The Japanese izakaya experience heads west
What is an izakaya?
Izakayas are Japanese-style pubs that serve up small plates to accompany drinks like beer, sake and whiskey. These after-work haunts are frequented by white collar workers, otherwise known as ‘salarymen’ in Japan, looking to blow off steam after a hard day’s work. I experienced the beauty of the izakaya on a recent trip to Japan and quickly grew fond of this after-work or, in my case, after-sight seeing indulgence. It was the perfect way to wind down after a long day.
What’s included in the izakaya experience?
Beer for starters. There wasn’t an izakaya that didn’t have Asahi or Kirin, the two largest beer producers in Japan, on the menu. If you glanced around an izakaya it was pretty obvious that beer was the drink of choice. If you looked a little harder you would have noticed some guests enjoying sake, a glass of shōchū on the rocks or perhaps a Japanese whiskey like Suntory.
Here are some of the items I enjoyed while in Japan:
- Yakitori – Meat skewered and grilled over charcoal. Think heart, tongue, head and wait for it…chicken
- Chicken karaage – Essentially Japanese fried chicken
- Omelet — Filled with edamame
- Fried burdock — The root of a thistle-like plant called burdock
- Gyoza – Japanese pan-fried dumplings (adapted from a traditional Chinese street food)
- Kushiage – A variety of foods, anything from monkfish to camembert, deep-fried and served on a skewer
When I returned to London, I discovered the concept had taken off in the past year or so and, after a quick search on the internet, discovered there are six izakaya-style restaurants in London. A couple of weeks off my Japanese adventure, I decided it was time to relive my recent experience – but this time back on home soil.
Murakami, a modern restaurant located in Covent Garden, has a sleek yet relaxed décor and pays homage to Japan with a large sake barrel and little touches like the warm hand towel that’s delivered to the table — a very Japanese tradition.
What ended up being the main difference between the izakaya experience at Murakami and the izakaya experience in Japan was the atmosphere. Many of the izakayas in Japan were more of a hole-in-the-wall, minimalist, jam-packed type of establishment — yet incredibly charming at the same time. The picture below sums it up perfectly. The Murakami experience felt a bit more like a restaurant destination that you would go to on a Saturday night. Not a bad thing, but different from a traditional izakaya experience.
First up was some tuna sashimi. The fish, I was told by the general manager, is brought in fresh daily. It tasted that way too.
Main photo credit: Pixel hub