Engawa opened in February 2015. It is run by a company called The Salt group, who have a number of restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka. It is situated in Ham Yard, accessed by a little alley off Great Windmill Street. The restaurant seats 29 diners at any one time, is smartly decorated, and has an open kitchen. They specialise in Kobe beef, which it became legal to bring into the UK in 2014 due to government trade restrictions; if you saw “Kobe beef” on a menu in Europe or US before that time, the restaurant was fibbing. There were several menus on offer at lunch, including a basic one at £20 and a vegetarian bento box at £25, with the main menu - bento box, cooked beef and dessert - at £70. In the evening there were varying length menus from £60 to £100.
Kobe beef is exceedingly expensive (in Japan it is the second most expensive beef after Matsusaka), but at Engawa they use the whole cow so they have cheaper cuts to use on their less expensive menus. Japanese beef has a complex grading system, which scores marbling, colour, texture and fat quality as well as an overall score, of which the highest possible overall rating is A5. Confusingly there is a USDA scale that is widely used too, but with different labels. The cow used today was graded A5 quality and 12 for marbling, the most marbled available. If you order the kaiseki menu then you are shown the beef that is to be cooked (or so I thought). The cuts vary from day to day and sitting to sitting, but today what was shown to me was “tenderloin” (fillet) and brisket.
The meal began with an attractively laid out bento box with eight little dishes, plus condiments. There was a maki roll with shiso (perilla), avocado and French bean. The vegetables were fine but the roll itself was distinctly firm in texture. Fried tofu with chives was pleasant. Chutoro yellowfin Spanish tuna marinated in wasabi and soy and fried was rather disappointing, as it ended up quite dry, when the whole point of this cut should be its rich fattiness. Sea bass with salmon egg sashimi was fine, as was akami (lean) tuna. A scallop with caviar was pleasantly sweet and was probably the best single element. Egg omelette with a notionally spicy cod roe was rather bland, and finally there was a simple potato salad with kumquat (12/20 average).
The cooked beef was prepared to order, so you can have it rare or however you like it. Having selected tenderloin as the cut it was disappointing to find out that this had run out, and to be offered chuck instead (chuck is ideal for burgers, but hardly an equivalent replacement for fillet when grilled. The first attempt was distinctly on the chewy side, and when I commented on this was then offered a more marbled version, still chuck steak but a much better piece. This second version was fine, but to be honest bore little relationship to the quality of beef that I have eaten in Japan, such as the Sanda beef at Aragawa in Kobe. Beef that is exported from Japan is vacuum packed and either chilled or frozen, which does not allow ageing and affects the texture.
The beef came with freshly grated wasabi, regular salt and Himalayan rock salt dipped in yuzu (13/20 for what arrived after I commented about the initial attempt, which in itself was maybe 11/20). Courgettes and white asparagus were served with the beef. I thought that the asparagus was very nice, and to be honest I preferred it to the beef.
The dessert was a nicely presented box of mixed fruit, though kiwi fruit and strawberries in early April does not suggest much in the way of local sourcing. There was also a slice of tofu cheesecake and a dipping sauce of green tea infused chocolate, which tasted pretty much as its sounds (12/20).
Service was from a waiter (manager?) who had worked a few years ago time at Nobu, and was very friendly and helpful. The bill came to £83 per person at lunch, with just water to drink. The bill arrives in a pretty lacquer box. In my experience the more elegant the receptacle for a restaurant bill, the higher it will probably be. Overall it was hard to get excited about Engawa, particularly given the fairly ordinary beef that I had today, though some other elements of the meal were fine. The need to freeze and vacuum pack the meat from Japan limits the quality that we will see in the UK, so to be honest if you want to have a true Japanese beef experience then there seems little alternative but to fly to Japan and eat it there. Engawa is pleasant but it is a long, long way from the experience of eating beef in Kobe.