Places To Eat In London: Nanban, Brixton
We’d planned to head east for some Venezuelan food but once a friend told us the place was not very good, the task of abandoning our reservation and finding another one, on a Friday afternoon, for a Friday night dinner in Central London fell to me. Looking down the list for something I fancied (also focusing on the geography of where we both lived – so that we could both not have too far of a trek home and so that we could avoid those friendly London Underground workers who decided to strike and take down the whole Central Line) landed us at Nanban, Tim Anderson’s joint in Brixton that serves ‘modern Japanese soul food’ (read, Japanese street food that gives a nod to the fact it is being served up in Brixton, with some plantains and a hell of a lot of Scotch Bonnet chillis woven into the menu). It was a worthy spot to start the weekend.
There are two things that you need to know about booking a table at Nanban on a Friday night. First you’ll need a credit card to book; it won’t cost you anything, but I assume that if you get stuck on the tube and don’t make your table, or anything else you’d expect to come up on said Friday night happens you’ll be charged. Now, I know people never turning up is a big issue for restaurants and it is a totally not cool thing to do, but at the same time it annoys me when this is a thing on a busy weekend evening when loads of walk ins get turned away, for a table of two, with only a 15 minute late table policy on the booking email unless you call ahead, when in London you can be stuck on a tube for that time. Or perhaps I’m just already annoyed at the restaurant at time of writing this, so this is rankling me more than usual.
The second thing to keep in mind is that the bar downstairs gets busy. This means that while you get great happy hour prices on your cocktails, and no matter how many times you chase the wait staff the chances are, like us, you won’t see your drinks until your starters are already on the table, getting cold if you’re waiting for your beverage. However, when you get them the cocktails here are absolutely fantastic and well worth ordering several of. A special shout out needs to go to the house, Japanese-style Bloody Mary which was perfectly on point.
First, something from the drinks nibbles section of the menu. The chicken scratchings sounded promising and were something we both really wanted to order, scattered with katsu curry powder. However, they were too cumbersome and fatty to really enjoy, and you’d think that the powder was not there how little you could taste it.
Now, my partner in crime for our Nanban review is the person I always eat with at places where the aim is to order as many small things to try as possible (see our recent reviews of Roti Chai, XU and Bó Drake for example) even if that is not really the point of the menu. So, we skipped the ramen bowls, katsu and noodle salads in favour of a load of things from the starter section of the menu. We dug into the chicken karaage first, perfectly crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, served with a lovely honey-miso mayo. These were very good.
Fish dishes next. The salmon kake-ae (which thanks to allergies I happily got to keep all to myself) was hands down both one of the best things on the table and one of the best things I’d eaten all week. The fish was so full of flavour and perfectly cured, the dressing was fresh, zingy and bright and all of the different pickles on top added texture, variety and colour. This is a must order at Nanban, and one of the reasons that I’m still really excited about and recommending you go for dinner there. The aji fry of panko-ed (can we please make that a word?) and deep fried Japanese horse mackerel with lemon and tonkatsu sauce was pretty flavourless and boring however; as I was getting full fast I left mine and focused on the fantastic salmon instead.
Our next two dishes were also rather excellent, and things that you totally should order. The beef takaki, slithers of seared beef topped off with garlic chips, daikon cress, sweet soy sauce and matcha-horseradish cream was absolutely excellent, sweet, bright and full of flavour, even if the horseradish did totally overpower the matcha so that you could not taste it at all. On the veggie side of things the yaki-imo, a soft, buttery sweet potato roasted then split, covered in yuzu butter and sesame was unusual and incredibly delicious, a riot of different textures and flavours. If it is your sort of thing (I ate the whole thing myself, no wonder I was so full) you must order it.
