Never judge a book by its cover. That must be one of the most commonly used phrases in the English language and helpfully provides the theme for this restaurant review of a small Japanese establishment that my dining partner and I ventured to before a gig at the renowned Camden music venue, Koko. Located in somewhat insalubrious surroundings next to Mornington Crescent tube station, Asakusa’s exterior is far from inspiring, with dirty windows and a free-standing glass case housing a paper menu that’s so aged and faded you’d be forgiven for thinking that the restaurant had closed down years ago. Once you step inside though, all that is forgotten – smiling staff and slightly kitsch Japanese décor combine to give Asakusa a warm and welcoming atmosphere and the fact that most of its patrons are Japanese suggests (rightly) that the food will be truly authentic. At 7pm on a Friday evening, the upstairs dining room was already packed and without a reservation we had to wait a few minutes before being offered a corner table in the smaller dining room down in the basement.
The menu is broad but traditional and my dining partner and I both chose to take advantage of the excellent value set meals, which come with rice, miso soup, Japanese pickles and salad. My Tonkatsu was simply delicious, the pork flavourful and tender with a perfectly crispy panko breadcrumb coating and the sauce a fabulous balance between sweet and sour, with a tang that just cut through the fattiness of the meat. The accompanying rice was soft and fluffy, but sticky enough to pick up with chopsticks, the pickles were delicately flavoured, the salad topped with a wonderful yuzu and ginger dressing, and the miso just the right strength – not too salty – and garnished with generous cubes of soft tofu and slivers of smooth seaweed.
Since we hadn’t gone for starters, we each enjoyed a sushi plate at the side of our main meal. My dining partner chose simple tuna maki, while I went for the salmon and avocado uramaki – inside out rolls with the rice wrapped around the salmon and avocado. Both were excellent, the fish incredibly fresh, the rice the ideal texture to hold together without being too chewy, the seaweed wrapping thin and delicate, and my avocado perfectly ripe. Also highly impressive was the home-made green wasabi paste that we mixed in liberal quantities into the little dishes of soy sauce in which we dipped our maki, and which packed a brilliant horseradish punch.
We also just couldn’t resist sharing a dish of deep fried soft shell crab – and although it was one of the more expensive side dishes on the menu at £7, it was well worth it. The portion was generous – 2 whole crabs – and the rich, succulent meat encased in its thin, yielding but still ever so slightly crunchy shell, and enveloped in a feather-light batter provided a brilliantly contrasting set of textures.
After all that food, we simply didn’t have room for any dessert, though we would also have struggled to find the time for it, as the service (whilst friendly) was far from quick – we waited around 35 minutes for our main meals to arrive and another 10 minutes or so for the sushi. Drinks wise, Asakusa offers a wide range of different sakes, shochus, Japanese beers and plum wines. My dining partner drank a Kirin whilst I opted for a glass of sweet, smooth plum wine on ice. Indeed, all around us in the downstairs dining room, groups of Japanese patrons were busying themselves with shots of sake, which they topped up from the bottle at regular intervals during their meals. This made for quite a convivial atmosphere in the little windowless room, to the extent that I was only reminded of our location when, every now and again, I felt the walls vibrating as a tube train rattled past in the tunnels on the other side. Underground rumblings and ugly façade aside, however, Asakusa offers excellent, authentic Japanese cuisine at very reasonable prices (our food and drink came in at around £28 per head including tip) and is fully deserving of a fantastic four and a half Forks-Up.Asakusa 265 Eversholt Street London NW1 1BA Tel: 020 7388 8533 Asakusa has no website.