Saki, London EC1

Saki calls itself a Food Emporium. Upstairs, you’ve got a little Japanese supermarket, all bonito flakes and kewpie doll mayonnaise. Downstairs there’s an elegant bar and a small, lacquered-box red and black restaurant.

I have spent half an hour staring at a largely blank page, because I have a dilemma. Should I begin this post by telling you about the food or the toilets? I was charmed by both…but I’m going to start with the loos, because although they were probably slightly less fun than the magnificent food, they were a heck of a lot more fun than any other restaurant toilet I’ve ever used.

This is because Saki, being a self-respecting Japanese establishment, doesn’t have normal toilets. They have washlets (the Japanese high-tech loo with the retractable bidet washy stalk thing and the jets of hot air and the heated seat and the thing that squirts you in the bum with such astonishing precision that you come to the conclusion that there must be a camera in there for targeting purposes) in the bathrooms. Allow yourself longer than you expect you will need for your meal, because you’ll want to make a few lengthy trips to the lavatory to make sure you’ve tried out all the thing’s functions. And do not push the wash button if you are not sitting down.

Shame on all the men in our party, who refused to use the things, sticking (manfully?) to the urinals.

Enough on the toilets, anyway – we were here for the food, and decided that the best way to sample the best of what was on offer was to go for the omakase, or chef’s choice. Most good Japanese restaurants should offer an omakase meal, which will involve many courses including cooked dishes and sushi, all selected from whatever produce is best and freshest on the day.

Our meal opened with seared lobster sashimi with white asparagus and caviar in a sesame sauce. As usual, I had to ask for an alternative (eating lobster usually results in a hospital visit and adrenaline shot for me), and the chef very kindly substituted barely seared scallops for the lobster. The scallops and asparagus were achingly sweet, and the sesame sauce so rich and good that we all agreed we wished we had spoons to scrape the bowl with. I could have done with more caviar, but it was pointed out to me by Dr W that I could always do with more caviar, so this is not a helpful criticism.

Next up was a little nimono (simmered dish) of duck breast with young bamboo shoot (that’s the yellow thing in the picture), mooli and a fresh, plump and silky shitake mushroom. The duck here had been rolled in rice flour before simmering, which gave it a shadow of sticky coating, helpful in making sure the gorgeous broth stayed close to the moist meat. A surprising hit of wasabi (freshly grated) lurked between the two bottom bits of duck. I checked to make sure nobody was looking and drank the remaining broth from the bowl when I was done.

The chilled Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo sake from Nigata served with this course was, for me, the best drink of the night. On the whole, sake pairings with this menu were much more successful than the wine pairings which came with certain courses – if you visit, you might want to consider asking for an all-sake pairing with your meal.

King prawn and nanohana flower tempura came next, with a black vinegar sauce. I believe nanohana is the same plant as oil-seed rape – I could be wrong here, though, and would be delighted to be enlightened by any Japanese-speaking readers!

Prepared in tempura style, the flowers were slightly peppery, and very delicate. Some puffed rice had been used in the batter for the prawns, working beautifully with this course’s sake accompaniment (this time a room-temperature brown rice sake from Hyogo).

The menu offered a choice for the next course: black cod with Saikyo miso or rib-eye teriyaki. I chose the cod (black cod, confusingly, is actually a kind of sea bass, and is very rich, so a small piece can make for a satisfying main dish) to see how it compared to the Nobu and Michael Mina versions. Charmingly, it arrived on a hoba (magnolia) leaf imported from Japan, and unlike the versions of this dish I’ve tried elsewhere, the grill had left almost no browning or caramelisation – the fish was barely, barely cooked, and sweet, flaking delicately to the touch. The table was in disagreement about the ribeye teriyaki – my Mum, whose birthday we were celebrating, found the sauce overpowering, but everyone else seemed to be licking it off their plates when they’d done. Teriyaki means ‘shining cooked’, and a good teriyaki sauce should be thick and glossy – personally, I liked the mouthful I tried a great deal.

