A few months ago I moved to Brixton by accident, and I’ve been slightly frustrated by it ever since. (I thought I had moved to Stockwell but realised a few weeks in that I was only about five minutes away from Brixton High Street.) Of course it is a hip area with quite a few nice restaurants and a large H&M, but the problem here is that most of the nice places to eat are in Brixton Village market or the recently-opened Pop Brixton. The problem with both being that most places therein are unheated and become quite freezing outside of the summer months, and also require you to walk 100 meters to go to a toilet.
Good standalone restaurants are much rarer for now but more are probably on their way. The strangeness of Coldharbour Lane, where places like cocktail bar Three Eight Four sit across from Ultimate Jerk Centre (not what it might sound like) and next to Liquor Supply, cannot last for long. My only problem with gentrification is that it takes so long.
Nanban is one of Coldharbour Lane’s newest gentry outposts, and advertises itself as selling Japanese soul food, mostly ramen. It’s the first restaurant set up by a man who won Masterchef, which may be as much a curse (in terms of coolness) as it is a blessing (in terms of recognition).
Nanban’s food seems to be a sort of mixture of Japanese dishes with Brixtonian (that is, Afro-Carribbean) flourishes – ackee and saltfish fritters with katsu sauce, for example, which tasted a bit too much like boring fishcakes for my liking, despite being quite hearty.
Electric eel was a lot more interesting, with thin slices of smoked (but otherwise uncooked) eel with a deliciously firm texture and deep, smoky, briny flavour. The apple, fried noodle, daikon and cucumber topping was slightly redundant in terms of flavour, but I probably would miss the crunch if it hadn’t been there.
The twice-cooked pig tripe itself was quite excellent. I’d never had tripe before and assumed it would be tough and leathery, which is how I imagine stomachs to be, physiologically. But this was firm on the outside and soft in the middle and had the rich flavour of liver. The cooked salad of beansprouts and cabbage it came in had a warming, spicy miso sauce whose flavour is difficult to describe. Umami, I guess, but sort of like a less offensive marmite.
My bowl of ramen came with a rich, thick broth – much thicker than I’ve had anywhere else. It was initially flawless: the broth was absolutely delicious with the black burnt garlic oil that was squeezed into one of the corners, the pickled mustard greens offset the creaminess of the broth beautifully, the huge hunks of pork belly (one was nearly a centimetre thick!) were porky and melted in my mouth, the little bits of fried garlic made some bites surprising and interesting, and the noodles themselves were firm and bitey.
I really loved it, but as I ate it it sort of… dragged on. I think the broth became starchier or the pickled mustard greens lost their bite, because by the end of the bowl it felt like a heavy stew more than anything, and had lost some of the quirks that made it seem so special to begin with. Perhaps this could be solved by simply serving the mustard pickles on the side, because this bowl of ramen was truly approaching greatness, and I do not think it would take much more to bring it there.
My date was less excited by her ‘Sasebo burger’, though it seemed absolutely delicious to me. It, too, came with a little slab of pork belly on top and a spicy burger sauce (one of the most underrated condiments in general, I think). The patty was cooked basically perfectly, with a black char on the outside and a deep pinkness on the inside. The chips were also light and fluffy.
She objected that there wasn’t enough about the burger that made it special – just not enough pork belly, not enough Japaneseness. This may hit at the real problem with going for authenticity – I suspect Japanese burger lovers do not want more Japanesey burgers, they want Westerny burgers. If you’re trying to sell authentic Japanese soul food and what’s authentic is actually very mundane for your Western diners, what do you do?
I think Nanban is already one of Brixton’s best proper restaurants, and although the competition isn’t great, after being open for just three months that ain’t bad. But I expect it to become significantly better as its chefs learn what works and what doesn’t. Most of the flaws I found seem like they could be fixed with very minor tweaks. I’ll be back to Nanban, and I look forward to it properly hitting its stride.
Score: 〶 – one medal.