Asakusa, Camden

‘This is not an exercise in nostalgia’ – Gerard Langley, The Blue Aeroplanes

Nostalgia is a complicated beast. On one hand, it allows you to luxuriate in the comforting embrace of well worn pleasures, and food is a particularly evocative way of scratching that particular itch. Think Anton Ego’s ratatouille in ‘Ratatouille’, Proust and his bloody madeleines or in my case, my mother’s Boodles pudding

Of course, nostalgia can also move in more pernicious directions – the dumpling that sticks to the roof of your mouth while simultaneously transporting you back to the school dining hall. Or a misplaced idealism which harks back to some glorious rose-tinted past, often at the expense of the future. Which, as we have seen so clearly in recent years can lead to the delusions epitomised by Brexit – effectively cutting your legs off to make yourself taller. It is deeply ironic something predicated so much on turning the clock back has proved to be such an enormous waste of everyone’s time. And far more unpleasant than anything my school kitchens ever inflicted upon me. Except possibly the custard.

But surely nothing brings memories and sensation flooding back quite like music. It was for this reason I met up with my oldest schoolfriend – Martin, who has appeared here before – to go and see one of our favourite bands – The Blue Aeroplanes, who haven’t – at The Electric Ballroom in Camden. I won’t go into too much detail here, but if you’ve never heard them, do yourself a favour and buy ‘Swagger; from 1990 and ‘Beatsongs’ from ’91. You’ll thank me. And if you don’t, we probably couldn’t have been friends anyway.

Having shared countless school dinners with Martin, I think it’s safe to say out palates (and our wallets) have moved on a little from the eighties, so I booked a table for two at  Asakusa – a little Japanese place tucked away behind Mornington Crescent station which I’d been taken to a few years ago by another friend with exceptional taste.

Walking in is an exciting experience in itself. Asakusa may not win any design awards, and there is a slightly scruffy feel to the place, as though no one has really had time to bother too much about the décor when there are more important things to be getting on with. This is not a criticism – it feels hugely welcoming – but it does have slight the feeling of a hobbit hole, where pretty much every available space has been taken up to accommodate the diners, of which there were many on a Friday night. I was extremely glad I’d booked, and was a little perturbed to realise there were no seats left, until I was taken downstairs to a lower level I hadn’t realised existed.

Martin arrived shortly after like exactly what he is – a middle-aged man in biking leathers – and we set about catching up and the menu in similarly enthusiastic fashion. Oftentimes, a large menu strikes one as slightly worrying – can ALL of this be good? But it is something one tends to forgive in Asian joints, especially when, as here, the answer appears to be a resounding YES. Rather than dip into the extensive, not to say slightly intimidating bound volumes, we simply ordered off the sheet of specials – with a bowl of rice and some edamame for good measure – and kept on ordering.

This was special, heady stuff. First to arrive were a couple of chunks of meaty, smoky mackerel, a fish I have a complicated relationship with. Sometimes I love it, occasionally I find it a bit much. A good piece of smoked mackerel almost oozes on to the tongue, a bad one feels like – well, back to the dining hall. These were simply salted mini-fillets, grilled, served with a little white radish and stunning. Martin even looked up at me and just said ‘Ooh,’ which is probably a better description than any adjective I can come up with. A chicken karage was, as it should be, like (very) posh KFC and that is in no way an insult. The best takeaway in Hertford – Mr Tanaka’s – does a superb version, and this was at least on a par, and punched up by a decent and nicely dressed salad alongside. Scallops were almost unadulterated but for a sheen of the cooking butter and all the better for it – I would say meltingly good, but that is a description I have saved for the grilled salted salmon belly which must rank as amongst the most exquisite, moist mouthfuls of that particular fish I have ever tasted.

More edamame were ordered alongside an enormous can of Sapporo black – Japanese Guinness I guess – which was another new discovery and only shared because we were fairly sure it didn’t go with motorbike. The only slight duff note was a plate of simmered fatty tuna with dashi stock – still delicious, but the texture felt a little overdone in comparison to everything else we had eaten. Luckily this very minor quibble was swiftly addressed by some prawns deep fried in crispy breadcrumbs for which I run out of superlatives and which may even match my favourite dish from Mr Tanaka’s, (albeit without the legendary wasabi mayonnaise.)

By now, it was almost the band’s stage time. £98 (incl service) between two might seem a little stiff, but for this quality of ingredients, not to mention the way they were treated, it (almost) felt like a bargain. We tootled happily up Camden High Street, which served perfectly to remind me why I’m usually very glad to be inside a comedy club on a Friday night, and into the gig.

They kicked off with the first song from the new album, whose refrain ‘It’s fucking Dickensian, man’ would seem to indicate they’re every bit as pissed off about the country as I am, just with better tunes. Despite a history stretching back forty years now, they are still determined to keep pushing forward, and not be, as singer Gerard says, ‘an exercise in nostalgia’. I’m not sure the same could be said for me and Martin, but if anything’s worth getting nostalgic about, it’s excellent company, dazzlingly good food and your favourite band. And even if we might have been guilty of looking back, one thing is for certain – I’m very much looking forward to my next visit to Anushka.

Sept ‘23

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