Both Nanban sites have reopened for business. It’s all gone okay so far. It was awkward at first and took a while to get everything ready – we had to remove seats and retrain staff – but now it's going pretty well. Our customers have responded well to the new measures, particularly the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, and especially in Brixton, as it’s a real neighbourhood restaurant. Seven Dials Market is also starting to pick up and I think in a few weeks it will be pretty solid. If business doesn't return to normal levels, we will have to think of other things we can do to pay the rent.
I've eaten at quite a few restaurants since they reopened. Top of my list was a visit to Filipino ice-cream and doughnut shop Mamasons Dirty Ice Cream in Chinatown. It serves my favourite doughnuts in London – maybe in the world – so I got one of those as soon as I possibly could. I’ve also been to Food House close by – I sat outside and ate some great aubergine garlic noodles. In my neighbourhood, Lee, there’s an Italian place called Luciano's which we visited to take advantage of the Eat Out To Help Out deal. When I’m cooking at Seven Dials Market, I try out the other vendors regularly. Club Mexicana does vegan Tex-Mex and has this great smoky jackfruit burrito, and El Pollote sells really amazing Venezuelan fried chicken.
The main thing that's going to change permanently is the decentralisation of London. Whether they're not comfortable using public transport or they're just working from home and not really in the office, people are sticking with going out in their own neighbourhoods and rediscovering cool little local places. Over time, the tourists will return and offices and theatres will reopen – this won't be the death of central London or anything, but it might be that people shift their dining choices into other areas. That said, places like Soho and Chinatown are pretty busy, perhaps because Londoners are starting to venture to tourist hotspots they might have avoided before.
Covent Garden is great for restaurants. I’m a big fan of Cora Pearl. There’s a new sake bar on Maiden Lane called Moto I keep meaning to try – they pour their own sake and serve Japanese izakaya food. This is the cool thing about London: you don't really get that many other places where you can go get Venezuelan fried chicken followed by Cantonese dumplings, Filipino doughnuts and then finish with sake. It’s not just central London either – in Lewisham, for example, you can get great Sri Lankan, Sichuan and Polish food, all within a few steps of one another.
In lockdown I started making things I wouldn't normally cook because I had a bit more time and got quite excited when I realised the amazing ingredients you can now buy on the internet. I made tacos a lot because they're one of those things I always go to a restaurant for – usually Breddo’s Tacos, Tacos Padre or Santo Remedio. I also started craving Hawaiian food one day, like poke and spam masubi, so I made those too. Having the time to do stuff like that was a lot of fun and a bit of escapism.
The restaurant from my childhood I remember the most is a burger shop called Kewpie. It used to be a chain in America, but I think there are only two left and one of them is in my hometown in Wisconsin. It serves amazing burgers and hasn't changed since the 1920s. The burgers are still really cheap and really greasy, and the kitchen does great crinkle fries and makes its own root beer. But there’s also this place from home I've been thinking about a lot lately called The Great Wall of China. It's gone now, but I remember really loving it when I was a kid because it was so different from the kind of food I usually had. I probably wouldn't probably rate it now I’ve eaten proper Chinese food, but I always remember it really fondly as it was the place that got me interested in Asian food – and was where I learned to use chopsticks.
The first dish I learned to cook was probably a tuna melt, then boxed macaroni cheese, which is actually more involved for young people than you might think – it's not that far off making the real deal. As a teenager, I started making fried rice and yakisoba because I’d tried them at Japanese restaurants in Wisconsin and they seemed the easiest to replicate.
Before lockdown, the restaurant I visited most was Monty's Deli. The best thing it serves is the Meshuggah, which is off menu. You have to be in the right mood, as it basically writes off the rest of the day, but it’s a reuben sandwich with pastrami, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and cheese, but with added chopped liver which is spread like a pâté. It's huge and really rich, but it's delicious. I also go to a local dim sum place in New Cross called Hong Kong City quite a lot and Wa Café, which is a Japanese patisserie in Covent Garden. Its pastries are really pretty and perfect, and it does gorgeous black sesame and matcha lattes. Then there are three Docklands Sichuan restaurants that are awesome. One is in Limehouse called Shan Shui Jian, there's one in North Greenwich called Sichuan, and then there's Jinjian in Deptford. They're all along the DLR, so you could do an epic food crawl.
Japan is hands-down my favourite country when it comes to food. It’s just got it all. But the city I most like to eat in is Los Angeles. It’s where I went to college; it's incredibly diverse and is full of diaspora neighbourhoods that serve obscure regional specialities. LA really appeals to me as I love Mexican, Korean and Japanese food, but there are also diners, so you can get great burgers and pies. There's a street called York Boulevard in Highland Park which always has taco trucks along it. They're all good and everybody has the one they're loyal to, but the ones I like are called Estrella, which is known for its goat arepa, and El Pique which has this tripe taco which is unbelievably good. It’s so delicious, it’s the thing that made me like tripe.
My most memorable meal was the first time I had proper tonkotsu ramen at Daikokuya in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. I went in by chance, because I was with a big group of friends and it was the only place that could fit us in. I didn't really know much about ramen then, but it blew my mind. That was my ramen moment – the one that made me instantly obsessed and want to learn more about it. I ate there every other week for four years after that.
