“ Address: 16 Lisle Street / London / WC2H 7BE / England „
For a part of the world with so many restaurants, bars and cafés, it can be surprisingly tough to find a decent place to eat in London's West End. From the dingy Chinese buffets to the hundreds of seriously health warning-inducing Angus Steak Houses, it pays to be discerning. Unfortunately, being discerning in London can be quite an expensive hobby. I was pretty thankful, then, to find Okawari tucked away on Lisle street near Chinatown.
I love Japanese food, and have done since my very first experience of it. I'd quite happily live on sushi, sashimi and miso soup for the rest of my life, if only I had enough money. Okawari appealed as the food is predominantly Japanese, but with some other Asian dishes and ingredients thrown in for good measure.
From the outside, Okawari is an unassuming and understated addition to the street. Sitting next to a lively and vibrant bar, it almost gets lost. Step inside though (moving aside the kimono which hangs inside the doorway) and you are treated to a clean and bright, almost café-style interior. The atmosphere inside is the busy and upbeat bustling that I've only ever found in Japanese restaurants before. The restaurant goes back a lot further than expected, and also has a downstairs seating area. Whenever I've been, upstairs is always fairly busy but I've never seen it full, and I've never seen anyone seated downstairs.
The menu is extensive and varied. There is a fantastically wide selection of sushi and sashimi, including plenty of unusual types of fish. I'm adventurous with my food, but there are some options on this sushi and sashimi menu that even I will draw the line at ordering, although when I've had a mixed set here I've probably eaten (and enjoyed) some of them. As well as ordering your sushi and sashimi items individually, there are a number of mixed sets on the menu which will allow you to try a few types of fish.
All of the sushi and sashimi is prepared fresh as soon as you order, and it really is excellent. Sashimi in particular absolutely has to be fresh to be any good, and I'm pleased to report that in Okawari it tastes fantastic, and comes in very generous thick slices. The salmon and the tuna both have the beautiful melt-in-the-mouth texture that only comes with the freshest fish.
Now, much as I love the sushi and sashimi at Okawari, in terms of space on the menu, it only accounts for about a quarter of their offering. Also available are an extensive selection of appetisers and smaller dishes, my preferred choices being the Edamame, the Kim Chi (admittedly a Korean dish rather than a Japanese one, but lovely all the same) and the Miso. There are also some meatier appetisers to get stuck into for those after a slightly more filling option.
As you'd expect from a mainly Japanese restaurant, there is also a wide selection of Bento Boxes. A Bento Box, for the uninitiated, is basically a whole meal in a lacquered box, which is divided into a few sections, often containing rice, salad, a main dish and some tempura vegetables or similar. I've had a Bento in here once, which cost me around £10, and it was huge. They also come with a portion of Miso, which is pretty filling on its own. Often when I've had Bento Boxes elsewhere, I've found that there's a couple of weak links in that not all of the food has been prepared particularly well, making the focus on the "main" dish rather than the box as a whole. Nothing of the sort happens here - order a Bento and you are treated to a well-prepared selection of dishes which all compliment each other. They are satisfying and relatively cheap - and if you order right, they can even be quite healthy.
On top of all this, there is also a selection of main courses, which helps to satisfy the traditional brits amongst us. The portions again are very generous, and the main courses I've tried are all of a similarly high quality to the rest of their food.
Drinks are priced at what I like to call "London reasonable" prices - they aren't particularly cheap, but they cost no more than you'd pay in a bar or pub around the area. As you'd expect from a Japanese restaurant, there are Japanese beers, sake and plum wine available. An Asahi beer will set you back around £3, a small bottle of warm sake is £6.80 (and will easily serve two or three people) and normal wine is pretty much standard restaurant prices of around £12+ a bottle, depending on what you order.
Now maybe this isn't a complete review, as I've never managed to make it through to dessert in Okawari, so I can't give you the low-down. I would defy anyone to still be hungry after a Bento, or a feast of their sushi, so I can't imagine that the desserts would apply to many people.
Staff are friendly and efficient. I've never had to wait too long for anything in here, and any mistakes or delays that I've had have been resolved quickly and politely. Ordering extra sushi halfway through my meal is something I've felt compelled to do on a number of occasions here, and it always arrives lightning fast and with a smile. The bustling, almost café-like atmosphere means that your meal can be as fast-paced or as long and relaxed as you want it to be, making this an ideal pre-theatre eatery.
To give you an idea of prices: Bento Boxes start from around £9; main courses, such as a Katsu curry, are around £7; starters are sub-£4; 8 pieces of sashimi is around £8 or a mixed set is about £13; the biggest sushi hand roll you've ever seen will set you back £4.50; a california roll or similar is around £5 (this will come in 6 pieces) and a sushi set is similarly priced to the sashimi sets, starting at around £13. We never scrimp in here, ordering sushi and sashimi until we can eat no more and generally having a few drinks, and it's rare that we will pay more than £50 for two. Obviously, though, it is possible to have a much cheaper meal than that if you want to!
Okawari now holds the title of my favourite Japanese restaurant, which isn't an easy thing to achieve. Since discovering it a few months ago, I've been back about five times, and each time it has been faultlessly good. The atmosphere in here is very informal and busy, so it probably isn't a place for a hot date or a special occasion, but for a relaxed dinner with friends or a pre-theatre meal I don't think you can go wrong here. And if, like me, you are a bit of a sushi snob, I think you'll find that Okawari will serve you some of the best in London for a reasonable price.