The Japanese restaurant, Akira, is on the first floor of Japan House London in Kensington. Named after Chef Shimizu Akira, the restaurant presents a Japanese dining experience based on Akira’s ‘trinity of cooking principles’: food, tableware and presentation. Visit for lunch or dinner to experience Japanese-style omotenashi hospitality and the theatre of cooking as chefs prepare dishes reflecting Japan’s diverse food offering using seasonal ingredients over roaring robata (charcoal grill) flames.
The menu highlights include imaginative sushi specialities and chargrilled kushiyaki skewers made from umami-rich wagyu beef, pork, chicken, seafood and vegetables. The Japanese staple of rice is prepared in a donabe, clay pot. The dining experience is complemented by tableware the chef has sourced from artisans across Japan and drinks are served in fine Japanese glassware.
Guests can also enjoy the Japanese bar, adjacent to the restaurant, serving an array of sake and original cocktails made using Japanese ingredients including rare sake, yuzu and shiso.
As soon as we enter Japan House we are immediately struck by the sleek, modern décor. Everything is gleaming white and elegantly laid out. The ground floor comprises various stalls selling Japanese wares, both edible and inedible. We ascend to the restaurant and bar on the first floor via a very futuristic looking cylindrical lift. As we emerge we are confronted with a long bar; eschewing the pleasure of an aperitif, we go straight to our table.
The restaurant area is separated from the bar by a delicate black lattice. As with the ground floor, the style is stark and geometrically pleasing: white and wood panelling walls are topped with a ceiling of slender black parallel beams, above which nestle nicely concealed long lights, giving a mellow glow to the room.
The kitchen is open-plan and manned by a brigade of seven chefs, working in a very disciplined and silent manner. The background music is ambient, electronic, gently groovy.
The large proportion of Japanese diners is somewhat diluted by a table of about 15 terribly well-spoken schoolgirls (including a couple of Japanese) attending an 11th birthday party at the table next to ours. At first, we raise eyebrows at one another, unspoken gammony thoughts of ‘God, sushi for 11-year olds? Kids these days…’ crossing both minds, but as the evening wears on we notice how extremely well brought up these girls are; please-and-thank-you-ing the waiters as though born to it, yet very much still little girls, giggling and excitable in the way that they apparently do and are at that age (this is my wife Lucy’s observation).
By the time they’re ready to leave, the blonde birthday girl’s English father and Russian wife have both apologised in case they’ve ruined our evening. On the contrary – and we’ve also had fun guessing which schools they attend (all local). We’re both right, but the birthday girl herself is at Lucy’s alma mater, which thrills them both and makes us realise that West London really is rather small. The girls are also endearingly thrilled when we tell them we’re reviewing the place, squealing ‘we’re going to be in a magazine!’ while the birthday girl’s father tells us that Akira is ‘the best value around’ for such an occasion.
We ask for advice on the best choice to showcase the chefs’ craft and are recommended the three-course Robata Omakse menu (£60). This consists of an appetiser, followed by sashimi and then a grill and sushi main course. The appetiser is a delicate salad of crab meat and seaweed topped with finely sliced strips of yellow-tail tuna and chopped chives, accompanied by a Sauce Robert – yes, Sauce Robert, the first of a few nods of the head to western cuisine. It’s not quite what you’d expect from the classic French sauce, consisting of shallot, white wine, demiglace and mustard, but the taste pushes the same buttons. I wonder if it was made with dashi and wasabi instead of the traditional western ingredients; I must ask next time. The whole course is an absolute joy.
Now for the sashimi. Two servers bring large, deep covered wooden trays. Once placed in front of us, they both simultaneously remove the covers with a theatrical flourish – as well they might! What we are confronted with is one of the most visually stimulating “plates” I think I’ve ever seen. The deep tray is compartmentalised, rather like the old printers’ boxes that held the print blocks, which you now see in markets everywhere. Each compartment contains a little ceramic or glass dish containing the sashimi. This is all part of the style, where the visual appearance of the dishes is an integral part of the experience.
I click my chopsticks together eagerly, as I decide where to start. It’s a mouth-watering selection: Japanese omelette; pickled vegetables; a croquette of mushroom and foie gras (another nod); crisp tempura; a wasabi salad; pink tuna; salmon and roe; red tuna; marinated eel; sea bass with a slice of lime; mashed potato (yes mash, but with a Japanese twist I can’t quite put my finger on); and lastly an egg pudding with edamame. This selection really took my breath away, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of flavours that left me uttering long vowels of satisfaction after every morsel. The stand out dish was the eel for me. And to top it all, once you’ve finished the tray is just as beautiful as it was when it came to you, in a different way: each ceramic or glass dish is finely decorated in the Japanese style of art, each one different and lovely. Just superb. If you don’t have much time on your hands, you’d do well just to order this.
And so to the main course. Another visual spectacle. An oven-blackened ceramic “boulder” appears, about the size of a melon. In a concave depression at the top of this rest three pieces of the legendary Wagu beef, a chicken skewer and tempura peppers. Lying in the foothills of this rock we find sushi of seabass, salmon roe and tuna; a bowl of miso soup; and dipping sauces: chilli, soy, spicy mayo and sesame oil. Be prepared: this is quite a protein-heavy menu and by this stage, Lucy’s pretty much full. I have to help out. Ah well, noblesse oblige. The beef is everything you’d expect: melt-in-the-mouth tender. The chicken skewer is just that, but the dipping sauces bring all the necessary zing to it. I couldn’t bear to dip the beef: for me, it had to be enjoyed purely on its own merits. The sushi brought a welcome bit of carb relief and the miso soup was the perfect slurp between mouthfuls of meat.
We opt for the house white, a crisp and fresh young wine, with a good, light-golden hue, that goes perfectly with the delicate flavours without overpowering them. You really don’t want a robust wine with any of this. Sake would be perfect, but Luce and I know that way danger lies, and stick sensibly with the devil we know.