As Japanese food becomes ever more popular in the capital, an increasing number of restaurants are complicating what should be simple, bold and clean flavours. Thank the heavens then, for Sakana-Tei, which scales it back to the essence of Japanese cuisine, without all the unnecessary pomp.
Sakana-Tei begins its lesson in simplicity at the outset, with an aesthetic that’s borderline basic. Even the sign at the front declares its phone number as an 0171 number, which dates it considerably. The large front window will show you that inside it’s busy – as it often tends to be. It may have a Mayfair postcode but Sakana-Tei isn’t interested in any forced airs and graces. Inside is a neutral decor with walls offering views of trays for the food and a few bottles of alcohol – mainly sake, naturally. The tables are simple and wooden, unadorned by fancy white tablecloths, and the small space spans two floors with a sushi counter where much of the action takes place. Not much to it, certainly, but it allows the food to do all the talking. And talk it does...
Japanese diners – and lots of them – are always a good sign. Follow that with a total lack of pretension and friendly greetings from the ultra efficient staff and you get a very accomplished service. It’s a laid back place with an authenticity that’s so often lacking in this neck of the woods, and it’s easy to see why many of the customers are so clearly regulars. It doesn’t have enough glamour to attract the casual passerby or the fame to make people come here from across the capital; this is a more in-the-know spot than that.
This will be where Sakana-Tei earns every one of its five stars. The food is good; the food is well priced; the food is authentic. If you’re going for lunch then it’s worth opting for their set lunch. Each is served with an appetiser, rice, miso soup, pickles and a dessert of your choice and they’re incredibly well priced at £9-£15. The choice is also strong with the prawn tempura set (£12) offering a generous helping of huge, plump and sweet prawns covered in a perfectly crisp batter with a delicate seasoning that complements the seafood well without overpowering it.
Alternatively, the assorted raw fish set (£14) is a lot of fresh, plump slices of sashimi with incredible freshness and a delicacy of flavour that so many Japanese places fail to get right. It’s also beautifully presented on a glass plate with just a banana leaf as a garnish: simple and exquisite. If you want to order from the specials board then you’d better learn to read Japanese, but from the larger menu, a dish of miso ramen is a watery yet flavour-filled soup filled with soft Chinese noodles, lots of light spring vegetables and delicious pieces of pork. At just £6.50 it’s cheaper than Wagamama – surprisingly so – and is much better than the chain offers. Add some plump gyoza dumplings for £4 and you’ve got a filling meal for lunch that won’t be beaten.
Sake rules the roost on the drinks menu, but with an excellent (though small) choice of wines that are priced to suit most budgets - as well as beers and plenty of spirits - there are certainly enough alternatives. However, you could do as the Japanese do and select the green tea, which is unlike any you’d have tasted on these shores. Deep, earthy and light, it really does help with digestion and settles the stomach nicely – perfect if you’ve come here for lunch and still have to face an afternoon in the office.
The Last Word
Simplicity should never be underrated when it comes to Japanese food. Sakana-Tei may not look like much but it delivers – and does so at a very wallet-friendly price. Shh, don’t tell anyone.