Monday, April 14, 2014
My Favorite Japanese Restaurant in London: Zen Mondo @ Upper Street, Islington
One of my newest favorite restaurants is not a Michelin-starred, frequently reviewed, gastronomic paradise with a 3-month waiting list, but rather a small, unassuming Japanese restaurant called Zen Mondo - located at a blink-and-you'll-miss-it location on Angel's Upper Street.
Being from the Pacific Northwest where Japanese restaurants are held to a very, very high standard, I'm always dubious about the Japanese restaurants in London. If they're not extremely overpriced or actually Korean-owned - which is totally fine, but obviously not authentic - then they use less-than-fresh ingredients, which makes me lose my appetite as soon as I see the raw tuna bleeding into the rice surrounding my maki roll (obviously traumatized by that experience at a different Japanese eatery in Angel). Sometimes, I just want home-cooked Japanese dishes with clean flavors and a simple menu, like my favorite family-owned Japanese restaurant back home.
So I was skeptical to say the least when we walked past Zen Mondo and peered at their menu from the sidewalk, which proudly advertised the claim that they are the "only restaurant in the area that has as Japanese owner and chefs". After a few moments of indecision, we decided to give it a whirl and I am so glad that we did.
The menu at Zen Mondo, while not extensive, focuses on a few delicious, but simple, home-cooked Japanese dishes such as udon (with a choice of white or buck-wheat noodles), sukiyaki nabe (hot pot), tonkotsu, tempura, and of course, sushi and sashimi. For those dining between 6-7:30 p.m. the restaurant also offers a four course pre-theatre menu for around £15, which includes an amouse bouche that's specially prepared by the chef according to the fresh ingredients of the day, a starter, a main, and a choice of two (yes, two!) desserts. Absolutely bargain-ous.
Though it was our second visit to Zen Mondo last night, John and I still went for the set menu, though subsequently had a severe case of food envy when the table next to ours had their seafood nabe served in a beautiful stone pot bubbling with hot broth. Sigh.
To start, we both had the salmon and tuna nigiri (which was melt-in-the-mouth divine). For our main courses, John had the (lightly) fried chicken with a cabbage salad dressed with a light soy and ginger dressing and I had the grilled mackerel in miso with cooked daikon - a type of radish that is commonly used in Asian cooking (and one that I really miss the taste of!). Both dishes were served with two bowls of white, slightly sticky rice.
When I taste the food at Zen Mondo, it reminds me of home - though the flavors and ingredients of Japanese cuisine are different to Chinese cooking, the style of cooking is similar to my mom's healthy and delicious dishes. The experience of eating at Zen Mondo is similar to dining in someone's kitchen, rather than at a restaurant. The flavors are very clean and the ingredients taste fresh and healthy. Seasoning is hardly ever more than a dash of soy, miso, and ginger - and yet, not one dish tastes the same.
And finally for dessert, John had green tea ice cream and chocolate cake, while I chose green tea ice cream (I had serious food envy when John ordered it last time!) and a lychee granita. So delicious and the perfect way to end a perfect Sunday dinner.
If you're around Islington, I'd highly recommend dropping in to Zen Mondo for lunch or dinner. The staff is particularly lovely and the environment, as John described it, is like "an oasis of calm" away from the rabble of busy Upper Street.
On our next visit, we're steering clear of the set menu and ordering a blow-out sushi feast. We think.