Good or otherwise, Japanese food is hard to come by in East London – a remarkable failure of a food market that is so over-saturated that chefs are now setting up ‘residencies’ instead of restaurants.
And yet the only sushi around is likely to be part of a Sainsbury’s meal deal, or in Itsu or Wasabi’s duelling salmon boxes whose ubiquitous, marginally different characters evoke the Whopper/Big Mac rivalry.
On the other end of the inauthenticity spectrum, international giants like SushiSamba on the billionth floor of the Heron Tower offer a dose of vertigo with a £200+ bill.
But almost two years after it opened, the East End Review has discovered what might just be the only normal Japanese restaurant in East London.
Plus, as an added bonus, there are private karaoke rooms on offer for post-meal humiliation.
Sushinoen is easy to miss – tucked to the side just off an utterly chaotic junction in Aldgate.
Owner Shang admits that in the beginning, much of their custom came thanks to a buddy-buddy relationship with the Qbic Hotel next door, which has been sending over droves of hungry business travellers since it opened. But slowly a local crowd has caught on.
On a recent Tuesday evening the serene dining room was packed with suits, locals, and a reassuring number of people ordering in Japanese.
For the most part, Sushinoen, or ‘sushi in a garden’, is ultra-traditional with kimono-clad staff and low tables atop sunken floors for your legs – ancient custom for some, date-night novelty for others.
Classic starters like chicken gyoza, braised pork belly in Dashi soy sauce and miso-glazed aubergine are full of all the salty umami you could hope for.
As in so many Japanese restaurants, maki rolls are tarted up with the spicy mayo concoctions and artfully-presented special rolls (read: gigantic) cater to the Western expectation of intense flavour and hugeness.
But the real test is achieving the perfect simplicity of a plain piece of sashimi and nigiri. Sushinoen does this very well, with a selection of fish far more extensive than cult-favourite Dotori in Finsbury Park, which sticks to the basics.
Sushinoen boasts two types of salmon and tuna (fatty and lean), scallop, mackerel, yellowtail, octopus and sea bream, among others.
Most of the maki (rolls) we tried had lettuce rolled in, a surprisingly strong flavour when paired with delicate fish and rice, evoking a sandwich-y vibe I could have done without.
But regardless, for Japanese classics, you can’t go wrong.
2 White Church Lane, E1 7QR