“The time at the tone is 11:53 in the evening.”
That’s what the Japanese speaking clock lady informs us at the beginning of Less Than Jake’s Look What Happened, which is the third track on Tim Anderson’s playlist for his new Shoreditch restaurant, called Nanban.
The actual time when I heard this tune from my rapidly receding youth was around 7:49 in the evening. It was Thursday 14th February, Valentine’s Day, and I was sitting at a table in Ozone Coffee Roasters near Old Street tube, which was the pop-up venue Anderson was using to host his restaurant’s second preview event. This was my prize for becoming @NanbanLondon’s 1,000th follower on Twitter. (If you’d like to see some fantastic photos of the evening taken by Paul Winch-Furness click here).
We were greeted with a friendly smile from the waitress and a complementary beer. We were told it was brewed by a niche outfit in Stoke Newington called Pressure Drop Brew and, on quaffing some, it appeared to have an unusual tang not dissimilar to the taste of sweet potato. That’s because it had been brewed with sweet potato. Don’t worry, it’s a good thing.
We drank, we waited around, yadda yadda yadda. Then, thirty minutes in, we were seated and the man himself (who I idolised in some very small and insignificant way during his run on MasterChef in 2011) shushed the crowd and welcomed his 40 or so guests. Two things struck me following his address: First, Nanban is a proper, fully-fledged Japanese restaurant and does not conform to my previously held belief that it would serve modern European food with a slight Japanese twist. This is Japanese food, folks. 日本人!
I’ll admit in hindsight this was a naive, lazy assumption and should not have come as a surprising revelation. But there we have it.
There were five courses – Chicken Nanban, Mini Kumamoto-Style Garlic Tonkotsu Ramen, Mackerel Kake-ae, Mentaiko Yaki-onigiri, and Nagasaki Castella with Purple Sweet Potato (spot the theme) Ice Cream – which was brought to everyone in whatever order they were ready. Almost instantly Anderson had created an informal, order-from-chaos-type calm in this East London coffee shop. It was pleasant, comforting.
We had the mackerel first and, after a brief moment of panic following the misidentification of a soy sauce-marinated chunk of the pelagic fish that my girlfriend is allergic to, I’m happy to report that it tasted damn good. If I’m being picky the dressing was a little strong, overpowering the delicate flavours of the vegetables on the dish, but a good starter regardless. I won’t dissect the menu course by course but the highlight was unquestionably the Tonkotsu Ramen which had an intense pork broth made yet more vivid by the accompanying spicy miso butter bomb. The Chicken Nanban didn’t fail to deliver either with its light, crispy batter and flavoursome meaty centre. The lowlight? With it being Valentine’s evening I appreciated the effort to make the “triangular” rice balls (Mentaiko Yaki-onigiri on the menu) into heart shapes, but they were not to my taste. At all.
But all things considered the food was excellent. I’m not a Japanese food lover as such, but it doesn’t take a weatherman to tell you it’s raining. Tim Anderson is conjuring all his technical and creative nous for his first restaurant project – the food won’t disappoint.
The second thing from Anderson’s welcome speech that resonated with me was the unconventional fact that he wants music to be central to the dining experience at Nanban.*
“Let us know your feedback about the menu at the end of the night,” said Anderson, wrapping up his opening speech. Then a slight pause, the cogs evidently whirring away… “And don’t forget the music, let us know what you think about the playlist too!”
I missed, ignored or just plain didn’t care what the first two tracks on the playlist were but as soon as the words “And I swear it’s the last time and I swear it’s my last try” filled the air and Less Than Jake’s guitar chords hit it suddenly became clear to me who Tim Anderson is, and perhaps more tellingly who he does not want to be. He is not trying to become a Michel Roux or the next Phil Howard. For Anderson, the informality of his “southern barbarian” food** and the to-Hell-with-it fun playlist underpins the culture of Nanban as a restaurant and showcases Anderson as its 1990s-influenced avant-garde composer.
When Anderson came round to speak to us after the meal he didn’t ask if everything was cooked to our liking; he didn’t probe us on our thoughts about the fine balancing of textures and he didn’t question us on whether or not we thought the dressing on the mackerel was a little strong, overpowering the delicate flavours of the vegetables on the dish. He asked us if we had fun!
The answer was most definitely yes. We left with our appetites satisfied at around 10:22 in the evening, smiling as we went.
* The playlist also included Weezer’s My Name is Jonas, I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier by The Killers, The Lovecats by The Cure, The Ting Ting’s That’s Not My Name, A Message To You Rudy by The Specials, and two from The Clash, namely I Fought The Law and Rudie Can’t Fail. There were some Japanese tunes mixed in there too – I couldn’t begin to list what they are though. Sorry.
** According to the handy information printed on the back of Thursday’s menu, the Nanban moniker derives from the Japanese meaning “southern barbarian,” which is what the locals originally called the European settlers.