Back in April 2016, in those innocent pre-Brexit days, when it seemed that nothing could halt the relentless juggernaut of East London gentrification, I may not have been the only one whose heart sank just a little to see another Bethnal Green institution, deserted, boarded up and graffitied, destined for the same soulless makeover that has made our neighbourhoods a dizzying jamboree of light brick apartment blocks, Juliette balconies and Tesco Metros.
“Issho-Ni means “together with” in Japanese. Issho-Ni is a place where people can come together to enjoy good food and drinks in a relaxed atmosphere”
To those who frequented it, the Noodle King of 185 Bethnal Green Road was one of those disappearing East End gems like the Palm Tree or the Beigel Bake which allowed hipsters and hobos to rub shoulders, sat on unforgiving wooden benches, vintage Nikes planted on beige linoleum floors. True, the eponymous noodle dishes had somewhat mixed reviews but does that really matter when you can comatose yourself with big bowls of steaming, salty satisfying grub for less than a fiver. Given its cult status and loyal following, you can imagine my surprise to learn that as recently as 1999, Noodle King was the Blade Bone, a spit and sawdust cockney boozer which had been a popular hangout for Mosley’s blackshirts in the 1930s. Levelled in the Blitz, the pub was rebuilt after the war and continued to attract the far right for most of the remainder of its existence, a place where Mosley’s men could wet their whistles under the watchful eye of landlord Bert, after a morning listening to rabble rousers and demagogues on their soapboxes on nearby Kerbala St.
How sweet the irony then that the restaurant that inhabits the site of the once smoky and noisome saloon bar is now home to an Asian fusion restaurant which describes itself as follows: “We are a 1920s art deco and Moga girl themed Japanese restaurant bar. The cocktails are constructed to tell the timeline of Japan’s history in its different eras with a focus on the 1920s.” Admittedly, stepping into Issho-Ni on an unusually warm autumnal Sunday in October does not exactly feel like stepping back into 1920s Kyoto – the dark wood interiors and lighting feel modern and inoffensive, rather than vintage and atmospheric – think more Kimchi or Dim T than whisky bar in Gion, with open patio doors letting in the occasional roar of a blacked out, souped-up hatchback racing past on the Bethnal Green Rd. So far so ok. But things started to look up very shortly thereafter as our Bloody Geishas arrived, the tomato juice rich and sweet, oozing umami depth from the wasabi and kimchi and a delicate floral cucumber elegantly bobbing on the surface like a newborn cygnet.
And then the food started arriving thick and fast. Fine, crisp clouds of seafood kakiage (think Japanese Frito Misto) with a spiky orange ponzu sauce. Squid ink yakisoba came with a flower of raw squid nestled in luscious loops of firm black ribbon noodles, grassy fragrant shiso cutting through the briny richness of the squid ink. Asparagus came chopped in half and arranged in a lattice over a zingy yuzu miso. Raw scallops were thinly sliced and cured, translucent soft white discs like fried eggs, each with a wobbly yuzu kosho yolk. But the star of the show – the wagyu beef which comes both as an “Oshizushi” (pressed sushi) or as a steak, with horseradish “espuma”, deep fried garlic and a generous heap of spring onions counteracting the rich, marbley voluptuousness of the oh so tender beef.
The bartenders wore thick glasses, denim and tan aprons (remember Shoreditch is less than a 5 minute skateboard ride away) and were at hand to provide information on the varied cocktail menu which included some interesting sounding Japanese whisky based concoctions which will have this particular punter back in no time at all, as if I needed another excuse… the soft launch continues for another week with 30% off all food but even without this discount, prices are far from unreasonable given the location and quality of food on offer.
Issho-Ni we are told means “together” - and the owner has sought to create a place “where people can come together to enjoy good food and drinks in a relaxed atmosphere”. This is, of course, a description of any restaurant ever in the history of the world. But given this place’s chequered past, I think we can forgive the glibness and celebrate the diversity and depth of the delightful food and drink on offer in what is surely destined to become an East End gem in its own right.
185 Bethnal Green Road
London, United Kingdom