No5 [Restaurant] Singing the praises of Suki-yaki

no5rSinging the praises of Suki-yaki

One of the most satisfying things about eating out in Japan is the number of dishes cooked right in front of you. There’s something communal and incredibly appetizing about gathering round a hot plate or pot, feel its heat, hear the sizzle of frying fat, the bubble of simmering stock. One such dish is Suki-yaki, a kind of beef stir-fry made with onions, cabbage, carrots, mushrooms and konnyaku noodles. Popular as a family meal for large gatherings, it is similar to Shabu-shabu and Nabe, though no water is added. Incidentally, Suki-yaki is also the English title of the only Japanese language song to top the American charts. The Suki-yaki song (Japanese title ‘Ue o Muite Arukou’, or ‘Let’s walk looking upwards’) was a huge hit in the 60s, but has absolutely nothing to do with food, it was given the catchy name because Americans associated it with Japan. Ribon restaurant near St Paul’s and Farringdon is a great spot to try the hearty dish, especially with the cold nights now drawing in. A gas burner is brought to your table, with a casserole dish on top. First the vegetables are fried in oil, then a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and sake is added, followed by thin slices of sirloin steak, placed to one side. This is all carried out expertly by your waitress, who at Ribon dress in traditional hakama, a kind of pleated skirt worn over kimono. As soon as the meat browns it’s ready to eat, either by dipping into a dish of raw quail eggs to soften the flavours, or on its own. Suki-yaki is a dish for sharing, it encourages conversation and social interaction, as you take turns to pick out the sweet and succulent pieces of beef with your chopsticks, and devour them with mouthfuls of rice, washed down by miso soup. Filling and flavoursome, the only problem is who gets the last slice of sirloin. Ribon itself covers two floors, with a modern dining area and bar by the entrance, while underneath, down the stone spiral staircase is a more atmospheric space, with nooks, crannies, and archways which feel like they might be part of the original structure of nearby Holborn viaduct. There are private rooms for mahjong and karaoke, and the walls are covered with rather kitsch but impressively rendered oil paintings by the restaurant’s friendly proprietress, who uses the pen name Junko Ribon. Often wearing a kappogi, old style Japanese apron, she happily chats away, often about news from home which she picks up from the many Japanese salarymen who work nearby. A popular lunchtime spot, there are daily specials, sushi and sashimi, udon, tempura, and okonomiyaki on the menu. Suki-yaki is available in the evenings, every night of the week. Just remember to bring a friend.

Alexis Brown