By James Eaton
When MasterChef Champion Tim Anderson first introduced his Japanese soul food to Brixton last year it was fantastic – top quality, wonderful flavours, big and impressive cooking. Sadly it was only temporary – via a pop-up at Market House which lasted a mere few weeks. And almost as soon as it was over I found myself craving his truly fabulous fried chicken karaage, the crisp lotus root chips with a deeply savoury miso/mustard dip, the comfortingly huge bowls of rich broth and noodles. Everything that we savoured at Market House was a revelation.
And it seemed Tim was keen to return too.
After a few delays (Nanban was originally slated to open in late July) we can now enjoy his fusion of Japanese and American flavours in the heart of Brixton, just a few doors from Market House on Coldharbour Lane. And it is somewhere that will most certainly become a food destination in an already rich and exciting culinary area – and let me make it very clear this is not simply because of Tim’s MasterChef reputation. This is the good stuff.
The downstairs dining area is arranged on either side of the room at low, smart, cork-topped benches, one facing the colourful and enticing bar and down from the semi-open kitchen. Upstairs are some booths and more benches – the emphasis here on communal and informal dining rather than individual tables. It’s a very nice place to be – even on a relatively quiet Friday lunchtime it had a friendly, relaxed atmosphere which was more than matched by the staff. I have to say that the staff at Nanban are truly fantastic – genuinely thrilled to be working there, incredibly polite yet not overly formal, more than happy to explain the menu. They really care. Other restaurants could learn a lot from them.
And the food is seriously, seriously good too.
Nanban specialises in Japanese soul food and although this is a very apt description, I would be tempted, in some cases, to change it to Japanese comfort food. Not a phrase you might have heard often but, based on two of the dishes we tried, I think it a more than fitting one. I was sorely tempted by the curry goat tsukemen – a bowl of steaming, spicy goaty joy with noodles and half an egg – but I was swayed by the Kumamoto ramen purely from the promise of a rich pork broth and belly with garlic chips and pickled greens. And it did not disappoint.
The deeply savoury, porcine aroma that floated from the vast bowl of steaming noodles was nearly enough to make me swoon, and all the flavours danced and sang around my palate, warming me from the inside and putting a big grin on my face. The pork belly was a wonder and was soft enough to break apart with chopsticks but still held together enough to get a good chunk to munch on. The garlic oil created a nice background hum which worked perfectly with the umami of the pork broth and the pickled veg and garlic chips added extra texture. I’m very seriously considering going back again for dinner.
The second ‘big’ plate we tried was a little more left-field but oh, so seriously fantastic it should be celebrated the world over – Mojiko yaki-curry, one of the vegetarian dishes. Vegetables in a Japanese curry sauce with rice, pickled ginger, shallots, and an egg. Doesn’t sound too unusual so far does it? But wait, it comes covered in a glorious layer of melted cheese.
What a thing of true wonder this is. My wife has often mused that everything is better with cheese and with this dish she is proved to be completely correct. The waiter described as being a bit like a gratin which it sort of is but it is so much better. The curry sauce was spot-on – delivering the perfect mix of spice and warmth without overpowering the lightly pickled and crunchy vegetables that were hidden beneath it. The rice was a welcome addition to help soak everything up and bind it together but the cheese was a true master stroke – oozing, comforting, decadent, brilliant. Yes, cheese can be brilliant, even on a curry. Admittedly it is not the most ‘beautiful’ dish but when it tastes this good who cares?
Of the small plates we went for the Electric Eel – lightly smoked and delicate strips of eel slices of apple, daikon, and a crisp, tangy dressing. I think everyone who was eating there that day had it. You should have it. Like many Japanese dishes, the parts on their own are delicate and special but when combined you get something truly wonderful – the oily, rich fish cut perfectly by the crisp apple and daikon and all held together by the light dressing. And it looked pretty as a picture. I was thinking about trying the cured mackerel but apparently the fish that had been delivered that morning was not good enough so Tim sent it back. I guess I’ll have to go back for it. And for the karaage. And for, well, let’s face it, the whole menu is going to get a thorough sampling. Several times.
There is a great selection of drinks from local beers, sake, whiskey, and some enticing juices too. The matcha tea ice cream machine was out of commission but will hopefully be up and running soon – the stuff we had at Market House was super good. A lot of work has gone into this place and Tim deserves every success with it and will, I am sure, thrive here in Brixton. And, unlike nearly every other new opening these days, you can book so there will no need to queue for your soul (comfort) food this winter. And you really need to go. 10/10. No joke.
James tweets @cradlefish. Let him know your first cheese and curry experience if you visit Nanban.