Turning Japanese in the heart of Soho…

Like the back end of the annual nativity donkey costume, the bottom end of Wardour St is not generally somewhere you want to find yourself. Littered with all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets and thick with air that hangs ripe with the perfume of coloured sugar from nearby cultural landmark M&M’s World, it’s not a part of London I’d associate with cool, new food but recent opening Ichibuns may bring with it more fragrant winds of change.

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Despite having a name to make passing tourists snigger, if, like me, you’ve never been to Japan, then I imagine stepping inside here is like a sensory overloaded snapshot of what the centre of Tokyo might be if it had a brief, torrid, snogging-in-the-back-row affair with the heartland of Americana diner culture. It’s way cool, with an 80’s flavoured techno-pop soundtrack and it’s certainly not short of things to keep you entertained visually as you wait for food. Sat downstairs, we had walls of arcade games, plastic dollies behind metal mesh, the front half of a van surrounded by the oversized stereo speakers you had when you were 15 and a ceiling covered with black & white Japanese comic pages all vying for our attention.

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The menu offers a slightly curious mix of ramen, burgers, sushi & the sort of shakes that will slay a bride-to-be in her tracks as well as beers, whiskeys & juices. You’ll find the sour cherry with orange & lemon refreshingly sharp enough to cut through the richness of the meat & bread with ease.The food here is neither classic Japanese or American per se – crunchy cheeseburger spring rolls are absolutely filthy in the very best way – but there’s something about the fusion on offer here that’s grabbed local attention already; it was packed when we left late on a Saturday afternoon.

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Salmon bites in a panko breadcrumb crust were hot, crispy, packed full of plump pink flakes and worth the world of HIIT pain that came from working them off the next day.

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Earlier intentions of swan-diving into wagyu beef ramen were firmly paused by the spotting of shiny domed burgers lined up on the kitchen pass like footsoldiers in a particularly juicy little army.

Unfortunately, the Panko burger was sold out – perhaps someone should assess the ingredient orders as that’s pretty disappointing midway through a Saturday afternoon one month after launch – so the Ichiban and the Chicken Karaage were ordered instead.

Looking for all the world like a classed up Big Mac that’s had a liberal helping of the the Juno filter applied, the Ichiban was a damn good burger.

A slightly gluttonous 180g wagyu beef patty arrived under a thick, guilty-pleasure blanket of the finest American plastic cheese and was dressed with a few classic accessories; gherkin, tomato, onion and lettuce as well as a smoky BBQ sauce. A branded brioche bun held everything together by a triumphant (if slightly overwhelmed) Ichibuns flag and every bite was as disgustingly, gorgeously messy & delicious as it should have been with perfectly cooked beef, crunchy vegetables and THAT soft cheese gathering everything together in one big, shiny, yellow hug.

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While the wagyu was absolute bang for your buck, the chicken was sadly more of a damp squib. Did it help that moments after we ordered it our waitress loudly discussed with the bartenders the fact that the chicken had been ‘banging’ a couple of days before but was now back to the old style and not very good? No. It did not.

Falling apart – not because it was exceptionally tender but because it was thigh meat and the batter wasn’t strong enough to hold it together – and lacking in any real flavour, it wasn’t the worst chicken burger I’ve ever eaten but that’s hardly a badge of honour to crow about. The batter didn’t have any real structure or taste, I’m not sure I could tell you what makes Japanese coleslaw any different to the cabbage-carrot-onion threesome that every other country employs and if Ichibuns seriously wanna play in the fried chicken game here in London – where we take our battered birds somewhat very seriously – then I’d suggest they head to Butchies and check out how it should be done.

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There’s a lot to like about this place including the wacky décor, the perky, bubbly, bubblegummed hostess at the main door and a visit to the bathroom which, ladies, is a must if you’re fed up of hovering over frosty seats. They’ve only been open a month and while I’d suggest there are a few things that need tweaking menu wise, I’ll be back to slurp that ramen, knock back a sesame-peanut shake and faceplant the green tea profiteroles without any hesitation.

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