13 MAY 1989, Page 50


WHEN Bruce Oldfield was on the Whit- bread Prize committee the year before last, he warmly commended Kazuo Ishiguro's Artist of the Floating World. It was an odd sort of literary criticism: the Japanese, he said in so many words, had colonised the fashion map — we had Kenzo, Yamamoto, Miyake — and Ishiguro was part of this cultural ascendancy, as if a novel were simply a stylist's prop for the fully finished fashion picture.

The proprietors of the modishly pack- aged Wakaba in the Finchley Road are obviously of Oldfield's way of thinking. Forget the earlier traditions of Japanese restaurants in this country: there is not a silk kimono or a bottle of Chivas Regal in sight. As Bruce Oldfield said, think Kenzo, think Jap; with its monochrome minimal- ism and elegant austerity, Wakaba is the restaurant as fashion statement.

The untrained eye might experience some difficulty in locating it in the messy bustle of Finchley Road (it is just across the road from Finchley Road tube), as, following the dictates, it is only minimally signposted. A curve of opaque smoked glass and a bit of restrained writing over an underlit entrance is the only indication you get. Inside, walls are magnolia, tables a bleached elm, lighting stark and the only embellishment a couple of black-and-white prints. For aesthetic contrast, menus and waiting staff are covered in black. The clientele, in order not to confound the interior decorator's sense of order, obviously stick to a uniform of their own. These are the rules: women — hair must be tousled or else very short. Streaks are permitted, if not actively encouraged. Dress must be black or white, or vertical stripes of same. Men — coiffure must be in elegant disarray, black if possible, or with some greying of the temples. Beards may be worn (this is, after all, just around the corner from the Tavistock Clinic) and T-shirts (white) and linen jackets (black) are de rigueur.

But there are other things to be said for it: the food is good, and the chairs, rush-bottomed carvers, are comfortable. It is best to start with the raw fish, either sashimi, where the fish comes au naturel, or sushi, when it lies on little beds of sticky rice. The sushi presents an exquisite pic- ture: on a black and lacquer-red plate lie rice-stuffed seaweed rolls, slabs of marble- grained salmon, deep-toned tuna, glisten- ing mackerel, glassy turbot and coral- coloured giant prawn. To the side sit bowls of dipping sauce the colour of teak and shavings of pickled ginger an old-rose pink. It is a long menu, so beware against over-ordering: Japanese food is both more filling and more expensive than you might think. Another starter you could try is the chicken yakitori, small skewers of mari- naded chicken, cooked on an open grill and lying in its vinegary, sake-spiked mari- nade. The hot soba (black) noodles in highly flavoured soup may be the best I've i had at any Japanese restaurant, but it is impossible to eat them with any decorum. You need to be sure you are eating with someone who will still find you an endear- ing sight with noodles running down your chin.

Wakaba's other sure triumph is the tempura — vegetables, king prawn or soft-shelled crab covered in gossamer-thin batter and fried quickly. It is unbeatable here. If you want to do a bit of DIY, go for the sukiyaki or shabushabu, when a pan will be put on a little cooker on your table together with the raw ingredients (paper' thin slices of beef and shredded vegetables) which you poke around with your chop- sticks and cook yourself. If you like your food cooked for you in restaurants, try the beef teriyake — beef which has been marinaded in sake, ginger, brown sugar and vinegar and cooked quickly on an intense heat, so that it is seared on the outside and still gloriously pink within. End with fresh fruit, which comes carved, chiselled and artistically arranged on your plate, or green tea ice cream. The thing to drink with all this is sake (which you drink out of a dolls' tea service) or Sapporo beer, which comes in elegantly curved tins and costs a small fortune. Service, which is markedly less good than in other Japanese restaurants, is automati- cally included in the bill, though they try. and pull the old trick by leaving the 'total space blank on your credit card form. And you will need a credit card: a well- lubricated dinner for two costs around C-8 It may help to know that that is about half waghaain, t you may not. umwounlodpay in Tokyo. Or then 3

Wakaba, 122A Finchley Road, NW' Tel: 586 7960.

Nigella Lawson