Words & Photos - Claire M. Bullen
“I never, ever thought I would win – that’s for sure.”
Tim Anderson is reflecting on his MasterChef victory, which back in 2011 catapulted him into food-world fame. During the season’s final episode, the Wisconsin-born chef secured the title with a trio of globetrotting sliders: Wagyu tartare with lime and jalapeño marmalade to represent Los Angeles, monkfish liver with umeboshi ketchup and matcha mayonnaise to represent Tokyo, and a curried lamb cheeseburger with apple and ale chutney to represent London. Since his win, he’s gone on to write a cookbook, Nanban, and after years of searching for the right location, opened his eponymous restaurant to positive reviews last autumn.
Right now he’s taking a breather from lunch service to pull up a stool and chat. Located on Coldharbour Lane, just adjacent to Brixton Market, Nanban is a thing of beauty during the daytime, when it’s washed with white sunlight. Once an old-school pie and mash shop, the restaurant has since been kitted out with modern fixtures like cork countertops and wheeled booths, though arched windows and old signage hint at the building’s heritage.
From a small ground floor kitchen, Anderson and his team turn out Nanban’s signature ‘Japanese soul food’; this is no typical sushi-and-miso joint. Instead, the restaurant takes inspiration from the food of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, which was “for centuries, the place where all the foreigners were.” Anderson spent several years in his mid-20s living along these historic crossroads, where plates like mentaiko – marinated fish roe – are considered as much a part of the local cuisine as American-inspired, topping-laden sasebo burgers. Nanban has both on the menu, though its iterations (including mentaiko served à la pasta carbonara with an onsen egg and pancetta, and a sasebo burger topped with pork belly and Korean gochujang hot sauce) are one step further removed from what a visitor to Kyushu might find.
“I don’t even know if we can call ourselves a Kyushu restaurant anymore,” Anderson says. “Some restaurants that are similar to us, they’ll do Japanese flavours in a Western format. We do that backwards. We take flavours from everywhere else and put it into a Japanese format.” Many dishes even include a nod to Brixton’s Caribbean roots, including curry goat ramen and ackee and saltfish croquettes.
“I don’t really care about being authentic,” Anderson says. “I care more about being delicious.”
More than most chefs, he also cares, deeply, about his beer menu.
Though it’s discussed less frequently than his MasterChef accolades or way around a bowl of ramen, Tim Anderson is a bona fide beer geek.
He’s logged years in different positions across the industry, for starters. Anderson worked as a buyer for Whole Foods, served as a beer sales rep for a (now-defunct) Danish imports company, and managed London craft beer bar the Euston Tap. Since opening Nanban, he’s also collaborated with some of the UK craft scene’s biggest names, including Weird Beard, Wild Beer Co, and Brew by Numbers. A one-off collaboration with Pressure Drop even led to the restaurant’s now-flagship brew, Nanban Kanpai: a moreish, citrusy, and especially food-friendly yuzu wheat IPA.
But where did the beer geekery begin? If living in Kyushu so influenced his culinary interests, did it have as profound an impact on his interest in beer?
Not quite. Anderson began drinking beer in his late teens, when he would swipe his Dad’s Leinenkugels and Sierra Nevadas. As a college student, he relocated to Los Angeles, and quickly became acquainted with what was brewing on the West Coast (and the reviewing community on BeerAdvocate). “I was an established beer geek by the time I left California [for Japan],” he says.
"For chefs logging hours in sweaty kitchens, refreshment is key, and Anderson makes a ritual of having a Kirin every evening shift."
It took a little while to adjust to the Japanese beer scene, which wasn’t as developed as what he was used to back home. “When I got to Japan, I was really disappointed, because the beer was not very good. I would try everything I could. There were not a lot of breweries, and the ones that did exist were small and weren’t distributed beyond their own prefectures.”
In Kyushu’s capital of Fukuoka, bottle shops primarily carried German and Belgian imports. Anderson also visited convenience stores, where he would try whatever he could find. Due to Japanese tax brackets that govern the amount of malt used in a beer, much of the beer on the shelves contained 67% malt or less. 100% malt beers were more expensive. And then there were the ‘third category beers.’ “Some of these third beers had things like soy peptides and green tea protein in them, just weird fermentable sugars, so they’ve got no body, no flavour,” he remembers. “Sometimes they’re really DMS-y, really nasty, like drinking a can of beans.”
But Anderson is quick to acknowledge that his beer-drinking days in Japan weren’t all negative, and that there are many Japanese breweries that he loves. He waxes rhapsodic about Hitachino Nest Classic Ale and its cedar notes. K’s Brewing Company in Fukuoka is also a favourite. And, to no one’s surprise, he’s a fan of the many yuzu beers currently being made by Japanese craft breweries.
By this point, a beer lover visiting Nanban might be forgiven for doing a double take at the bar. Though the shelves behind the bar are stacked with clusters of colourful bottles, the only beer available on draught is Kirin. For Anderson, installing that line was a very conscious decision.
