Charm exists in many forms—bouquets of flowers, shabby Tuscan restaurants, Hugh Grant’s prison mugshot—but no other restaurant delivers it in the shape of a chicken meatball on a skewer quite like Jin Kichi. The Japanese neighbourhood favourite, just above Hampstead High Street, feels like a true izakaya-style restaurant, unlike lots of other spots serving sushi and yakitori in London. Whether you come to sit at the sake-surrounded sushi bar, the yakitori counter where flames dance, at a regular table, or in a secretive two-person booth—no other restaurant puts you in Japan (via the Northern Line) quite like this one.
Given that it’s open both day and night and serves everything from nigiri and tonkatsu, to soba and udon, Jin Kichi exists in a rare crowd-pleasing middle ground. There are as many layers to this restaurant as there are in their beautifully charred tamanegi onion skewers. The daytime atmosphere is peaceful and practical—you’ll see the sushi bar as soon as you enter and it’s a lovely solo or catch-up move. There will also, more than likely, be any number of NW3 retirees here day and night. More than familiar with the short wine list, happily placing unagi nigiri onto the tips of their tongues. Come evening, the wood-heavy, labyrinth-like layout hits all the marks. Staff dip and dive around you, some diners are huddled low to the floor around the charcoal grill, some high around the sushi counter, while others are leaning into steaming bowls of miso soup at their table. It's fair to say that that peak dinner-time reservations aren't easy to come by here.
The food, while always tasty, flits between super and satisfactory. Chūtoro nigiri—fatty tuna lightly seared on top—is a glorious piece of sushi, and going heavy on sushi is a must. The chef’s selection is a good bet. Yakitori-wise, you may want to be a little more discerning. Tsukune (chicken meatball) and shiso maki (pork and shiso leaf) stand out, while others don’t carry the char of the coals so well. But, a majority is still a cut above other all-round Japanese restaurants in London. It’s also unlikely to bother you when you’re crowded around a counter getting handed meat on a stick, still sizzling from the charcoal. Very few London restaurants mimic that basement buzz of a Shibuya izakaya you stumbled into. Even less mix it with the bucolic charm of Hampstead High Street.
Jin Kichi's sushi list is fairly extensive and, though still not cheap, fairly priced compared to higher-end Japanese restaurants in London. The chef's selection of nigiri (chūtoro and maguro tuna, yellowtail, scallop, unagi, turbot, and more) is a great choice if you're happy for someone else to do the driving. There are a load of rolls and a temaki to choose from as well.
Kushiyaki cooking is an art form, so you should find it reassuring if anyone from Jin Kichi says that one skewer in a set can't be replaced for another because of different cooking times. That said, some skewers are still better than others. Yakitori and tsukune are easy crowd-pleasers, and tamanegi—charred and caramelised onion that's still crunchy in the middle—is a delight. If you're offal-inclined, definitely get some liver and ox tongue.