Twenty years on, is this no frills Japanese still the Hiro that Leeds needs?
Earlier this year, various local newspapers were gleefully reporting that Merrion Centre had “bucked trends” and that the previous twelve months were the busiest in its 50-year history. “An incredible feat in light of the launch of Victoria Gate”, apparently.
Neurotic cynics among us may interpret that the growing popularity of Home Bargains, Poundworld, and Bright House is a grim symptom of dwindling consumer confidence and spending power, and suggests we’re probably just minutes away from fiscal apocalypse.
Optimists - sweet, naive fools that you are - might suggest that people enjoying a bargain doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an economic shitstorm in the works. Fair point - I’ve been known to linger around the supermarket waiting for Higgidy pies and tenderstem broccoli to get the yellow sticker treatment and there have been relatively few stock market crashes recently.
Besides, this new ‘trend-bucking’ could be the cumulative effect of a few years’ good fortune. In 2013 First Direct Arena opened, making Merrion Centre the piggy-in-the-middle between the city centre and some of the world’s premiere live entertainment. And Kasabian.
A compact, canteen-casual Japanese dining room opened almost twenty years ago - and doesn’t appear to have changed much since.
Merrion Centre became the ‘arena quarter’ - a name used by literally ones of people - and its outward-facing plots turned into restaurants hoping to lure the 13,500+ pre/post-show crowd away from the Stick or Twist Wetherspoons - a Korean grill, a naff BBQ joint where lashings of sugary ketchup attempt to conceal fragile masculinity, a very good Thai street food place, Marco Pierre White’s Lacklustre Italian, and so on.
Before all this though, there was Fuji Hiro. A compact, canteen-casual Japanese dining room opened almost twenty years ago. Decked out in glassy, dark-wood veneer, neutral walls, and smoked glass, it doesn’t appear to have changed much since.
The most significant change in the six-ish years I’ve been going is the recent addition of a sushi bar, where an Itamae prepares maki, inside-out rolls, temaki, and sashimi fresh to order. Inside-out rolls are decent enough, Hot Spicy Tartar Roll (£5.50) comes as half a dozen mouthfuls of lightly vinegared rice rolled around tuna and salmon with kewpie mayonnaise and Thai chilli.
We order the Asparagus Tempura Roll (£4.60) but due to a language barrier we end up with another unidentified fish roll - attempts to explain and fix the error end up lost in translation, and we end up paying for something we didn’t actually want.
The menu that’s pulled in the crowds for twenty years though has remained as consistent as the decor, comforting in its familiarity as well as content. In an ideal world, their noodles would be prescribed on the NHS as a treatment for hangovers, or Mondays - our Mount Fuji-sized plate of Chilli Yasai Soba (£8.95) is slick, wriggly, and packed with crunchy veg, but lacking in chilli ferocity - ginger hasn’t stolen the show this much since the 1997 BRIT Awards.
Chicken Katsu Curry (£9.95) is a near-perfect version of the dish - chicken thigh comes in the thinnest, most greaseless coating that keeps its crisp even when flooded with that warm, almost fruity curry sauce, next to a marshamallowy mound of sticky-steamed rice. It’s good enough to even excuse the school dinner presentation.
Probably the most “out there” thing we eat is spicy beef gyoza (£5.95) - the best of both worlds potsticker kind that are steamed and then fried on the bottom until crunchy - bursting with fragrant beef meatballs and mild spice.
The menu might not be that eclectic, but the crowd is. On our Wednesday evening visit there’s a few of party groups, a young couple seated at the sushi bar, some lone-diners - one so mesmerizingly proficient with chopsticks that he could probably perform yo-yo tricks or open-heart surgery with them, one who keeps bowing at the waited despite my attempts to telepathically beg him to stop - students and their parents, and a pair of Hip Store-clad lads whose bicycles almost certainly cost more than my car.
Everyone then, really. It's no wonder the Merrion Centre’s doing so well for itself…
Sushi 7, Gyoza 7.5, Chilli Yasai Soba 7, Chicken Katsu Curry 8
They bring your food to your table, it's timely, but it's not always what you ordered
All the ambience of a budget hotel conference room, but the Itamae is a nice touch