On a wet evening, as buses and cars honk their way through roadworks, and pedestrians weave around scaffolding poles, Japan House offers sanctuary from the tribulations of Kensington High Street.
Sanctuary and radiance: its white walls are bathed in bright light, the better to exhibit a tasteful collection of Japanoiserie offered up to the twin gods of culture and commerce. Although it may look like the most minimalist of museums, the fabrics and books and utensils are all up for sale.
There’s sustenance too, both light and substantial. On the ground floor, an angular white counter known as The Stand serves Japanese teas, kissaten coffee - made using the kind of filter system favoured in Tokyo cafe culture - and a small, tantalising range of baked treats.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Above it, at the other end of a graceful spiral staircase, is the restaurant, Akira, where both the food and lighting are more serious. The gentle glow cast by bulbs nestling between dark ceiling rafters is diffused by latticed screens and absorbed by grey stone floor tiles. Black leather seat cushions soak up yet more of it, but stripped pine backrests provide light relief. Each one is topped with an elegant wooden rail that curves upwards like a pagoda roof.
The appetiser of the day, an artful construction of salmon and radish, was also an exercise in contrasts. The vegetable, pickled and slivered, supplied a crisp, wasabi-like heat that invigorated the plump cubes of fish.
It was the first course of the omakase menu, a relatively accessible interpretation of a culinary form which translates as “I’ll leave it up to you”. These are, traditionally, words spoken by the connoisseur arriving at a sushi counter - an invitation to the chef to deliver the finest, freshest ingredients as he or she sees fit.
It is a revered experience, says the Michelin Guide, and often both intimidating and expensive - but less so at Akira. The service was notably informal, allaying fears about expulsion (or, worse, silent judgement) for crimes against omakase etiquette I was no doubt about to commit. Nor was it prohibitively pricey, by the standards of this sort of thing, at £60 for three unstinting courses.
The second of them was the prettiest, a bento box packed with sashimi and other good things. Seabass, yellowtail, salmon and two grades of tuna were all present and correct, but the plant-based bites held their own against the glistening fish. The mushroom croquette was a mouthful of deep-fried umami, and a soy-topped egg custard looked so much like creme caramel that I’m still not sure whether I imagined a pleasing hint of burnt sugar in the salty, savoury sauce.
Then it was time for the main course, or rather the trio of main courses. Having opted for the fishier of the two choices, I received another selection of sushi - octopus and salmon roe joining a reprise of round two’s greatest hits - as well as a bowl of miso soup and a wagyu salad. The madly expensive beef, bred for its unrivalled marbling, oozed unctuous fat after a brief encounter with the robata grill.
The meatier menu offers more variety, and more from the grill. Skewers of wagyu, chicken and pork, served on a sizzling hunk of volcanic rock, were an admirable substitute for the second bento box. Two more courses - a soup and a pudding - can be added for £15, although it’s hardly needed. The shorter menu won’t leave you hungry, but then again, omakase is never really about necessity.
Akira at Japan House London is at 101-111 Kensington High St, London W8
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.