On the pork side of things we have another two great dishes. The classic gyoza were simply perfect and served with a fantastic dipping sauce. However, the scotch egg (from the bar snacks section of the menu) is the number one reason you have to go to Nanban. Okay, the fact they’ve literally called it the third best scotch egg in London comes across as a mixture of sad and arrogant, but the flavour is utterly insane. You get the flavour of the tea the egg has been pickled in, you get the in your face, melt int he mouth fantastic flavours of the pork, and we kept hold of the tonkatsu sauce that came with it to dip everything else in. This honestly has to be one of the best scotch eggs I’ve ever eaten, and it is dishes like that that remind you why Tim Anderson is such an acclaimed chef and why the restaurant has had so many great things written about it.
To go with everything we ordered some ‘Shake ‘n Season’ chips, with our choice of a chilli parmesan flavouring. I don’t think either of us really put too much thought into how they’d arrive, but honestly? This dish really had not been thought through. The chips were average and so was the seasoning, but someone needs to explain to Nanban that placing a big, brown paper bag (that is rapidly getting greasier by the second) in the middle of a table to obscure the diners from each other and any other plates they may be sharing is just a stupid idea. It’s dirty, messy and unpleasant, and perhaps it would be okay if the whole ‘Shake ‘n Season’ concept actually worked, but to be honest all the seasoning just falls to the bottom of the bag, and we only got a proper taste of it when we’d finished the fried chicken and thus had an empty plate to tip the chips, and then their fallen seasoning onto, sitting the bag down under out table so it was not in the way. A bowl of chips that had been tossed with their seasoning while fresh out of the fryer so it actually stuck would have been so much better.
While we were pretty full I fancied something sweet, so we got the churro kushi-age to share: mini, caramel filled churros sprinkled with shichimi chilli sugar and served with a chocolate sauce to share. He ordered another of their excellent house rice beers, and I ordered a curious sounding toasted rice green tea which was utterly fantastic and totally curious, both bitter and deeply savoury at the same time. The churros were fantastic by the way, hot, crisp, addictive, and the chocolate sauce was to die for. Except that there was so much chilli powder on them, I had to steal some beer after taking my first bite as my mouth was on fire, and of course my tea was taking forever to arrive. Once I’d shaken most of the chilli off the rest of them, the heat was quite pleasant and it was a fantastic dessert, well worth ordering.
As we were finishing, we got chivvied off our table. Again, I eat in a lot of restaurants, I understand restaurants. It’s a busy Friday night and rents are sky high, they need to turn the table. At the time of booking, it was made clear we’d have 1 hour, 45 minutes to eat. Except I got annoyed, because they would not have to chivvy us if service had been up to scratch. That time where we were struggling to make it far into our savoury dishes without drinks, the fact my companion had to eat rather slowly, not being adept at chopsticks and to fork he asked for never arriving, and that I was unable to eat my half of dessert until my tea came? That was the difference between being able to finish the meal comfortably without staff having to move us along.
Go to Nanban for an adventure. Order what looks different and exciting, that plate of salmon and that scotch egg. Okay, so the service may be a bit patchy and some of the dishes swing between bland and silly, but when they get something right they really get it right with beautiful dishes full of fantastic flavours. The cocktails and the atmosphere are great, and finding myself in Brixton again without a plan, I would totally go again. You should too.
Now, on a side note away from Nanban for a moment, regular readers may have noticed that the tone of this review is a bit different from normal. To put things bluntly, things are going to be changing a bit around here! To cut a long story short, I’m changing my policy on restaurant reviews. Before, it has been my policy that I seek to recommend, and I still do. I want to tell you where to spend your money on a great dinner as life is too short for you to go out for bad meals. However, because I was worried about upsetting people (and also about getting sued – this almost happened recently and the whole situation is what has prompted this change) I just never wrote about the bad meals, and god I’ve had a few. So, from now on I’m going to write about everywhere I eat, not just everywhere I enjoyed eating. Okay, I may get way less press invites, but I think over the past seven years I’ve honestly done you all a disservice by only writing about my very best experiences.