Henry Hepburn uncovers a new venture aiming to bring a flavour of downtown Tokyo to Sauchiehall Street
There’s no such thing as a Japanese restaurant. So David Wan concluded during a fact-finding mission to the Far East last year – just as he was planning to open up such an establishment in Glasgow. There was no shortage of specialist bars selling sushi, tempura or yakitori, but nowhere could he find the country’s greatest culinary hits under one roof. Undaunted, he resolved that what you couldn’t get in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, you should be able to find on a stretch of Sauchiehall Street better known for nondescript take-aways and hordes of legless students.
The ambitious Nanakusa menu is a daunting read: by the time you get to the 18-piece sushi moriawase toko jyo, you’ll have sifted through more than 100 often esoteric possibilities. To ensure quality throughout, Wan refused to cut corners on staffing. He gave some Chinese chefs a try-out, but none managed to replicate what he’d tasted in Japan; so he delayed opening until he’d tempted a specialist Japanese head chef up from London. There’s also a tempura chef who spends all his time proving that deep-frying needn’t result in huge greasy shards; his batter is a light crispy coating. Another specialist does nothing but turn out sushi.
The archetypal Japanese set meal, the bento box, is where many first-timers start. It arrives on a plastic tray, yes, but comparisons with stodgy TV dinners end there. The moriawese combo (£12.90) includes miso soup, tempura of king prawn and vegetables, several gluey strips of chicken teriyaki, and three bulging bundles of nigiri sushi alongside perky soy sauce and slivers of ginger. Although the menu doesn’t say so, you can pick and choose your sushi – whether to play safe with salmon and tuna or give eel and flying-fish roe a try. You’ll not need too much of the weighty mound of sticky rice that’s also part of the deal.
The eight varieties of noodle soup are very filling. There is a steamy blast of fresh chilli from spicy chicken noodle soup, and plenty tender chunks of meat jostling among crunchy vegetables and thin ramen noodles. Desserts are cutely presented in a little portable display cabinet that’s brought to the table, and most freshly baked at next door’s Hong Kong Café. But the in-house speciality is a sticky rice pancake plumped up with gooey red-bean filling, alongside which it’s worth ordering green tea ice cream as a refreshing counterpoint.
For all its authenticity, there’s no snooty fundamentalism about Nanakusa. The minimalist rows of benches might suggest a street-corner joint in downtown Tokyo, but the background music is Western and staff are as likely to come from the UK and Eastern Europe as Asia. All share an easygoing nature and a pride in the menu. They’re also genuinely curious about what customers choose – without forgetting free top-ups for mugs of green tea.
The restaurant only opened in November, yet there’s already an informal buzz from a loyal band of repeat customers. But Wan is not resting on his laurels. A special grill for yakitori has just been installed and intermittent sizzles emit from the open kitchen as a result, while a cooking school is planned for the currently unused area downstairs.
441 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow
0141 332 6303, Modern, metropolitan Japanese restaurant
Average two-course evening meal £10