Sushi. Buttery, melt-in-the mouth Toro (the pink tuna on the left – Toro is from the fish’s prized, fatty belly) was the best I’ve had in the UK. The white fish is yellowtail, which had been briefly marinaded in lemon and garlic – just enough to barely ‘cook’ its proteins and produce a kind of ceviche. The ebi (prawn) was sweet and juicy, and the uni (sea urchin – the black and orange confection on the right) was, again, absolutely the best I’ve found in the UK. It tasted as it should – sweetly iodine-y, sea-like and fresh, fresh, fresh. My sister-in-law, who has had bad experiences with uni, tried this and said it was great – and that uni this fresh was unlike any she’d had elsewhere. (Compare this picture with the awful, elderly uni I had a couple of years ago elsewhere in London, and you’ll see an amazing difference in colour and texture.)

The little chequerboard of tamago (sweetened egg) was good, but I was unconvinced by the vegetable maki at the top of the plate. These rolls were filled with cucumber, avocado, asparagus, carrot…and black onion seeds, which, for me, completely overwhelmed the other flavours in the roll, and made the well-seasoned rice an irrelevance, because you couldn’t taste it over the black onion. The freshly grated wasabi made up for that, though; you hardly ever find it fresh, especially in the UK, and it is an aromatic and sweet m
arvel when you do.

Finally, the dessert (with a birthday candle for Mum), made up of a tiramisu dredged with green tea powder, a fiori di latte ice, and a black sesame panna cotta (my favourite thing on the plate). It’s great to find a black sesame preparation this light – usually, the ground seeds find their way into richly oily desserts, but this panna cotta kept all of the flavour without leaving you feeling weighed down. A wine upset with this course – we were meant to be served a Coteaux du Layon, but what arrived appeared to be a dry sherry. We asked for a substitution…and glasses of something which appeared to be the Coteaux du Layon which we were meant to have had appeared without an explanation.

I’ll let them off. Their toilets are great.

This bounty does not come cheap. With a wine/sake pairing, the omakase menu is £90/head (£55/head if you are not taking the wine pairing). All the same, this is the best Japanese food I’ve found yet in London – or anywhere in the UK – and I liked it enough that I’ll happily go back and pay the same price all over again.

Cheese fondue

I was born in the 1970s, which makes Dr W’s gift of a fondue set a pleasingly retro and apposite birthday present. Everybody’s parents had a set back in the day which they used for entertaining, and I remember hiding on the landing listening to raucous parties, then sneaking downstairs once they’d all finished and my parents had gone to bed. I would then while away the small hours eating any remaining cheesy bits and polishing off any leftover wine.

This, dear reader, is how I became a dipso at the tender age of three.

Fondues are fantastic interactive food. I’ve always held that the foods that require you to *do* something with what’s on your plate, whether it’s wrapping stuff in lettuce leaves, dribbling sauce down your arms or making minty little parcels, taste all the better for the work involved. Convivial and delicious – who could ask for more? You can do all the preparation of the fondue on top of the stove, and move it to the table and its little stand with the flame when you’re ready to eat.

I’ve used a mixture of cheeses here – Emmenthal, Gruyere and Comte. Using these cheeses results in a sweetly nutty fondue, and for me the balance of flavours between the three is pretty much perfect.

Cider’s not traditional here (fondue isn’t from Normandy), but it’s great with the cheese mixture, and hell – once you’ve spent all that money on cheese, I don’t want you impoverishing yourself by using good wine on this dish when you could be impoverishing yourself by drinking it instead. Be sure to mix the cornflour into the cold cider before you start to cook – this will make your fondue smooth and will prevent lumpy or greasy bits, making the cheese and other ingredients coexist in happy, glossy suspension.

