Kiku is a Japanese restaurant conveniently located near Green Park station in Mayfair, and at the top of Half Moon Street. It’s one of the quieter thoroughfares, but popular with ‘them in the know’ as it’s the home of this exceptional eatery. I wonder why it isn’t more celebrated, but perhaps those regulars have the right idea: enjoy Kiku but say nothing lest increased fame change its quality, ambiance or, heaven forbid, its prices!
Kiku was first established in Mayfair in 1978 and has gained a reputation for serving authentic Japanese cuisine. The owners, Mariko and Hisashi Taoka, are dedicated to presenting the freshest of food in a calming cocoon of blond wood. Mariko oversees front of house and seems to know many of her diners personally. She manages to maintain the sense of a traditional Japanese restaurant but in such a charming fashion that the Japanese food virgin need not feel intimidated by what might be an unfamiliar menu.
The restaurant is unmistakably Japanese; the upper level is artfully designed to allow for perching at the sushi bar, and that level also has regular table seating. The ground floor is the principal dining area, and there is a room for private functions. It’s a light and contemporary space that is uncluttered without being too zen and clinical. It sports none of those sunken seat wells that have become ubiquitous in other Japanese-esque restaurants. I prefer a regular chair or a cushion, both of which offer at least the possibility of an elegant ascent and exit. Kiku has regard for the comfort and dignity of its visitors.
Kiku diners are both Japanese and non-Japanese. The Embassy is just a few yards along Piccadilly and I know that the restaurant has devoted followers associated with various embassy departments. One is reassured when one discovers national groups enjoying food in their own culinary establishments. I assume they know more about the food than do I, and Kiku attracts some knowledgeable and supportive Japanese regulars.
Yes, this is Mayfair and the home of the polished, posh and pricey, and perhaps that’s the reason why Kiku has endured and thrived. Its menus are deliciously accessible without the need of a second mortgage. The lunch menu offers dishes that I have not found elsewhere – simple yet authentic fare that will gladden the heart of anyone looking for real Japanese food at a reasonable price and preferably not served on a plastic tray covered with plastic wrap and tasting of …well, plastic. Dinner can be as rustic or elaborate as one would like.
Hisashi Taoka is a fascinating man with an extraordinary talent and passion for fish. His enthusiasm is infectious and his engaging manner enthrals even those listeners who would normally find the piscatorial world underwhelming. He has spent his life buying fish, selling fish, and eating fish (and good food of every hue).
Hisashi was no stranger to London even before he set up in business here. He came as a student working towards his graduate thesis; on his return to Japan he joined a company that periodically sent him back to these shores. “I eventually joined my father’s business. He had a small Japanese inn, the Mikuniya ryokan. I tried to run the company, but that didn’t go well so he gave me some capital to help me start up my own business, and I came back to the UK.
“I had for many years been looking for a place to set up, and eventually I found one in White Horse Street, Mayfair. Then an investment company took the property over, and about 16 years ago we moved to our present location in Half Moon Street.
“I knew the taste of Japanese food more than the average chef, because I so enjoyed eating at my father’s place. I understood fish very well, because every day three fishermen’s wives and different fish merchants came to my father’s ryokan, so ever since I was small I could recognise the best quality fish, and every day I had the chance to see how it was prepared. The fish markets were near to my home so I became familiar with every kind of seafood.
“I had a fish shop in Billingsgate market for 3 years and I also imported Japanese food and sake. I developed the tuna fish element of the business and became a consultant for fishing in Malta. It was 1996 when I was asked to advise Algeria, first with sea-urchin fishing and later with tuna fishing, but security issues were a problem – terrorists were targeting tourists. The Japanese embassy telephoned me to say, ‘Don’t go!’; the Algerian embassy said, ‘Don’t come!’, but I went anyway. It was difficult to find a fishing boat, but this was the first breakthrough for Algeria. Libya asked us for help to export fish, but again security was an issue.
“Six or seven years ago the Egyptians asked me to help, and I gave advice on the octopus and tuna fishing. I worked with them to set up a factory, establishing the standards that enabled them to export their products. I taught them how to control the quality on the boat so they could get a much better price.”
In fact on cross-questioning one realises that Hisashi Taoka has worked as a consultant in the fishing industry across the globe and can talk with authority about business practices and risks. He had to come to terms with the shadier elements of Sicilian society when he was taken on a sightseeing tour. His host showed Hisashi the extent of his business interests – ‘This is the sea: MY sea; we catch the fish: they are MY fish.’”
Although still a respected fish expert, Hisashi spends more time looking after local projects and the Kiku fish supply, rather than risking life and limb in potential war zones or criminal strongholds. “I used to go to the airport, pick up tuna and take it to the Japanese fish merchant, although I would cut the fish up myself, because I think I can do this better than most! Some fish merchants who set up here don’t really know the fish very well, so I am often asked to help.”
Fish will always be close to the culinary heart of Hisashi, but he loves food in all its guises. As a young man he says he would spend all his cash on food, trying new restaurants and returning to favourites. He has an educated palate for all cuisines, not just for classic Japanese dishes. I asked Hisashi if he felt that the subtleties of Japanese gastronomy were best displayed by Japanese chefs. “One of my old friends, a chef in this country, now works at a Japanese fish merchant. The merchant had several restaurants and once or twice a week the chef had to visit to check the consistency of dishes because the taste would change. A non-Japanese chef, although working in a similar fashion to a Japanese chef, might revert to his own mother’s taste references. It’s very difficult to set a standard for the authentic Japanese flavour.”
Hisashi definitely has well-practised Japanese cuisine taste buds, and I asked him how he chose the menu for his own restaurant, Kiku. “I, with the chef and some help from Japan, considered what ingredients we could get here. For example, looking at squid, there are more than 120 types and only a few are available from Cornwall. Similarly, cuttlefish: we had to find recipes to suit the catch. Squid is seasonal, too, so we take them at the best time, and freeze them. We used to do the same with salmon, or we would bring them in from overseas – luckily I knew how to arrange the import of the best fish. Our main menu does not change much, but on the other menus we change items every couple of weeks, and if any dish is popular with our diners it may find its way onto the main menu.
“I choose all the fish, vegetables and meat that we use at the restaurant. I was the first to import black cod into this country in 1990. It came from Alaska via Japan to the UK. It was much appreciated by our Japanese customers. At that time we had a very shabby location for our restaurant in a side street, so not many people knew what we were doing.”
It’s evident that fish is still the core of the Kiku business, and they have the advantage over many other Japanese restaurants, or fish restaurants of other culinary persuasions: they have Hisashi to safeguard the quality of ingredients. But the customer is the honoured guest at Kiku. Hisashi explains his philosophy. “I tell the staff to put themselves in the customer’s place, and to remember the customer only wants the best.”
Covers: 96 seats including 15 at the counter and 10 in an intimate private dining room.
Mon-Sat lunch 12 Noon-2.30pm
Dinner 6pm – 10.15pm
Sun 5.30pm – 9.45pm
Kiku Japanese Restaurant
17 Half Moon Street, London W1J 7BE
Phone: 020 7499 4208
Visit Kiku here
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018