“I think that the mainstream, the main brands of Japanese lagers, some of them are quite good. Kirin I really like. They’re easy to drink, they have no off flavours, very crisp and dry, clean as hell. They have some body, but not nearly enough to make you feel full. You just down them!” For chefs logging hours in sweaty kitchens, refreshment is key, and Anderson makes a ritual of having a Kirin every evening shift.
Whether or not the London beer geek would approve, there’s more to Nanban’s beer list than what you might find served by the pitcher in a karaoke bar. Rochefort 8 earns a place on the list (and apparently goes very well with that curry goat ramen), alongside Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss gose and Wild Beer Co’s Ninkasi saison. Moor’s Revival is another current favourite of Anderson’s, which was brought in to replace Camden Town Brewery’s IHL (“IHL is a perfect 10 for me, but we do pride ourselves on supporting more independent breweries.”) Though Anderson’s previous collaboration with Brew by Numbers, a matcha saison, ran out a few weeks back, a new shipment of Nanban Kanpai is wheeled in as we speak.
For those perplexed by what to drink alongside the likes of smoked eel with sansho pepper, the menu also helpfully includes pointers on beer and food pairings. I opt to crack open a bottle of Kanpai as an all-rounder to go with a selection of Nanban’s signature dishes. A bowl of grapefruit salad tastes as vivid as it looks, crowned with wheels of jalapeño and whorls of cucumber; a sprinkle of shichimi chile mixture saves it from full-on citric onslaught alongside the Kanpai.
A small bowl of horumon yaki – that’s pig tripe, for the uninitiated – might sound off-putting to offal skeptics, but it’s as fiendishly addictive as late-night take-out, with its spicy miso sauce and crunch of bean sprouts. The tripe is thinly sliced and unrecognisable as organ meat; the Kanpai here tempers the beautiful brashness of the dish. And then there’s the equally beer-friendly leopard tsukemen, so named for its burnt garlic oil-spotted dipping broth, which ramen noodles are sluiced in before being slurped up.
Maybe best of all – and one of the menu’s simplest dishes – is the yaki-imo, a baked sweet potato topped with a nugget of melting ponzu butter. Flaky, rich, savoury, and sweet, it’s perfectly counterbalanced by the Kanpai. Forget Kirin; I’d make this a nightly ritual for the rest of my days.
Against the backdrop of the London dining scene, Nanban genuinely feels like a harbinger, one of the first in a new guard of restaurants that don’t see their beer selections as an afterthought, that thoughtfully consider food and beer pairings, that collaborate with local breweries to make brews that perfectly complement their cuisines.
But Nanban is still early to the party, and Anderson thinks there’s room for both public and front-of-house beer awareness to grow. “Staffers don’t know what to do with [large beer selections], and the literacy of the customer isn’t really there yet either. Everybody can read a wine list and understand the grape varieties. But people still don’t know what hops are. Granted, beer is more complicated – it’s got more ingredients, it’s got more brewing methods. But it’s so far behind; the public understanding of what beer is made of, what it’s meant to taste like, the brewing process, styles. No one really gets it.”
Even when training staffers, Anderson says, the world of beer is now so wide that there’s a formidable amount to learn. “It’s hard to instill that geekiness in someone, because a lot of people who are really into beer, they have that lightning bolt moment; they have that one beer where it’s like, wow, this is what beer tastes like!”
One solution he envisions is changing the way that customers are encouraged to drink beer. “I think that people should share, so they can drink more and so they can try more.” While many would shy from paying £9.50 for a bottle of Rochefort 8, Anderson points out that it clocks in at 9.2% and that each bottle has nearly two 175ml measures; if it were a carafe of wine being shared, those prices wouldn’t shock. “Ideally, what I want people to do is come in, have a Kanpai or a Salty Kiss or even a Ninkasi for special occasions, share and enjoy that before the food, and then try something else with the food.”
“I don’t really care about being authentic,” Anderson says. “I care more about being delicious.”
Whether, and how quickly, beer-wary diners will adopt Anderson’s viewpoint (and fiscal context) remains to be seen. But what’s certain is that interest in craft beer is steadily on the rise, and that consumer knowledge is only set to increase.
Now, more than six months after opening, what’s coming up next for Nanban? Talking to Anderson, it’s clear that he still considers the restaurant’s beverage programme to be a work-in-progress. He laments that Nanban doesn’t currently have the budget to bring on a sommelier, who could walk curious diners through the beer menu (not to mention the sake and shochu lists). He’s also working on acquiring a late license that would have the restaurant feel more like an izakaya in the wee hours, with an even greater focus on beer – and a new bar snacks menu to match.
And then there are events to think about, including a potential launch party for Anderson’s recent collaboration with Weird Beard: Sally Squirrel, Teen Detective. “Oh my god, it’s so crazy, this one,” he says about the brew. “It’s a black lager base with sake yeast, miso, walnuts, chokeberry juice and Mosaic hops.” He’d love, he says, to host a party with food pairings and special dishes to go with the beer, with some rarities to sample on the side.
For now, Anderson has one more collaboration in the works, this one with neighbouring Brixton Brewery. Though it’s still in the R&D stage, Anderson says “it’s probably going to be a Jamaican sorrel and kombu beer, so it’ll drink like a gose but will not be a gose.” He smiles. “And it’ll be bright pink, too!”