The recently arrived Junsei (meaning ‘pure’ in Japanese), is a Yakitori specialist restaurant that has migrated onto the Marylebone dining scene over the summer, educating those with a penchant for Asian cuisine and an intimate understanding of a chicken’s anatomy. The first restaurant from chef Aman Lakhiani who has worked at Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant Dos Palillos in Barcelona. Junsei is Lakhiani’s first solo venture with business partner Rizwan Khan (Cinnamon Club, Kanishka).
Junsei with its fine-tuned butchery skills and an intimate understanding of grilling techniques; offers a yakitori menu including heart, neck and gizzard alongside an extensive sake and shochi menu, including Tamagawa “Red Label” Heirloom Yamahai Genshu, the only sake made by an English sake master.
All skewers are grilled over Binchōtan – a white charcoal using Japanese oak – considered the purest charcoal in the world. Binchōtan burns at a high heat, so the meat cooks from the inside out, ensuring the juices of the meat are locked in. This process allows for a pure flavour that isn’t overpoweringly smoky, which successfully delivers unparalleled umami flavour that honours every part of the animal, while emphasising the distinctive taste of each part of the chicken.
From the outside, Junsei is rather unassuming. Simple in its design and in its execution. The menu is centred around the Yakitori skewers, with over 20 variations available such as Shiso breast with ume; heart; crispy skin; tsukune and neck. Preparation involves skewering the meat with kushi, a type of skewer typically made of steel, bamboo, or similar materials. During or after cooking, the meat is typically seasoned with tare sauce, a multipurpose glaze (a combination of soy sauce, sake, mirin and sugar that is aged over decades) or Shio (salt).
We were lucky to bag the full Omakase experience during our visit, which for £50, follows the Japanese tradition of letting the chef choose your order. Relinquishing all control, we endeavoured the full menu with some additional off-menu surprises. Whilst the skewers are the main event, the menu also includes sharing plates: Cuttlefish somen with a cucumber mirin soy sauce; premium A4 wagyu, seared at the table using the Binchōtan charcoal, and rice donabe (clay pot rice dishes) with red mullet or seasonal vegetables.
With no menu to mull over, the only difficult decision to be made was what should be drunk before this evening of discovery. Guided again by informative staff, we opted for the Bincho Sour (akashi blended whiskey, plum syrup, angostura bitters, egg white), a perfect blend of sweet and sour and equally refreshing. To accompany our meal, we opted for Seitoko Junmai Ginjo, arguably the Chablis of Sake; if Seitoku were any lighter it would float away on a breeze.
Our Omakase experience began with cherry tomato tempura, delicate tempura which carefully hid away the juiciest of tomatoes; swiftly followed by Momo (a traditional Japanese Yakitori dish made with chicken thighs) tender chicken thighs bushed in house tare. By dish three, we lost ourselves in the most comforting bowl of chicken meatball soup with mizuna and green onion. If you were sick you would be cured, this wonderful steaming bowl of soup was, if not to sound too cliché, soup for the soul – with a healthy punch of white pepper. Soup aside, we moved onto Rosu, the inner thigh of the chicken topped with kanzuri, a fermented paste made from chilli, yuzu, koji and salt.
For only a moment our foray into chicken anatomy 101 took a detour, one we were happy to get lost in, tempura sea bream over rice. Light batter revealed the flesh of succulent white flaky fish, cooked to perfection. After a short hiatus, we continued with fowl play if you would excuse the pun.
Nankotsu or cartilage quickly became part of the equation. There are usually two types of nankotsu: the soft end of the breastbone, and the knee cartilage adjoining the thigh and the drumstick. We first tried chicken knee bone, yes you read that right – chicken knee bone. Its crunchy texture was perplexing, the sort of thing that didn’t necessarily feel agreeable to the bite nor comforting to the palate; however, once the obscurity lapsed it quickly became a fond favourite. We quickly became fans of the squeaky, savoury, salty bounce of the extremity. We savoured moments of familiarity with dishes like Tebaski or chicken wings to you and me before returning to more cartilage this time, breastplate. There is no overarching flavour of the cartilage, it’s mostly a textural experience with a faint whisper of the Binchōtan. Chicken Hatsumoto or heart valves perhaps more easily considered as the “gateway to offal” were tender and succulent, flavourful, but quite mild and non-gamey. In fact, it was offaly good.
There are very few things in life that can’t be made more perfect than a potato with wagyu aioli, a dish that was welcomed by my stomach after a run of less familiar dishes. Often on the search for new and exciting condiments, the arrival of yuzu kosho – a blend of citrus zest, garlic, chilli, and salt. Sharp, fragrant and with a depth of warmth slightly more comfortable than wasabi – the yuzu kosho was a delicious surprise when it turned up on a chicken’s rib. Never pass on the opportunity to enjoy the shiso maki, pale pieces of breast meat seared to perfection giving way to something soft and gorgeous within. The penultimate surprise is often referred to as the chefs’ reward in most kitchens and these oysters were far from the exception. Before we descended onto sweet, we ended with Tsukune, a Japanese-style meatball with egg yolk and tare. It can be difficult to not overindulge on this particular menu, you would be forgiven for doing so however, this is one yakitori you won’t want to miss.
As our belts began to tighten and the last traces of our gastronomical adventure were cleared, we swiftly moved on to the sweet part of the feast. Watermelon granita was a delicious palate cleanser before we tried mizu mochi, a soft jelly that ‘bursts’ in your mouth and dorayaki – small and sweet fluffy pancake-like patties filled with yuzu. A night-cap came in the form of Gin2, a glass of citrusy granita topped with hot gin egg foam – sounds unusual albeit delicious, nonetheless.
To the uninitiated, Yakitori is simply skewered chicken grilled over charcoal fire and slathered with tare sauce. At Junsei, ask for a seat at the counter and watch as your eyes widen, and your mind bent by exotic flavours and textures that won’t leave you short-changed.
To discover more, visit: junsei.co.uk
Imagery courtesy of Justin De Souza / Laurie Fletcher
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