I have read warnings that you should not drink too much cold liquid during or after consumption of a cheese fondue for fear of solidifying a bolus of melted cheese in your stomach and finding your digestive system horribly overwhelmed (and presumably dying, eventually, of cheese). If you have read similar warnings I can assure you that you can ignore them. I drank like a fish when we christened the fondue set in the picture at the top, and suffered neither indigestion nor death.

To serve three, you’ll need:

200 g Emmenthal
200 g Gruyere
200 g Comte
2 shallots
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon cornflour
300 ml medium dry cider
1 tablespoon grainy Dijon mustard
1 shot-glass Armagnac (this is mere posing – I’ve used it because it’s great with the cider and apples, but it’s not absolutely necessary. You can leave it out if you can’t find any)

To serve
1 large baguette
3 large carrots
3 apples (choose something tart like a Granny Smith)
9 new potatoes (Fingerlings, Pink Fir Apple and other nobbly potatoes are great here)

Chop the raw carrots and apples into bite-sized pieces and set aside. Steam the new potatoes whole for 20 minutes and set aside to cool.

Grate the cheeses and mix together in a large bowl. Dice the shallot very, very finely, and stir the cornflour into the cider in a large jug. (Be careful here – when you stir it in, it will foam, so make sure your jug is large enough to stop any bubbles from escaping.)

Put your fondue pot on the oven hob over a low heat, and sauté the finely diced shallots gently in the butter until they are sweet and translucent (about 10 minutes), stirring all the time so they do not colour. Stir the cider and cornflour mixture well, and pour it over the shallots. Bring everything to a gentle simmer.

Still over a low flame, add the grated cheese to the liquid in the fondue pot a handful at a time, stirring after you add each handful until the cheese is melted and incorporated into the cider mixture. Stir in the mustard and Armagnac with salt and pepper to taste (you may not need any salt – taste the mixture before seasoning). Move the fondue pot to the table, light the little flame, and dig in, dipping hunks of baguette, bits of carrot and apple, and whole, tiny potatoes into the gorgeously savoury cheese sauce.

Asterix in Switzerland(seriously) suggests vaguely sexual forfeits for anyone losing a piece of bread in the fondue pot. I have a better idea – if someone loses the bread, tell them it’s their turn to do the washing-up.

SealSaver vacuum tubs

Finally – a gadget I really rate! If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I am not always a huge fan of gadgets in the kitchen. I know that a lot of you have limited storage space your own kitchens, and this means that owning a special great hunk of plastic and metal which is only useful for coring and peeling pineapples is an irritation rather than a help. Most kitchen tasks can be achieved with good knives; a really good grater also helps, and I will also admit the usefulness of a collection of measuring jugs and cups, and perhaps the odd silicone spatula or medical syringe.

I have welcomed another worthwhile gadget into regular use in my kitchen – and this happens very seldom. A few weeks ago, I was sent the SealSaver system: a trio of storage vessels in varying sizes with a cunning vacuum pump mechanism built into the lid. I agreed to review them, expecting to find them diverting and perhaps helpful. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with them, though; and my whirlwind affair with these plastic cylinders isn’t over yet. I’ve been marinading, brining, storing stinky things and pumping, pumping, pumping as if my life depended on it.

SealSaver tubs allow you to store foods in a vacuum, which retards spoilage, especially if you then place the tub in the fridge. You suck the air out using a sort of bellows mechanism built into the lid – everything feels very solid and well engineered. A valve pops inside-out when there is a vacuum inside the tub, and no top-up pumping is necessary. The whole assembly clips apart and can be washed in the dishwasher (hurrah!); the bowl is also microwave-safe. Storing your bits and bobs in one of these in the freezer also eliminates freezer burn. And the bowls are also thoughtfully marked with liquid measurements.

