Restaurant columns don’t generally begin in the ladies’ loo for several reasons, but in real life they often do – or at least they do for me. Some time after the first plates of starters at a new opening, such as at Kibou in Battersea last week, I often find myself staring into a bathroom mirror – a freshly installed bathroom mirror, mind – and the words are already bubbling, because when you know, you already know.
Kibou’s new south London branch is the third in a chain of beautifully staged, Japanese-inspired restaurants with a loyal following in Cheltenham and Bristol. The Battersea branch has two enormous, fluttery lashed, mascara-laden eyes painted on to its Hague Blue frontage. Those eyes are made prettier still by faux Japanese rose blossom. Kibou is certainly, from the outside and at night, the loveliest, quirkiest-looking new opening London has seen in a while. Inside, vast murals of Tokyo metropolitan life brighten the walls. The best seats in the house are the booths at the back, bedecked with even more faux blossom. Romantic as heck. But it’s less so if you’re seated near the front door on one of the tiny, draughty, exposed tables.
But then this restaurant is very much a place of contradictions. Kibou markets itself as a non-serious place – ideal for groups, they say – that’s deadly serious about sushi, as well as, well, many, many other things. So many dishes. Kibou’s sushi offering alone is plentiful, with a dozen types of nigiri, alongside hosomaki and futomaki rolls, gunkan, temaki and, of course, sashimi, with plates coming in around the £8 to £13 mark, and larger sharing rolls, such as the 10-piece “Volcano” – salmon, avocado and tobiko dipped in tempura – at about £18.
If Kibou were solely a sushi restaurant, it could be a pleasant enough place to grab a plate of the absolutely fine hamachi nigiri or scallop sashimi, while accepting that it will arrive almost instantly and be served by someone who appears to know absolutely nothing about the menu, but is at least smiling. The menu is vast, however, and offers dozens of the crowd-pleasing, Asian-inspired dishes you see in chains such as Wagamama, Tonkotsu and Yo! Sushi. Kibou does bao buns, chicken karaage with sriracha mayo and baked aubergine nasu dengaku alongside gyoza, eel yakitori skewers and agadashi tofu, and that’s before you even get to the ramen, donburi bowls and yaki udon sections.
Clearly, there’s a lot happening here, and a lot of covers to cater for, which is ambitious, and things such as agadashi tofu – which is meant to be crisp, fried soft tofu perched in an umami broth – are easy to get very wrong. At Kibou, it came in flabby lumps, thinly battered in potato starch, topped with chopped spring onion (rather than bonito) and sitting in a slightly anonymous puddle. Seconds later, teeth-chatteringly sweet, soggy aubergine nasu dengaku arrived, accompanied by a brazenly inedible “seasonal mushroom tempura” bao that sounded delicious on the menu, but turned out to be an almost raw, breadcrumbed portobello mushroom sandwiched in a very non-pillowy bao bun. Next, some overcooked chicken karaage arrived, recently refreshed in a deep-fat frier, with an unobtrusive pink mayo that was rumoured to have once met sriracha. Pale, wobbly prawn gyoza “pot stickers” arrived without even the merest of sears.
It was at this point that I excused myself to go to the ladies’ room, where the towel on the old-fashioned roller dispenser on the wall had been pulled out and trailed along the floor, to have a long think about my life choices and, more specifically, about how the likes of Tonkotsu can bang out perfect chicken karaage on a mass scale, deftly and accurately at any hour of the day, and how my favourite small Korean chain Yori can offer heavenly kimchi jeon pancakes every time, regardless of who made them and when. And yet other restaurants, once they expand, have a tough time nailing their popular dishes.
Even so, it is undoubted that Kibou, in its outside-London forms, at least, inspires a lot of customer love. Almost everything we ordered came in the space of five minutes, including those lukewarm eel yakitori skewers drizzled in yuzu. Fresh sea bream sashimi, served with a hostile and, for that reason, awesome wasabi, was the greatest thing on the table. I’d also ordered the yaki udon, but fortunately they forgot to bring it, because, at £92 down already and without alcohol, it felt a good time to head for the door.
Kibou in Battersea has a lot of room for improvement before it will inspire the sort of adoration and dependability that it gets in its other locations, but if you’re up for a party atmosphere, cocktails, nice photographs of fake flowers and a place to take groups who won’t quibble over the details, then, in its current form, you’ll be well suited.