured with yuzu, orange and perhaps other citrus fruits I’m not aware of. The combination of sweet, salty, soft, firm: it was very interesting! Although not very practical: it was impossible to pick those delicious bits of jelly with the chopsticks, as they would slide off inexorably. I hoped the next dish was equally delicious and interesting, but more practical.

Starter at Akira restaurant at Japan House London
Starter at Akira restaurant at Japan House London

Then a bento box arrived. The waiter asked me if I wanted an explanation. I said I didn’t think I needed it, but thank you (let’s remind ourselves that I had just finished watching an exhibition, and my brain was full of information).

But they didn’t move. It felt like they really wanted to explain things to me, so I eventually agreed. A mumbly explanation followed in which they went really quickly through the compartments in the box and I nodded and hoped they finished as soon as possible and left me alone.

It was a bit like when you arrive at a hotel after a very long trip and you’re super tired and all you want is the key to your room, but the receptionist decides to tell you about all the facilities in the hotel and how great their day trips could be if you were to sign up? And you look at them with your swollen eyes, sore and red, and silently beg them to shut up and hand you the key so that you can put yourself to bed. And they don’t “get it”, but keep enumerating the times of breakfast and dinner instead, as if that mattered at that point.

Bento box at Akira restaurant at Japan House London
Bento box at Akira restaurant at Japan House London

I started working my way through the box. The vegetables were either basically raw or soft enough they started to feel on the verge of “limp”. The fish was fine, but nothing to rave about. The deep fried things were probably the nicest and more flavourful of all things in the box, but there was not a lot of them.

The initial enthusiasm created by the starter was dissolving—quickly!

And if there was any left, it went away in a puff of SMOKE as the waiter appeared carrying the final course: a GIANT HOT STONE in which things were sizzling and cooking. It was so big and the sizzling so noisy that everyone in the restaurant (which had filled up while I ate) turned towards my table. I was horrified! Stop looking at me you all! I’m just trying to have my lunch!

Big giant hot stone at Akira restaurant at Japan House London
Big giant hot stone at Akira restaurant at Japan House London

A tray with condiments and another tray with more sushi were placed in the table.

And then I was left to consider the logistics of eating this:

  • I had a giant hot stone on my table with some (unseasoned) food on it—some meat, some tempura
  • These things were extremely hot
  • The stone was also very hot and very close to me
  • There were sushi things further away, and I had to stretch my arm while avoiding getting too close to the stone, to grab them. Also make sure I didn’t drop anything that could fall into the sauces, to avoid being splattered by all of it
  • I’m not very tall at all
  • This was going to be complicated

I started nibbling on the sushi things, carefully, so as to not to burn myself on the stone.

Once I thought the temperature had gone down enough, I tried eating some of the things on the stone.

And then I realised how impractical they were: the meat not only had bones in it, but the pieces were too big to grab and get good grip with the chopsticks. And there weren’t any wet towels or similar to wash your hands in the table, so eating with my hands was out of the question. So I sort of tried to gnaw as much meat off of the bones while holding the piece with the chopsticks, but it was never going to be perfect.

Plus the other factor: the seasoning. I had a series of small trays on my right with salt, pepper, etc. It was not clear to me whether I was meant to lay big crystals of salt on the meat and then bite into them too, so as to experience a burst of SALT, or whether I should rather forego the pleasures of seasoning, and just eat the meat as is. Who thought that was a good idea?

With regards to the tempura, a similar situation developed: the pieces were too big to eat in one go, but too thick to split them either by squeezing them with the chopsticks, or by biting into them. Sometimes I’d bite into one and pull away the other side hoping it would break into two parts, only to end with a thick tempura “sleeve” on my chopsticks and the contents of the piece held in the air… by my teeth and lips. It felt terribly non-classy. I’m specially thinking of the thick spring onion that was deep fried in its entirety and placed on the stone. Again, who thought that was a good idea?

Eventually, I got tired of trying to eat my food while averting a fatal tooth-crack by accidentally biting into a bone, or gum-cut by accidentally slicing them with a bone, and decided I was done.

I was offered a dessert, which I politely declined. I was sufficiently underwhelmed and deflated—I didn’t need any more disappointment.

I went back home and had a tea, at the right temperature, with a practical mug that had a useful handle I could use, and some Spanish Christmas sweets which we hadn’t finished with yet. That was better…

As for the restaurant, my verdict? It’s a really beautiful place, but everything seems really disjointed, which was quite disappointing considering how much goodwill and attention to detail there is in the exhibition areas downstairs.

I personally wouldn’t go back, but if you think you can emerge victorious from the Ultimate Hot Stone Challenge, you know where to go…

In the meantime, if I wanted to have a bento box, I think I’d rather go to Engawa. Or maybe just pay another visit to Kazu.

Japan House
101-111 Kensington High Street
London, W8 5SA

I leave you with a picture of dried persimmons on a bamboo rack from the Windowology exhibition, which I found quite striking. I never knew that watching the lifecycle of a tea house from dawn to sunset would be so fascinating. Very soothing, as usual with their exhibitions (which I’d recommend):

Dried persimmons, hanging from their ropes, at Japan House London, Windowology exhibition
Dried persimmons, hanging from their ropes, at Japan House London, Windowology exhibition

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