A fan of the scientific process, I carried out some experiments involving raw, chopped onions, coffee grounds and washed salad, using my usual method (bowl, cling film, fridge) as a control and comparing with the same refrigerated ingredients in the SealSaver. (Not all in the same tub.) There’s definitely something in this vacuum storage malarkey – my elderly control onion stank of brimstone after a week, while my SealSaver onion stayed fresh and lively. Coffee retained its flavour and odour for a whole week even outside the fridge, and the salad wilted long after its friend in the bowl with the cling film.

So I’m absolutely sold on the SealSaver for storage. The moment, for me at least, the tubs really came into their own was when I started dabbling with vacuum marinading and brining.

If you marinade meat in a vacuum, some magic occurs whereby the marinade is pushed into the meat in a fraction of the time it would take at normal pressure. I’m not 100% sure of the science behind this – I’ve heard explanations which have taken in expansion in the meat’s pores (pores – surely not?), crazy speedy osmosis and a kind of reverse squashing effect from the low pressure. I am still none the wiser on how it works, but I can inform you that it does work, and it works like a dream. I was able to cut down on marinading time for chicken pieces by an eighth (an hour rather than overnight), and brined a whole chicken in the largest of the three to perfection in twenty minutes. Spare ribs took half an hour. (Recipes to follow in later posts – I’ll include marinading times for those of you without a vacuum-in-a-pot.) The meats were tender and moist, and had taken up the marinade beautifully.

This is more than convenient. It’s lunch-changing. How often have you picked up a recipe, thought: ‘My, that’d be great for supper,’ and then failed to cook because it needs marinading for four hours and the family is becoming fractious and grumpy through lack of food? You can reduce those four hours to half an hour if you buy your own tubs at the SealSaver website. I heartily recommend cramming a small chicken into the largest one.

Easter egg

Hotel Chocolat sent me one of their thick-shelled eggs to sample – you can win one in the GD/Hotel Chocolat Easter competition. This year’s egg was called You crack me up, and the Hotel Chocolat people appear to have realised since last year that I am, under the wrinkled surface, about twelve, and so respond much better to their slightly less adult offerings. This egg was brilliant – rather than trying for grown-up flavours like last year’s liqueur chocolates, it was filled with smiley-faced pralines and solid chocolate chicks and bunnies. Enough to bring a smile to even the most leathery food-blogger’s face.

Once again, the shell is almost comically thick. (This is great – it’s my favourite bit.) Half is made from Hotel Chocolat’s 40% cocoa solid milk chocolate, which is creamy, malty and not too sweet. The other is milk chocolate with a swirl of white, and both are so thick and chunky that you’ll need a good bit of molar action to deal with them.

Two bags full of bunnies and chicks for the slaughter (I can’t be the only person who eats things like this head first – and I found myself picking the eyes off the little Humpty guys and eating those before going for the praline inside) are also inside the packaging. Hotel Chocolat’s packaging is always really good fun, and strangely classy – I was given a box of their bits and bobs by some friends at Christmas with a lovely magnetised lid which I found myself keeping to put things in when I’d polished off the chocolates. The origami-complicated box with this egg was beautiful, and did a great job of protecting the chocolate shell inside. Hotel Chocolat have a great range on offer this year – enter the competition, and have a look at their eggly offerings for 2008 online.

Malaysian curried lamb shoulder

I’m cheating a bit here. The flavours are bang-on Malaysian, but you’d be unlikely to find a shoulder joint cooked in this way in Malaysia proper, where bite-sized pieces of meat are the norm in this kind of a curry. I decided to cook half a lamb shoulder on the bone in this curry sauce to maximise the flavour by keeping the meat near the bone – and because I love the fall-off-the-bone texture that a fatty shoulder achieves after a couple of hours slow cooking.

What makes a curry definably Malaysian? A few things – the spicing will be rather different from Indian curries, making use of more eastern aromatics like lemongrass, coriander, star anise and ginger. The liquid in the curry will probably be coconut milk, rather than yoghurt or any other dairy product.

