To your average Londoner, not all that long ago, sushi was simply fish that hadn't yet met a fryer. Then restaurants like Nobu and Zuma made hamachi rolls hip. Now the city's hottest spots are turning foodies on to more adventurous Japanese dishes. At Umu (14-16 Bruton Place; 44-207/499-8881; dinner for two $180)—a Mayfair den glammed up with wenge wood and stainless steel—chef Ichiro Kubota specializes in Kyoto cuisine, renowned for its ritualized presentation. Order the full kaiseki meal, the traditional 8- to 10-course set menu, or mix and match from the selection of small plates, such as sweet shrimp in sake vinaigrette topped with caviar and edible gold leaf. Roka (37 Charlotte St.; 44-207/580-6464; dinner for two $110), the newest venture from Zuma founder Rainer Becker, also caters to grazers. The room hums around a large, open robata grill, where chefs turn out lamb cutlets with Korean spices and—even for those still hankering for a fish-and-chips fix—crispy fried rock shrimp served with piquant prickly-ash and limes.
Situated in the theatre district, this award-winning Japanese restaurant draws an eclectic, celeb-spotted crowd with its stylish glass-and-wood design, lively atmosphere, and robatayaki cuisine (cooked over an open charcoal grill). The dining area is centered on a U-shaped sushi and robata bar made with rough-hewn exotic hardwood, while floor-to-ceiling windows open onto Charlotte Street during warmer months. There’s also a seasonal outdoor dining area and a downstairs cocktail bar, Shochu, named after a vodka-like distilled spirit. Must-try dishes include inch-thick scallops in wasabi cream, black cod dumplings, and Korean-spiced lamb cutlets from the grill.
Billed as the UK’s only true Kyoto restaurant, Umu specializes in kaiseki cuisine, which originates from Japan’s ancient capital, and is the most refined and expressive way to serve Japanese food—not to mention the most expensive. Waiters thoroughly explain the complicated menus, and then quietly disappear only to return with plate after plate of high culinary art taken to an extreme by head chef Yoshinori Ishii, who once worked at Japan’s Michelin three-starred Kyoto Kitcho. Dramatic dark wood interiors are moodily matched with low lighting and velvet banquettes, an atmosphere fit for the undeniably well to do crowd.