I haven’t got a favourite pub but there are two bottle shops you can drink in that I love. One is in Brixton and is called Ghost Whale – it’s amazing, has a garden out the back and is run by really nice people. The other is Hop Burns & Black in Peckham. It’s a similar kind of thing, a really small shop with amazing beers, great wine and a patio.
I've always been a beer geek but during lockdown I really got back into sake. I realised I had more money to spend on booze, so I could buy more expensive stuff. Sake is a bit more expensive if you want to get a decent bottle – it's not like wine where you can get a good one for a tenner. There’s a Japanese food shop in north London called Natural Natural. On its online shop, there are tasting notes and you can explore by price or style, so it's great even if you don't know anything about sake. The other thing I've been banging on about is Kinnie, the Maltese national soft drink I discovered when I went on holiday there last year. It’s like cola, but it's got this strong bitter orange flavour – like if you put a shot of Aperol into a Coke. You can buy it on the internet, so we buy it by the case. When friends come round for drinks, I always insist they try one.
My perfect Sunday now revolves around a greasy spoon. I just moved to Lee and I’ve discovered what it seems to be the epicentre of greasy spoon culture – there are six of them within half a mile from my new house. Now my weekends are all about going to the park with my daughter and wife then having a fry-up. I don't even really like English breakfasts that much, but there’s something about the ritual of going to a greasy spoon that I really like. I tend to go for a full English, especially if it's got hash browns.
I'm a big advocate of shopping local. A butcher will always give you better stuff – I really like Jones The Butcher in Herne Hill and Meat Jon in Ladywell. I’m like a magpie with shopping. Like everyone I do most of my food shopping online, but as I cook with a lot of stuff that you can't get at the supermarket, I’m usually all over Chinatown and the Japan Centre picking up bit and pieces. If you’re after a range of unusual ingredients, I like Sous Chef. You won't ever need these specifically, but it sells these amazing madeira-soaked plum marzipan chocolates from Germany. I sent a box to a friend of mine recently. He ate them all in one night and had a sugar hangover.
I love dining with Jay Rayner but my favourite dining companion is my wife. Not only is she a good person to have a conversation with, but there’s the added benefit of us being a bit like Jack Sprat and his wife – if we order meat and it's a bit fatty, she doesn't like the fatty bits and I love them. I work with Jay on Radio 4’s Kitchen Counter. We've been out to eat together a lot and we have similar impulses in terms of ordering: we gravitate towards offal, weird cuts of meats and excess, so he's a lot of fun. He’s obviously great conversation too.
I always struggle with what to cook when people come round for dinner because most of my home cooking is not very impressive. But one thing I made recently is Ping Coombes’ Chinese-glazed roasted pork belly recipe. It was so good, it’s definitely going on regular rotation.
The secret to hosting a good dinner party is to not put yourself under too much stress. Make the food as simple as possible. Give yourself the time and freedom to actually entertain, serve your guests and drink with them rather than sweating over six pots and pans. I'm a big fan of making one big thing to put on the table, because it looks impressive and people can help themselves.
My dream dinner guests would be the Obamas, mainly because I want to hear what they really think. They’re very diplomatic, eloquent people – that's what makes them good politicians and leaders – but I suspect their anger is much greater than they express. I'd like to get a few sakes down them and hear their real opinions.
The best party I've ever thrown was when I turned 20 and threw a rice-themed party. Everybody brought a rice dish, and we had rice crispy treats and mochi for dessert. We drank sake, soju and horchata rice milk and we listened to music with lyrics by Tim Rice. It was a pretty good party considering it was a very stupid idea.
If I’m ordering a takeaway I mostly order pizza. In my neighbourhood, Mamma Dough is a very, very good option. My favourite when I'm in the mood for a proper meal is Jin Jiang. I always try to order something new, but I love my favourites so much it's hard to not order them. Dan dan noodles always make the cut.
The one thing I always order if I see it on the menu is pork chops. I think well-cooked pork chops from good pigs are just as good as any steak.
The most decadent meal I've ever had has got to be at Le Gavroche. I've been lucky enough to go there three times, and on two of those occasions I had the full-works tasting menu. It's not all super-rich French food, but quite a lot of it is. There's one dish in particular called the ‘Souffle Suissesse’. I don't know how they do it, but it’s basically an egg-white cloud that's smothered in cream and gruyere. It's light, but also like the richest thing you'll ever eat.
For my final meal I’d want to go somewhere tropical and eat seafood. Particularly crab, just simply prepared and barbecued on a beach in Hawaii. Otherwise, I’d be happy with a great tonkotsu ramen and a six-pack of nice ale.
My food hell is super specific. I get very angry about badly made iced coffee. Not enough people in this country know how to make a good iced coffee. If you go into one of the big chains and order one, they’ll just hand you a piece of garbage – there’s never enough ice and it’s always lukewarm and overly diluted. I don't know why I haven't learned my lesson.
You can find Nanban at 426 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, SW9 8LF and 35 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, WC2H 9LD. Check out the menu and book a table at Nanban.co.uk
DISCLAIMER: We endeavour to always credit the correct original source of every image we use. If you think a credit may be incorrect, please contact us at [email protected].