I’ve made my own curry paste here, but if you don’t have the time or the inclination, you should be able to find good Malaysian curry powders and pastes on sale in any Chinese supermarket. I particularly like Yeo’s curry powder. This will make more paste than you need, but it keeps well in the fridge for a few weeks if you put it in a jar and pour over some oil to stop the air getting to the paste.

To serve two greedy people, you’ll need:

Curry paste
4 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
12 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise flowers
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
3 stalks lemongrass
1 peeled piece galangal, about the length of your thumb (substitute with extra ginger if you can’t find any)
1 peeled piece ginger, about the length of your thumb
3 fresh birds-eye chillies (cili padi in Malay – cut down here if you want to reduce the heat)
10 dried chillies (you can find sun-dried cili kering, a less fearsome chilli than cili padi, in some Chinese supermarkets – otherwise, use what you can find)
1 teaspoon turmeric powder or 1 grated fresh turmeric root
1 bulb garlic

Lamb and sauce
½ shoulder of lamb, on the bone
2 large onions
1 can coconut milk
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 handful coriander leaves
Flavourless oil for frying

Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F).

Begin by heating a couple of teaspoons of oil in a heavy pan with a lid, large enough to fit the lamb in snugly. The pan should be able to fit inside your oven. When the oil is very hot, sear the lamb on all sides, and remove it to a plate.

Chop the onions finely and fry them with two tablespoons of the curry paste in the same oil you seared the lamb in. Add a little more oil if necessary. Fry, stirring all the time, until the onions are translucent and soft (about eight minutes).

Return the meat to the pan with any juices it has released onto its plate. Pour over the coconut milk, add the salt and the soy sauce, and bring the whole confection to a gentle simmer. Put the lid on and put the pan in the oven for 2 hours, turning the meat occasionally.

Taste the sauce when the cooking time is finished – you may find you want to add a spot of sugar or a squeeze of lemon juice. Skim off any fat that’s floating on top of the sauce. Peel the skin off the lamb and discard. Sprinkle over the fresh coriander leaves and serve with rice. I like a salad of fresh pineapple and cucumber with this.

Smoked mackerel pate

This is a lovely starter (or a light meal on its own), and looks a lot more complicated than it actually is, making it a great stand-by for dinner parties. I’ve prepared my smoked mackerel pate in little ramekins, but you can also take spoonsful of the pate and wrap them, Chinese dumpling-style, in a sheet of smoked salmon tied tight with a string of chive if you want something particularly pretty to serve. The finished pate is quite stiff, so if you line your ramekins or another mould with an abundance of cling film (saran wrap for Americans) you will also be able to tug on the edges of the film once the dish is cooled and turn out the smoked mackerel pate onto a plate. Smoked fish fans in and around Cambridge should head out to the River Farm Smokery in Bottisham for some very superior smoked mackerel.

I’ve used a generous amount of horseradish here. If you can find the whole root for sale, grab it and use a coarse grater (swimming goggles can come in handy here for minimising something similar to the effects of mustard gas) on it. Otherwise, the English Provender company does freshly grated horseradish in a little jar, which you can also use to make your own creamed horseradish by folding it into some lightly whipped cream with a pinch of sugar, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

I really like this pate with melba toast. See this crab pate recipe for instructions on how to make melba toast at home.

To make enough for a starter for four, or lunch for two, you’ll need:

200g smoked mackerel
200g soft cream cheese
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons snipped chives
1 tablespoon snipped chervil (leave this out if you can’t find any – it’s easy to grow at home and worth cultivating, because it’s often hard to find fresh in the UK)
2 teaspoons freshly grated horseradish
Salt and pepper to taste

You don’t need any machinery here – simply peel the papery skins off the mackerel, check for any stray bones, then flake finely with a fork. Stir the flaked fish vigorously into the cream cheese and lime juice with your fork (if you don’t have any limes use a lemon – I prefer the aromatic nature of lime here, but lemon will be just fine), and fold in the herbs, horseradish and seasoning.

Pack the pate into ramekins and chill until you are ready to eat.