In all honesty, it felt like we were walking into a shady, underground nightclub. Pumping music (of the edgiest kind), a big video screen showcasing some strange cartoon character, and concrete steps leading down into a white-washed abyss… the signs weren’t good. The name, ‘Flesh and Buns’, didn’t help either. We were clearly entering a sweaty Soho strip club, where bun-shaking and flesh-baring are expected of all guests.
But we’re always told to ‘never judge a book by its cover’ (despite the fact that some covers really are rubbish, and that authors would have to be crazy to pick them), so this book was not going to be judged until we’d entered it. Maybe it was a gross misunderstanding; mutton dressed as lamb. So down we went, into the lamb’s lair, to taste the food it had to offer…
Flesh and Buns is the innovative new Japanese restaurant about town, brought to us by the inspired people behind Bone Daddies. A huge and colourful number of world cuisines are having their ‘spotlight moment’ in London at the moment – Mexican, Peruvian, Norwegian, Lebanese, Indian – and now Japanese has its moment to shine. And shine it did.
Having opened just 6 days before our visit, we were expecting a few teething problems. Reviews raved about its originality, the quality of the fresh fish and meat they’ve managed to source, and the warmth of the people at its helm, and all this was true. But there was something extra special about the place. There was an amazing buzz of excitement within the room – a crisp sense of anticipation – and everyone sitting around the tables seemed to really be revelling in the experience. The bustling kitchen dominates one side of the room, and is open for all to see, showcasing an abundant display of fresh fish to whet your appetite as you sit down.
The menu offers an array of dishes. Plenty of tempting starters – hot or cold, depending on taste – and for mains they serve up the famous ‘flesh’ and buns. Ordering is tricky. I pored over that menu for over 20 minutes, heart palpitating at the thought of having to stand by a final decision. However, the good thing is that if you’re lucky enough to get a seat on the long, communal table down the middle of the restaurant, you can ask neighbours for advice, and openly have a good old perve on their food choices. That makes it easier. Food is for sharing, after all.
We began with the Tuna Tataki (sensational, rare-cooked, sliced tuna with grapefruit, chilli and coriander), and the hot Chicken Yakitori (piping hot, melt-off-the-stick chicken kebabs with shichimi pepper). Both were delicious, but the tuna came home with gold.
Then onto the main. How it works is you pick your dream filling off a list of 9 choices, and it is delivered to your table beautifully presented on a plate, alongside a basket of two steamed buns (you can order extra for a couple of quid, if you’re ravenous or preparing for hibernation). If you haven’t given in to London’s latest street food craze and tried these steamed buns before, then you’ve been missing out, and really need to catch up. They are effectively hot clouds, which you bite into and mentally begin floating on. That’s the only way I can really describe the sensation.
So these buns and their meltingly tender fillings are brought to your table, you put them together, and what do you get? Something remarkably similar to the sensation of bobbing along on Cloud 9, that’s what.
We picked the Flat-Iron steak with BBQ Sauce and Pickled Shimeji, and the Salmon Teriyaki with Lemon, Sea Salt and Pickled Cucumber. Both were juicy, packed with Asian flavour and something you’d be proud of ordering. I always think you have to swell with pride when looking at something you’ve ordered.
The range of desserts is equally eclectic but sticks to a key theme: classic Western favourites, infused with Asian shrapnel. Your traditional ice cream sundae is made with blueberries, jelly and matcha ice cream, s’mores come with a layer of matcha goo, crispy bananas are served with yuzu mojito sorbet. However if you have the space, picking the s’mores really is a must, if only for the novelty value. They bring a stone-encased flame to your table, and you toast your mallows, creating your own, burstingly sweet sandwich. Even if you don’t decide to order one yourself, be sure to position yourself near to someone who looks like they’re going to. I’m not sure what someone like that looks like, but go with instinct. And don’t tell them you singled them out (unless you begin with ‘no offence but’.
Understated and with a refreshingly simple menu, Flesh and Buns is a hands-down success. It hovers between a quick, catch-up food bar for friends with good hearing, and an underground gastronomic street party. The only negative is the slightly bland look of the interior; though there are certainly things to glance at, and a hefty kitchen to gawp at, it seems like a bit of a wasted space with an offensive amount of aesthetic potential…but it’s still early days, so we’ll see.
Just go with an open mind and a giant’s appetite, and be sure to frequent it before the rest of the world – and the intimidating army of Covent Garden tourists that comes with it – catches on. This one’s a keeper.
Check out http://www.fleshandbuns.com for a sneaky peek.