Nippon Kitchen shouldn’t really exist. It sits on West George Street, snugly sandwiched between the twin behemoths of Wagamama next door and YO! Sushi across the street. With such brand-name juggernauts in close proximity, both plying a well-worn trade in noodles and sushi, it really ought to be game over for Nippon Kitchen. To survive in such an inhospitably competitive corner of the city is impressive, but to thrive while multi-million pound chains take root around them? You could call that miraculous.
There are probably a few reasons that Nippon Kitchen somehow prevails in the sushi wars. The food we’ll come to in a minute, but the restaurant itself deserves some attention. Set on the bottom floor of an early 20th century red sandstone office block it craftily co-opts the original wood-paneled interior to create a dining room that’s manifestly not Japanese but somehow feels right. The dark walnut tables, deep dark bowls and eclectic light fittings all work in harmony to lend it a convincingly “Japanesey” vibe without going overboard. It’s a very pleasant place to eat a meal.
Eschewing conventional wisdom, there’s no lunch menu on a Friday at Nippon Kitchen. Looking around the room at a lunch service that most restaurants would kill for, I can see why. It’s strangely liberating to have the whole a la carte to choose from but I already have my eyes on the noodle section. I opt for spicy chicken ramen while my opposite number (he does have a name, honest) plumps for chicken curry udon. I’m immediately jealous.
To supplement this noodle extravaganza we share some vegetable gyoza which arrive in an anxiety-inducing order of five. The Mexican stand off over the last dumpling is mercifully delayed as two large, steaming bowls are placed in front of us. My noodle envy now allayed, I get excited. I look down and see shredded nori sitting atop islands of chicken breast that break the surface of an enticing broth. The spice is provided by a film of chili oil as well as a haphazard scattering of red chili slivers. So much to see on the surface but as we’ll discover there are also treasures lurking below. The broth itself is a revelation, bursting with umami flavour combined with a slow burn from the chili oil. Too often this most basic element is overlooked but here it’s one of the tastiest components of the dish. The chicken is tender and perfectly seasoned, while the marinated hard-boiled egg has a pungent, salty sesame flavour. There are also leeks, bamboo shoots and spinach for added flavour and variety, and a generous handful of ramen noodles provides body. For once the noodles aren’t the star. That broth really shines.
My lunch partner’s chicken curry udon has the look of a dish you know you shouldn’t have but absolutely want. Peering into the bowl all I can see is a beautifully golden, chilli-punctuated, katsu chicken cutlet. Beneath that is a nest of wonderfully springy udon noodles (that’s the fatter variety, noodle noobs) smothered in a rich and aromatic Japanese curry sauce. It’s not subtle but it’s delicious and it demands to be eaten. I prove that I’m the bigger man by offering the last gyoza to my friend. He eats it without hesitation. I immediately start planning his downfall.
On the face of it, Nippon Kitchen’s continued success might seem surprising. But one visit offers all the explanation you need. They produce consistent, high quality food and it’s a pleasant surprise to find that this is enough to stay one step ahead of the chains. Perhaps I should have more faith in my fellow citizens. Our food plus two soft drinks came to a touch under £30. Who needs a lunch menu?
91 West George Street
0141 328 3113
Fast and friendly service
No Friday lunch menu (it's available Mon - Thu)