Japan House in Kensington is the home of the Japanese cultural centre, hosting art exhibitions, lectures and events to promote Japanese culture. It features on its first floor a restaurant called Akira, which opened in June 2018. The head chef is Shimizu Akira, who previously worked at Engawa, and prior to that worked at the Salt Group, a 45-strong restaurant group in Japan. The dining room is modern and attractive, with an open kitchen, counter seating and a separate bar area, along with a private tatami room. In total, a hundred customers can be seated at any one time. Five chefs were visible at this lunch service.
The menu was extensive at lunch, and even more so in the evening. All kinds of dishes are offered, from rice dishes through sashimi, sushi, tempura, robata grilled food and more. There was a short wine list ranging in price from £31 to £470. Example labels were White Rabbit Riesling 2017 at £38 for a bottle that you can find in the high street from £11, Lost Angel Pinot Noir 2015 at £49 compared to its retail price of £17, and Silverado Vineyards Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2016 at £79 for a bottle that will set you back £22 in a shop. There were a few grander wines too, such as Etienne Sauzet Puligny Montrachet 2015 at a pretty egregious £250 compared to its retail price of £63, and Chateau Lynch Bages 2009 at £470 for a bottle whose current value is £183.
Salmon don (short for donburi) is the kind of rice dish that you might see at a Japanese pub or “izakaya”. The rice was cooked nicely, the dish garnished with chives, topiko and a few edamame beans. The salmon itself, though, was dry and a little overcooked (12/20). Better was a sushi bento box. This arrives in a handsome wooden box with a dozen partitions, each with a little dish. There was sashimi of salmon and akami tuna, sushi of the same fish as well as yellowtail. There was chawanmushi, the umami-packed savoury custard, along with two different salads. There were maki rolls, an omelette, edamame beans and two vegetable dishes, as well as chicken karaage, along with pickles and soy sauce, with miso soup on the side. The sushi was quite good, the fish supplied from Atari Ya, the akami tuna being quite silky in texture. Unlike many Japanese restaurants in London, the sushi rice was at least room temperature rather than being fridge cold, and was pleasantly seasoned with vinegar. The rolls were fine as was the omelette, and the only false note was the dry and overcooked chicken “karaage”, which means pieces of marinated chicken coated in potato starch and then fried. Overall the bento box dishes were pretty good except for the chicken, and the dish was attractively presented (13/20). I would have scored a point higher had the chicken been better.
Service was good, the waiting staff seemingly all European though the chefs were Japanese. The product knowledge could be better – I tried with two staff, including the manager, to understand the provenance of the wagyu beef on the menu, and the answer “from Japan” was not quite what I was hoping for (there is a huge difference in quality and price between the prefectures and grade of the wagyu). The bill came to £38 a head for lunch with just the two dishes mentioned plus water and service. Akira is not cheap, with the salmon don at £22 more than twice the price of the very good donburi at the Watermans Arms, for example. Nonetheless the room is attractive, the menu is appealing and the food was mostly of a good standard. The main issue is the value for money factor, since for example you can eat sushi direct from the supplier Atari Ya in Ealing for a fraction the price here. There is definitely a premium being charged here for the smart Kensington location.