Last Updated on January 24, 2023
Japan meets Middle East in Islington
JIJI is an innovative concept restaurant located in a part of Islington that I had never found before. The old Royal Mail sorting office has been beautifully restored and this impressive building now houses a choice of restaurants and interior shops. Located just off Upper Street, which boasts the UK’s highest concentration of restaurants, JIJI has some stiff competition. Thus it was heartening to find happy diners at lunchtime on an icy cold Saturday. Filled with casual chatter of customers – especially couples and families with small children playing with chopsticks – JIJI offers Japanese and Middle Eastern food. I thought it was a new kind of fusion idea, but the truth is, it only offers both options.
The restaurant is well designed with a cozy bar adjoining an open kitchen. Attractive tiles on the floor and walls, floor-to-ceiling glass panels and eye-catching contemporary lighting and artwork set the scene. Cozy velvet seating in shades of plum and tables surround a bottle green – some wood and others covered in marble.
We put ourselves in the hands of the friendly manager who curated a variety of dishes giving us a taste of Japanese and Middle Eastern cuisine. Since these are two of my favorite dishes as well, I was looking forward to the choices.
We were first treated to a variety of cocktails from the signature cocktail list. Here are six creative drinks along with four mocktails. Ukiyo Yuzu 75 is my favorite – a Japanese twist on the French 75, mixing sparkling sake with Ukiyo yuzu gin. It’s just up my street – sparkling and not too sweet. Picanteria lives up to its name and carries a spicy margarita topped with large chunks of red pepper alongside reposado tequila, agave syrup, lime juice and coriander. This one really wakes up those appetites. Lychee and blossom martini – Ukiyo blossom gin, beefeater dry gin and lychee – looks pretty and pink but too sweet.
I noticed that most of the other diners at JIJI included the bento box which I understand is part of the lunch menu. We ate from the à la carte menu, divided into rolls, sushi, small plates and salads, kushiyaki (skewers) and large plates. Sharing food is the idea and the portions are definitely generous enough for that purpose. We sampled two of the six rolls on the menu – yellow tail sesame, almond, fish roe and JIJI salmon and tuna tartare, truffle and ponzu. Both are delicious. The yellow rolls were interesting with a beautiful bright green egg and tasted fresh. JIJI salmon and tuna rolls are rolled in toasted sesame which adds extra flavor and texture. The truffle mayo elevates the dish into a sumptuous mouthful. Pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce are all present. We had three pieces of sushi – salmon, sweet soy, furikake spices; tuna and avocado tartare, truffle cream sauce; and grilled scallops, the unagi sauce being my favorite if I had to choose.
We moved on to a selection of small plates – one from the Japanese side and one from the Middle East. We started with a very tasty dish of chicken karaage with Gochujang honey sauce. As fans of Japanese food know, fried chicken (karaage) is very popular. The quality varies depending on the batter and who is frying, and friends sometimes argue about whether the lemon juice should be squeezed out before tucking. Such questions do not need to be answered here as the fried chicken pieces are coated in a sweet, spicy and sweet glaze sprinkled with sesame seeds and scallions. It may be too sweet for some tastes but I found it an excellent coating for tender chicken in a crunchy batter.
The small plates are paired with a light Lebanese white wine – Blanc de l’Observatoire, Chateau Ksara – which is most refreshing and withstands the hot sauce.
By now my tastes have adapted to Japanese cooking and my chopsticks are ready for further action. At this stage, there was a gear change to Middle Eastern flavors and textures – our second small plate was an eggplant carpaccio with crunchy onions, peanuts and feta. There’s a bit of herbal decoction and a generous helping of pomegranate molasses. The eggplant has a smoky flavor reminiscent of baba ghanoush and looks lovely on a plate, garnished with greens and rubies. The chopped pistachios strewn over the eggplant add a nice textural contrast to the soft eggplant.
From here we move on to two large plates which are as described, well proportioned. This is paired with Cotes-du-Rhone Samorens French blush, Ferraton.
We enjoyed a sizable Scottish salmon fillet in a 48 hour miso marinade with miso sauce. Next up was a slow cooked lamb and beef shawarma with tahini yoghurt, tomato jam and zhug. The tender and tasty meat is served with two JIJI-style flatbreads. It’s grilled on a Robata grill and served with a small bowl of labneh and tahini and is excellent, with that lovely chewy texture one looks for in a quality flatbread.
The dessert menu includes malabi and mochi among a selection of six. We were served vegan malabi – rose, coconut cream panna cotta, caramelized hibiscus and almonds. Rocky Road includes Cremieux chocolate hazelnut praline, almond crumble, caramel popcorn, flamed marshmallows and blueberries. This dessert is sure to please those with a sweet tooth.
We left after enjoying a nice lunch. My overall feeling is that these two dishes are not the kind of food one would choose to eat side by side. Obviously, it’s a personal preference and other people may differ. Loving both dishes as much as I am, I usually don’t want to eat them in the same meal. However, JIJI offers versatility for people who crave both. The Japanese food we ate was, I think, the stronger of the two offerings and I will, on a return visit, choose which dish I want to eat rather than mix it up. From what I saw around me, most people were eating sushi and bento boxes. On further inspection I found that JIJI’s bento box was indeed a dish, containing eggplant chips with sushi, tacos and seaweed salad along with chicken katsu, roasted cauliflower or lamb shawarma. The menu, while leaning towards fish, has plenty to keep vegetarians happy too. Whether your preference is Japanese, Middle Eastern or mixed, JIJI thinks outside the box.
6G Esther Anne Place, London N1 1WL
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