The joys of a glorious neighbourhood joint
210 King St, London W6 0RA 020 8748 5058 yoshisushi.co.uk
Copious meal with sake or beer: £25-£30 per head
For my last review on this page, I hope you will indulge me if I write about my favourite restaurant. In no way is it smart or grand, and its walls could palpably use a coat of paint. Far from being perfect, it has one utterly horrendous flaw. And according to my actuarial tables, there is a 97,467 per cent greater chance of Eric Pickles winning Olympic gold in the marathon at Rio in 2016 while giving Lord Prescott and Ann Widdecombe a piggyback than of it ever winning a Michelin star. But Yoshi Sushi is the restaurant to which I have been far more often than any other over the last decade, and the one to which I shall ceaselessly return so long as its doors remains open for business.
These are doors you could pass 500 times without noticing them, much less be drawn through this anonymous frontage in an unprepossessing stretch of west London. What lies within, to be sure, is no Aladdin’s cave. At first glance, with the sushi preparation bar at the front, the traditional Japanese prints on the walls, the clumping wooden furniture and the private room at the back (outside which stands a neat little line of shoes), Yoshi Sushi looks pretty much like your standard mid-market Japanese.
In fact, its owner/chef Yo Hun Lee, his staff and a small chunk of his menu are South Korean. This is neither the time or place to dwell on Korea’s feelings about its one-time imperial master (nor to speculate on how much a Korean might view our shorthand name for his restaurant, viz. “the Jap”). Leaving the geopolitical analysis to others, let us move on to why it has such massive appeal.
Making the cut as a glorious neighbourhood joint is not easy, which may go some way to explaining why there are so very few of them. There is no facile formula, and it isn’t a matter of alchemy, but a number of qualities have to coalesce.
It must be reasonably priced, and Yoshi Sushi is certainly that. You can have something close to a blow out, with lashings of hot sake, for £30.
It must radiate that beguiling sense that the regular punter is not so much the other party in a commercial transaction than a treasured guest, if not a friend. Here, the enchanting staff give every impression of being delighted to see my family (an unusual experience for us, especially on outings involving my beloved but troublesome mother). Indeed, one night in June, just before the start of South Korea’s World Cup game against Algeria, a young man of my close acquaintance and I joined the staff in a chant about their team’s supremacy. (Inevitably, South Korea were 3-0 down after half an hour.)
A superb local joint must also be constant. All change is for the worse even when it is clearly for the better, as someone clever once said, and in 15 years Yoshi Sushi has changed not an iota in any regard – other than one. Which brings us to that monstrous flaw. About a year ago, Lee removed the hanging lamps, which could be controlled by dimmer switches beside the tables, and replaced them with a collection of lampshades apparently purchased in a Seventies office equipment fire sale. They now house bulbs of a wattage suited only to the hydroponic growing (please don’t try this at home) of cannabis.
Discussions have been had with Lee about these excrescences – once, I even played him Nelly Furtado’s Turn out the Light – because the importance of lighting to a restaurant cannot be overstated. He promises to address the problem shortly.
Thankfully, he is more talented a cook than he is an interior decorator. To be magnificent – as if this needs stating – a local restaurant must serve good food, and at Yoshi Sushi it is better than that. Apart from the odd portion of kimchi, we tend to stick to the same Japanese dishes, and they are never less than outstanding.
Miso soup is rich and savoury, pickled vegetables are immaculately crunchy, and gyoza dumplings sublimely delicate parcels of delight. I still haven’t worked out what to say about sushi beyond a) it was fresh, and b) it wasn’t. So suffice it to report that Lee’s has never strayed from a).
His soft shell crab, served with a vinegary sauce, is a triumph of the fryer’s art, having the ideal contrast between the golden brown crunchiness of the exterior and the hint of gooey-ness within. A long row of beef teriyaki slices come gorgeously smothered in a caramelised onion relish. Best of all is the salmon teriyaki, a colossal fillet in a miso glaze. The portions are so generous that I have no idea what puddings, if any, there might be.
Over the years, I have eaten at Yoshi Sushi several hundred times with many of those I like and love, and never has any of us had a poor meal. Much more important than that: never have I failed to leave feeling happier than when I arrived – and for all its mildly nauseating, Walton’s Mountain homespun simplicity, that, I think, must be the last word in what makes a restaurant truly great.