As a Brit living in Tokyo, a city with the best food in the world, I’m used to a polite silence when the issue of British cooking comes up. When pressed, even the most dedicated Anglophiles confess that although they love everything else about the UK they’ve never had much luck with the food.
The very idea of fish and chips in a country that specialises in the art of sushi and sashimi is enough to have most Japanese people shaking their heads; any mention of modern British cooking is usually greeted with scepticism and raised eyebrows. The disastrous culinary offerings in the handful of British pubs in Tokyo only confirm their worst fears.
So, it was a surprise to discover that a new British restaurant called SW11 Kitchen has opened close to the Monocle office in the heart of Tokyo’s fashionable Omotesando area. As every Londoner knows, SW11 is the postcode for Southwest 11 – or Battersea and Clapham.
Intrigued, I made my way down to SW11 Kitchen for dinner on a balmy, distinctly un-British evening. The restaurant occupies the third floor of a small building on a side street away from the general mayhem of Harajuku. It’s a simple set-up: three tables and an open kitchen – bright white and stripped back, the kind of British functionalism that has served designer Margaret Howell so well in Japan.
It turns out that this cosy restaurant is not run by expats but by a Japanese couple who used to live in London. Mr Watanabe studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and the couple lived on Prince of Wales Drive in SW11.
I arrive early and order a glass of Pimm’s. It’s a promising start. Mr Watanabe goes out onto the wood-decked balcony with a pair of scissors to cut some fresh mint. A British radio station is playing in the background.
The menu has all the classics: potato and warm-mackerel salad, fish and chips – with vinegar – bubble and squeak, shepherd’s pie, homemade sausages and roast lamb. And a drinks list that includes sherry and pale ale.
The food is delicious and fresh, slightly lighter and smaller than the original versions. They’re not trying too hard to be “authentic” and they’ve created a comfortable setting for what they describe as British home cooking.
They even have a “tiny shop”, a small selection of glass Pyrex dishes and bits and pieces from the UK. The whole thing is done with style and charm, and you wish them well.
Others have attempted British restaurants in the past. There was once a restaurant in Tokyo called 1066; Pizza Express was here for a few years, the sandwich chain Pret A Manger came and went; even Jamie Oliver had a brief foray into Japan as consultant chef at a short-lived restaurant called Afternoon Tea Baker and Diner.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that it might take a Japanese couple to show how good British cooking can be. Chefs across Tokyo have already perfected Italian and French cooking, and Japan has long shown its detailed enthusiasm and support for British fashion, textiles and crafts. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to extract the best out of a country’s style and its cooking – and nobody does it better than the Japanese.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle's Asia bureau chief.