When reviewing restaurants, we naturally want to cover brand new venues, young chefs and daring new cuisines.

The Scottish eating and drinking scene, particularly across Edinburgh and Glasgow is fast moving and competitive: rent is expensive, food prices high and staff are hard to find. Not all venues make beyond six months. So, to be jam-packed on a Monday night when all other nearby restaurants are quiet, denotes something quite special.  Kaori Simpson, chef-patron of Harajuku Kitchen will this year mark ten years in business, and she picks up awards every year including Best Restaurant in Scotland at the Golden Chopstick Awards in 2019. I went to discover the secret of her success.

Kaori Simpson was raised in Hong Kong in an expat Japanese family of restaurateurs and merchants. She grew up cooking in her mother’s restaurant and learning family recipes. When Kaori moved to Edinburgh she worked for Tom Kitchin at his Michelin-starred restaurant, The Kitchin. This introduction to the best of Scottish ingredients, combined with her Japanese culinary skills inspired her to try a street food stall at Stockbridge Market selling her now legendary pork and chive gyoza and udon noodle stir-fries. Realising there was a demand for authentic Japanese food she opened Harajuku Kitchen in 2013.

The National:

The restaurant, on a sunny corner of Bruntsfield has exposed brick walls, rattan lights, and low fabric screens between neighbouring tables which add a little privacy and echo ryokan walls. While there isn’t a spare seat in the restaurant, it still manages to feel relaxed: a tribute to the skilful waiting staff and the hush that descends on tables as each beautifully presented dish arrives.

We start with the famous gyoza: they are crisp and packed with fresh vegetables and herbs. A dish of tofu agedashi looks very simple: three large cubes of tofu in the lightest lace-like batter, in a shallow pool of deeply flavoured dashi. Often tofu is paired with strong flavours, here the delicate flavours of fresh bean curd are allowed to shine. We choose two cold dishes to accompany: a lip-smacking cucumber kimchi, and a simple salad of thinly sliced seaweed in a light sesame sauce. The salad is an unexpected highlight of the whole meal, the combination of crunchy seaweed and umami soy and sesame is addictive.

The menu has too many sections for my ordering to do them all justice, steaming donburi rice bowls and udon soups arrive at neighbouring tables and look incredible, I mentally bookmark them for a colder evening. Today we try the sushi, developed with Japanese chef Nobuo Sasaki. We can’t resist the dragon roll and it’s as beautiful as I hoped: tender king prawns and avocado so thinly sliced it appears to ripple like dragon scales. I imagine attempting this at home, with rice sticking to everything and sad supermarket avocados: definitely one best left to the professionals. We also plump for tonight’s special, a shime saba mackerel nigiri, lightly grilled adding a gorgeous smoky char to the sweet, pickled fish.

The National:

Struggling to choose, we opt for the chef’s special mixed seafood sushi, with tuna, salmon and seabass nigiri, ikura caviar gunkan and salmon cucumber maki. The fish is beautifully tender, the presentation flawless. It’s this nigiri that to me best reflects Harajuku Kitchen: it’s disarmingly simple but incredibly good. Perhaps this is what it takes to guarantee longevity in a restaurant: the best produce, prepared in a skilful, almost reverential way, without fripperies or unnecessary garnishes: just a real commitment to honouring each ingredient. Combine this with flawless friendly service in a relaxed environment and it’s a winning combination: here’s to the next ten years.

Harajuku Kitchen
10 Gillespie Place