ENGAWA / SPRING/SUMMER 2016 / ISSUE FOUR / NOTES MAGAZINE
The London restaurant Engawa, redefines the ambience of food and how it can be presented.
Nathan Clegg reports
A colleague returned recently from his first ever visit to Japan. Being what most people would regard as a well-travelled individual, I was surprised to hear him say that it was unlike anywhere else he had been and definitely the culture furthest removed from our own that he had ever experienced.
Japanese culture exerts a fascination for many designers, perhaps because of its ability to develop particular facets to an exquisite level of detail. So well are these concepts understood within Japan that they have names which immediately convey subtle and complex meanings. Something that would take paragraphs to explain in English. Take the term wabi sabi for example. Crudely translated it refers to a view of aesthetics that comprehends the necessity of transience and imperfection. But not imperfection as a western mind might understand. Wabi sabi deals with the positive contributions of simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, and an appreciation of the imperfection of natural materials and techniques. So far, so straightforward.
The exquisitely developed Japanese sense of aesthetic is as well represented in the kitchen as anywhere. Food, its preparation and consumption has been raised to a level by some Japanese chefs that the French, the traditional western food experts, can only dream of. Japanese kitchen knives for example are generally acknowledged to be the best in the world and have an entire subculture of their own.
So when I booked a table at Engawa restaurant in the heart of London’s Piccadilly for myself and my wife, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Reviews I had read suggested the meal would certainly be good, but I was unprepared for the impact of the overall experience. Let me explain.
Engawa is situated on the ground floor of a modern, fairly unremarkable commercial development in London’s West End. This I knew, having looked it up when I booked. So as we turned off the bustle and clamour of Shaftesbury Avenue it was somewhat unnerving to find ourselves in a little haven of peace and tranquillity. It was as if the restaurant was projecting an aura of serenity into the courtyard in front of it. As we stepped through the door, the tranquillity reading shot off the dial. It is impossible to convey how calm, organised and welcoming everything felt. Nor how tiny it was. I said it was a little haven and I meant it. The phrase ‘small but perfectly formed’ could have been coined for Engawa.
Japanese culture exerts a fascination for many designers, perhaps because of its ability to develop particular facets to an exquisite level of detail.
I had booked the meal as a result of eating a piece of Kobe beef at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze some time ago. It was good, very good. I like beef. I definitely liked Kobe beef. When I learned that Engawa was both the only restaurant in Britain to import the whole Kobe cow and also the closest thing to an authentic Japanese Kobe restaurant setting that didn’t involve flying half way round the world, I was sold.
Kobe cows are reputed to live the life of Riley before being transformed into ‘the caviar of beef’. They have special food, beer, are given regular massages, reside in luxury accommodation with piped music – you get the idea. The resulting meat is distinguished by a marbling of fat that gives it a unique texture and flavour.
Seated at our dolls house table with the menus it took me a moment to identify what was unusual about the atmosphere. It was the silence. Despite the presence of a barman, four busy chefs just feet away, numerous waiting staff and our fellow diners, a quiet calm pervaded the room. We had definitely entered a parallel universe, and a sublimely peaceful one it was.
We ordered bento boxes: 14 separate dishes that arrived in a wooden box with each immaculately presented creation on its own delicate little porcelain dish. This was food for the eyes and brain as much as the tongue. Our pristine waitress gently and quietly explained each little work of art; I understood very little but somehow it didn’t matter. I was in a dream state where the feelings of peace, tranquillity and pleasure outweighed such minor matters.
We ate and we ate. How could 14 dishes be so different and yet equally delicious? How could the waiting staff know I needed a fresh napkin and materialise silently by my side with one just as the thought began to form in my own mind? The meal was an object lesson in the Japanese concept of omotenashi: hospitality. This was restaurant hospitality and it was definitely not as we know it Jim. It was an object lesson in the difference between Japanese and British culture.
Towards the end of the meal, as the bento boxes had been removed and we lingered over the last of our wine, we had an opportunity to study the chefs at work. It was like watching silent theatre, as choreographed movements and flashing blades produced delicately sliced ingredients that moved across the kitchen as one stage of preparation followed another. The concentration and skill was tangible.
Eventually it was time to leave. From nowhere our coats were presented (where and when had they gone in the first place?) and we stepped back onto Shaftesbury Avenue. It would not have surprised me if I had glanced back to see no trace of Engawa. The whole event had a mythical quality that had left a powerful impression. The food had been superb, but it was the total experience that stayed with me. The sense of a clear, highly refined vision delivered with complete control in every detail. Of peace, pleasure, harmony and refinement. Had I been dreaming?
Some weeks later, remembering the earlier meal we had enjoyed at Maze, we watched a rerun of an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. At one point my wife turned to look at me. She didn’t need to say anything. The silence was sufficiently eloquent.