Questionable decisions and karaoke bars go hand in hand. Domestic lager lowers your inhibitions; the e-numbers in bright green shots produce something similar to an adrenaline rush; close proximity to bawdy hen parties gives you a temporary self-esteem boost, and before you know it…
“I have the vocal range to take on both duet parts of Nelly & Kelly’s Dilemma, easy” you think; “I should break the ice with my partner’s work friends by rapping Superbass”; “I WILL pay homage to Rock DJ by taking all of my clothes off throughout the course of my performance”
See what I mean? Each decision more questionable than the last (they weren’t all in the same evening, though, I promise). Eating dinner at one, though? I would do anything in a karaoke bar (but I won’t do that).
And so, until recently I’d treated SushiWaka – the North Street restaurant set in the same premises as Mix Karaoke – with the same disregard that my song requests are usually treated with upstairs (especially since the Rock DJ incident). This was entirely unfair of course. Despite sharing an entrance, several members of staff and the toilets (though minus the bloke selling Issey Miyake Pour Homme for £1 a spritz) SushiWaka is its own very separate venture, and it couldn’t be much different from what goes on on the first floor.
The fairly large and open dining room is decked out in dark wood and light walls, huge bottles of sake and plum wine are displayed all around on shelves, fastidiously dusted by the floor staff when they have nothing else to busy themselves with. There’s a bar running the length of the room where sushi is prepared, putting head chef Rui Wang’s talents in full view of diners. He came from London’s SushiSamba, Wang, leaving behind their Japanese/Brazilian/Peruvian fusion to put together a more traditional menu at SushiWaka – sashimi platters with salmon, sea bream, scallop and surf clam; hosomaki with tuna and kanpyō; cuttlefish, eel and mackerel nigiri. Itsu it’s not.
What made me abandon my preconceptions and try out the place wasn’t the sushi though, I was there in pursuit of noodles, specifically ramen. A place to get reliably good ramen on the regular has been my main food-longing for some time now. Fu Schnikens do a solid Chashu Pork version when they pop up every now and again, Little Tokyo’s attempt is only ok, and judging by recent visits to the place, Fuji Hiro has lived long enough to become the Fuji villain.
Imagine my relief then, when on separate occasions I’ve been met with separate bowls of ramen that hits the spot. Pork Chop Ramen comes as a bowl of rich, milky pork broth, heavily flavoured with toasted sesame. However good or authentic a broth is, there’s always the risk that it could taste *too* porciney, like gulping down spoonfuls of liquidized pork scratchings. Here it’s not an issue, with the sesame and a dashi adding layers to the flavour. It’s only let down by a pan-fried pork escalop which adds absolutely nothing to the dish.
Spicy Beef Miso Ramen comes in a similarly beguiling soup – the deep, forestial miso gets you first, cautiously spiced but with a hint of fermentation, then sour tang from the beef, which is shredded and piled on top of the bowl – ready to be entwined with the noodles, all fresh and perky. I don’t know if the chef went upstairs to belt out a power ballad while the egg was boiling, but it’s about four minutes overcooked. You can’t have it all though.
If I wasn’t still so besotted with the novelty of having good ramen available, I could eat a full meals worth of the starter dishes. Agedashi Tofu is glacial cubes of the stuff – the glassy deep-fried coating gives way to a silky, almost panna cotta-textured filling, flavoured with soy and mirin and dashi. Yasai Gyoza, the pot-sticker kind, are perfect little parcels of vegetable and tofu with a lively chilli vinegar you’ll want to dip everything in, and then there’s the Yasu Dengaku.
An aubergine, halved lengthways, fried until the oozing and then topped with a gutsy mixture of white miso and sesame. Halfway between cheese on toast and a savoury creme brulee, it’s the sexiest thing anybody’s done with an aubergine since people started using its emoji to refer to a proud erection.
I’m sure I’ll be back at Mix Karaoke eventually, giving Nelly & Kelly another attempt. I’ll be visiting SushiWaka again even sooner though, where the only Dilemma will be deciding what to order next.