Izakaya, York: How Yorkshire chef Danny Victory is recreating the taste of Tokyo in his restaurant

I’ve been binge watching Tokyo Vice (BBC iPlayer), the series about a young American reporter on Tokyo’s leading newspaper who gets embroiled in the organised crime gangs known as Yakuza, running protection rackets in the city’s hostess bars. It was not the full body tattoos or the ritual “finger shortening” that got me hooked, but the shadowy drinking dens where dodgy deals are done over bowls of slippery noodles.

I was introduced to some dark and moody bars when I was on holiday in Japan a few years ago. Found all over Japan, they are called Izakayas and are a cross between gastropub and tapas bar. Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district is an area of narrow lanes and dark alleys, where dozens of ramshackle Izakaya’s open on to the street and where the smoky whiff of yakitori skewers grilling on the barbeque entice people in.

Izakaya is the latest opening in York, described as ‘a Japanese contemporary small plate venue’ created by local lads Adam Johnson and Danny Victory. It’s nothing like the Izakaya’s I remember from Tokyo, which are generally intimate places, snug and softly lit. This one is intimate only in that even with plenty of room, they have pinned us between two tables, so close together that I could have happily chipped into the conversation between the chef and the lady at the next table, discussing whether cured egg yolk was okay for her to eat while she was pregnant. (It is apparently). More troubling is the atmosphere.

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They have sourced some gorgeous bamboo lampshades, but they are sitting so high up in the ceiling that the bright, exposed lightbulbs provide a harsh, white light that does nothing for the ambiance. A bit of subdued lighting would do a lot for the mood.

Chicken Yakitori 
Picture Simon HulmeChicken Yakitori 
Picture Simon Hulme
Chicken Yakitori Picture Simon Hulme

The menu offers 18 plates, ranging from £4 for padron peppers to £22 for beef rib, four desserts and a cocktail menu. They’ve taken the posh restaurant route of giving us just three or four disparate words to describe each dish. That’s hard enough when they are ingredients you recognise, but what to make of crayfish, dashi, katsuobushi?

It turns out to be a classic and remarkable Japanese dish of steamed custard made with a dashi and crayfish stock to produce a silky, umami-rich, savoury custard with the sort of wobble you get with panna cotta. It’s filled generously with crayfish tails and looks as good as it tastes, filling a rustic bowl with a warm, golden custard, topped with fish roe, a drizzle of dill oil and what looks at first glance to be a scrap of Bacofoil but is edible silver leaf.

This mysterious Japanese alchemy is created in the upstairs kitchen by chef/patron Danny Victory, whose last posting was Forage in York. His obsession with everything Japanese, brought him here, but what is more surprising is that he has never actually been to Japan.

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It takes a leap of faith to open your first restaurant with a cuisine you have never experienced first-hand. Nor has he taken the Wagamama route. You won’t find katsu curry, ramen or gyoza. There is only one noodle dish on the menu and no rice dish. He’s taken his own route, though I did wonder where in Japanese cuisine Padron peppers and Belgium waffles sit.

Restaurant Review at Izakaya, Grape Lane, York. Chicken Waffle.
Picture Simon HulmeRestaurant Review at Izakaya, Grape Lane, York. Chicken Waffle.
Picture Simon Hulme
Restaurant Review at Izakaya, Grape Lane, York. Chicken Waffle. Picture Simon Hulme

The answer comes from Tim Anderson, ex-Masterchef winner, restaurateur, and author of five books on Japanese cooking, who explains that Japan has a diverse food culture that embraces global ingredients and always makes use of whatever is on hand. He says he always incorporates foods from different cultures in his own cooking.

This appears to be Victory’s approach too. His deep-fried chicken has a richer, crispier crust than American fried chicken and is flavoured with nutmeg and mace. It sits on top of a waffle that incorporates kombu seaweed into the batter. The waffle is the perfect vehicle for soaking up the sweet/sour teriyaki glaze, the whole edifice topped with salty trout roe.

A touch more glaze would have rendered it flawless. The dish though works spectacularly well, a prime example of the use of umami flavours in Japanese food.

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Another ambiguous dish has mushroom, truffle, Binchotan, egg yolk, moss. Binchotan is Japanese white charcoal, so I’m curious to know how this works. An assortment of seared wild mushrooms are given a trace of truffle. There is a curious smokiness that comes from the charcoal.

Izakaya, Grape Lane, York. Black Sesame Chocolate
Picture Simon HulmeIzakaya, Grape Lane, York. Black Sesame Chocolate
Picture Simon Hulme
Izakaya, Grape Lane, York. Black Sesame Chocolate Picture Simon Hulme

Victory explains that the charcoal is dropped into oil and allowed to infuse before blitzing with egg yolk to create a rich smoky emulsion that’s poured over the mushrooms and finished with the crunchy lichen that I’m told is edible reindeer moss. The flavours are deep and rich with the crunch of moss contrasting with the slippery mushrooms.

It’s the dish that finds me cleaning the plate with my finger. We are on more familiar ground with yakitori, two chicken skewers accompanied by a little bowl of soy and that pasteurised egg yolk, stirred together with a chopstick to create a dipping sauce. After so many involved dishes, it’s a relief to have something neutral. Noodles with a sesame oil dressing is self-explanatory, though cold noodles come as a bit of a surprise, but after so many rich dishes, this one is agreeably simple.

The Japanese don’t go big on dessert. Izakaya offer a choice of five: chocolate, meringue, tiramisu, ice cream each of them given a Japanese twist with the addition of miso, sesame, and yuzu. You might prefer one of their Japanese inspired cocktails or a sweet plum and a pleasantly astringent yuzu sake.

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It’s early days for Izakaya but Danny Victory has made a great first impression with food that is exciting and inventive, all the more remarkable given the man has never set foot in an authentic Izakaya. I don’t imagine the Yakuza will be calling for their mikajimeryo any time soon, but I just might be back demanding fried chicken with menaces.

Izakaya, 21 Grape Lane York YO1 7HU www.izakaya-york.co.uk