EAST IS EAST: Novikov Asian blends Chinese with Japanese and arrives at an interesting solution
Novikov’s Asian Restaurant cuts a sleek figure in the London restaurant landscape. The stern black windows with an even more stern doorman would suggest a gathering place for the Cosa Nostra branch of London, rather than a destination of haute cuisine, but the buzz that welcomes you as soon as you walk through the revolving doors, is undeniably ‘fine dining’.
Novikov is the brainchild of the most successful restauranteur in Russia, Arkady Novikov. Other than the name and the origin of the founder, however, Novikov London has no relations to Russian cuisine. Instead, it combines two different restaurants under one roof, with one serving high-end Italian, while the other blends together different Asian cuisines, mostly Japanese with a little influence from their neighbours in China. Complete with a cocktail lounge, one will be excused to be spending their entire evening (and weekly wages) at Novikov. The restaurant, in parts and as an entity is not for the budget diner – expect to be parting with a better part of £200 for a dinner for two.
The Monday evening I popped down to check out what the fuzz is about, I found the restaurant packed. Last time I read the papers, there was a recession on, a double dip recession, might I add! But the fine folk at Novikov seemed unable to care less. Tables were filled with painfully fashionable groups clearly in town for the Menswear Fashion Week and made-up primadonnas, who had more plastic in their lips than in the cocktail straws they were sucking on and their less attractive beaus. But there were also groups of Asians from young cosmopolitans to well-to-do families and that is always a good sign in an Asian restaurant.
The interior of Novikov Asia is sleek and stylish, with a mouthwatering market place at the back of the restaurant. Those who appreciate food, appreciate seeing what it looks like before it’s cooked – with fresh fish, veg and mushies on display, our hopes for a fine meal that night were most certainly high. That is until we sat down.
The first 15 minutes of our experience read like a chapter from “The Beginners Guide to Upsetting Your Customers for Waiters’. For a moment, I actually thought I was being filmed for one of those training videos and been shown later at a catering school. A cold and slightly annoyed welcome from the serving staff is in itself a fairly authentic feature in an Asian restaurant, but not what one would expect in Mayfair. After being sat down, my date for the night and myself were left puzzled with one cocktail list between us to share as well as a confusingly long food menu, which no-one cared to really explain. 20 minutes into our dinner, things started to look up a bit – a new waiter arrived at the table and we actually got a little more attention than a road-kill on Route 66. Perhaps we just arrived at the time they were changing shifts. But then again, with prices like this, the customer shouldn’t really notice anything. Even if they were organising a coup d’etat in the kitchen.
The food menu in Novikov Asia is demanding – comprising of sushi and sashimi, dim sum, grills, woks, teppan yaki as well as rice and noodle dishes, one does indeed require help from the staff on top of previous knowledge of Asian dining before choosing their dinner. Perhaps not the best place in town to acquaint your taste buds to octopus sashimi, but for a well trained Asian food lover, this may well be a dining experience of the season.
We kicked off with some miso and edamame (both a pretty decent choice for a small appetiser), after which our chosen choice of ‘starters’ arrived at the table and marked the beginning of a very enjoyable part of our meal. The warm crispy duck salad with green apple and Peking dressing was one of the best salads I have had in an Asian restaurant before – hand on my heart! The succulent duck bounced off the Peking dressing and the pomegranate seeds added just the right amount of spring freshness. We complemented the salad with a plate of ‘new style’ sashimi – a relatively new invention by the Japanese chefs and a pretty much unknown feature in the London Japanese restaurants. ‘New style’ refers to the special way of cutting the fish, where the pieces are much thinner and therefore more flavoursome. I first tried this in one of the Nobus in the US, absolutely loved it and was more than pleased to see ‘new style’ has finally arrived in London. Our choice for the evening was salmon with Yuzu soy dressing - bullseye!
Our ‘main’ courses included the Yuzu scented miso black cod and the Sweet miso marinated sea bream. Straight from the market in the corner, the fish used for the dishes could not have been more fresh even if it swam itself to my plate. The fine produce had been given the excellent treatment of perfect cooking. Both the cod and the bream were an utter delight, especially in combination with the Crunchy grilled asparagus and Szechuan sauce aubergine. Despite the waiter’s surprisingly confused face, when we decided to go down the traditional route of having our sushi after the mains, the Soft-shell crab maki and nigiri were the dot on the ‘i’ of our gorgeously tasty meal.
In comparison with the food list, the cocktail menu was short and sleek. We sampled a selection of fruity and refreshing concoctions, all made with love and care for the best outcome. Like the food, the cocktails left very little, if no space for improvement. Our meal was a full on feast, but with the generous portion sizes, you can actually get away with just a few options to share (quite honestly, we were pretty full after the salad!) and arrive at a reasonable total bill in the end.
Despite the rather unpleasant welcome and loopy at the very best (blatantly rude, if being fully honest) service at the beginning, our dinner at Novikov turned out to be a delightful experience. The staff got their act together and were rather charming in the end, whist I have nothing but compliments for the food selection and cocktails. With prices like that, however, one would expect perfection from the start. Just saying.