Something strange is happening to London’s best restaurants. They’re spawning. As soon as a diner develops a loyal following and a roster of favourable reviews, a new spin-off is announced in a torrent of gushing PR-speak. We’re introduced to the ‘cheeky younger brother’ of a venerable institution, or the ‘sister’ to a quirky cafe. Though we’re yet to have the oddly-attractive cousin, it’s not uncommon for an entire gastronomic genealogy to emerge from a single menu, creating absurd restaurant ‘families’ with their own personalities.
Tempting as it is to dismiss these developments as mere money-grubbing, many restaurant expansions offer a new way to enjoy the original’s special charm. Shochu Kanteen, the punky offspring of Charlotte Street’s celebrated Japanese banquet-merchants Roka, is the latest fine example of how a top restaurant can find a new audience.
Located in the basement below its prestigious parent, Shochu Kanteen manages to couple the elegance found upstairs with a bold and youthful vibe. Sofas and armchairs encourage the relaxed atmosphere of a lounge, surrounding a well-stocked garrison of a bar dominating the room. Superfluous as it may seem, the playlist is excellent: my partner keeps peering over the DJ decks beside our table to note the name of each track punctuating our meal. Shochu exists for lunchtimes and nights out. Both energies coexist tastefully here.
Freed from the diversities demanded by dinner, Shochu’s menu is pleasingly compact. It’s divided according to the style of dish, within which you get two or at most three choices. Korean spiced shredded lamb shoulder, arriving in steamed buns, is excellent: a definite upgrade on pulled pork, partnered with a well-chosen Korean chilli sauce dip. Similarly, the ‘fishy’ bun – salmon with pickled red onions – is another success, this time ably accessorised by a pool of Teriyaki sauce. Thicker than treacle, the sauce is a revelation: it looks like the kind of thing you’d pour into your car’s oil tank and tastes like anything but, clinging to the bap like honey. It transforms the terminology of Teriyaki, erasing the anaemic dripping which so often masquerades under its name in lesser hands.
Stardom is reserved, however, for the Tako Balls. Deep-fried octopus might not get you salivating like some of the other dishes, but your bravery will be rewarded with a masterful demonstration of contrasting textures. A delicate coating of batter coats a fluffy filling reminiscent of a good croquette with a squid-like octopus ring ensconced in its core, finished with the addition of Kewpie mayonnaise. Each one is rich, subtle and satisfying.
The rest of our meal generally maintains these high standards. ‘Brothless’ salad is a lively medley of all things crunchy, from fried noodles to sweetcorn, and sits leagues apart from the sarcastic, drab English assortments which labour under the ‘salad’ banner. Tori Katsu offers an acceptable yet unremarkable interpretation of chicken katsu, but compared to the other tabletop treats it feels too safe and workmanlike, the concession to the nervous Westerner reluctant to stray too far into Oriental waters. But fans of katsu won’t find anything to disparage: it’s still good fried chicken.
Desert is simple, sharp and light. A daily menu offers us honey custard topped with a colourful melange of summer fruits, and an impressive swirl of peanuts and chocolate which I fail to catch the name of – although that won’t stop me from trying to order it again next time. Shochu is another welcome addition to London’s imperious array of Japanese diners, further proof that spin-offs can prosper. And, as long as the next addition to this restaurant family isn’t a kooky aunt, I won’t be complaining.
37 Charlotte St
Tel: 020 7580 6464