My RSI’s suddenly decided to flare up again – so I’ll keep this necessarily brief! Unfortunately handling a knife and typing are both causing the joint where my right index finger meets my hand to resemble a boiled sweet, so I’m taking some time away from chopping board and keyboard until it goes back down again. Hopefully things will be back to normal next week; in the meantime, if you want something to read, I’ll still be using Twitter, which is something I can do with my left hand!

Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles, Phoenix AZ

There are flavour combinations out there that sound barking mad until you try them. Witness the blissful comings-together of Cheddar cheese and Christmas cake; chocolate and hare; fig and prosciutto; strawberries and Balsamico. But how do you feel about fried chicken, breakfast waffles and maple syrup?

As it turned out, I discovered that I felt remarkably good about the idea, so took the opportunity to drive down to South Phoenix, where you’ll find Lo-Lo’s (Lo-Lo has just opened another branch in Scottsdale, but it’s the original restaurant just south of Downtown Phoenix that we’re concerned with here.) It’s a little shack of a soul food restaurant in an area full of hand-painted warnings about vicious dogs, barbed wire and abandoned cars. Park in the yard behind the restaurant, hurry around to the entrance on the other side of the building, grab a seat at a counter or one of the tables, and get to grappling with the menu.

The main event here is the chicken and waffles, and the menu offers you about a dozen different chicken/waffle combinations, like Sheedah’s Special (a breast, a wing, a waffle), Lil Amadt (a leg, a thigh, a waffle), and Lo-Lo’s (three pieces of chicken, two waffles). If waffles aren’t your thing, there are grits or fries; and you can sample collard greens, home fries, candied sweet potatoes and other things of the sort it’s very hard to stop eating, all of which come as part of those combos or as side orders – try the cornbread with honey butter, crisp on the outside and light as a feather inside.

We ended up visiting twice, so we could explore a bit more of the menu. Drinks, served in massive Mason jars, are really good fun – sweet iced tea, silky with so much sugar syrup that your eyeballs hurt; home-made lemonade; Kool-Aid (the red sort only); Cherry Pepsi (which sent me into a Proustian reverie about the cans of cherry cola in my prep-school lunchbox). The fried chicken in Lo-Lo’s very delicately spiced batter is delectable, pressure-fried so hot that the coating comes out dry and perfectly crisp, the chicken inside moist and succulent. The fat is scrupulously fresh – enormous refuse hoppers out back for the old fat demonstrated that it’s changed very regularly, and you can taste this in what’s on the plate. Waffles are light and puffy, with a dollop of whipped butter and a little glass ramekin of maple syrup, which you’ll find yourself sloshing all over everything on your plate.

Every table sports a squeezy bottle of honey and some Trappey’s hot peppers in vinegar – the pepper vinegar is meant for your collard greens, but I found myself drizzling the intensely fruity, spicy liquor all over the fried chicken and everything else I was eating. The kitchen also produces something called Chyna’s honey hot sauce, which tasted a lot like a vinegar-based hot sauce like Frank’s blended with honey – we dipped wings in it and pronounced it just splendid. The fried okra in cornmeal is, I think, bought in frozen, which is a shame; that said, once doctored with some pepper vinegar we found ourselves ordering it twice, so perhaps the frozen-ness isn’t such a disaster.

The atmosphere at Lo-Lo’s is fantastic – we got chatting to neighbouring tables, found ourselves engaged in deep conversation with the waiters and bemoaning the UK’s useless absence of chillies in vinegar. Ultimately, I’m rather relieved there’s nothing like Lo-Lo’s round here; I’d be having serious trouble fitting into my trousers if there was. But if you find yourself in Phoenix, you’d be mad not to go. This is food with real heart – you can see why they call it soul food – and it’s more delicious and less expensive than anything else we ate in the city.

Indian rice pudding

My elderly rice cooker died earlier this year, and my lovely Mum and Dad forbade me to buy another one in the UK, where rice cookers are usually expensive and primitive. They happened to be visiting family in Malaysia over the summer and came back with creation’s most technologically advanced rice cooker – it’s digital and has fuzzy logic (I’m not exactly sure what that means); it has settings for congee, sushi, nasi lemak, brown rice, white rice, reheating and quick cooking; it works as a steamer for meat or veg; it keeps the rice hot and perfectly textured for as much as a day; and you can use it as a slow cooker. (It’s the Panasonic SR-MPA18 – good luck finding one outside SE Asia. I believe Panasonic also makes one that you can bake cakes in.) I love it, use it several times a week…and yesterday discovered that the fridge contained two bowls of leftover rice.

Cold rice in this house usually gets turned into fried rice, with the addition of some Chinese sausage, an egg and so forth. This time I fancied something different, and remembered the Indian mother of a schoolfriend who used to turn their leftover basmati rice into a very sweet, sticky rice pudding with milk, coconut milk and Indian spices in a frying pan. Here’s my attempt at something similar – I’m pretty sure that this is a long way from being authentic, but it’s close to what I remember my friend’s mother making, and it tasted great.

You’ll need:

250g leftover cooked basmati rice
275ml milk
50g palm sugar (use soft brown sugar if you can’t find palm sugar)
1 can coconut milk
5 cardamom pods
1 stick cinnamon, snapped in half
2 tablespoons sultanas
2 tablespoons mixed peel, plus extra to garnish

Put the rice in a frying pan with the sugar, spices, sultanas and peel, and pour the milk over. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring so the bottom doesn’t stick, until the mixture is thickening and the milk is being absorbed into the rice (5-10 minutes).

Spoon the coconut milk over the rice and continue to simmer over a very low heat, stirring now and then. The mixture will thicken as you go. When it reaches a dense, creamy consistency, take it off the heat and cover until cool. Divide into bowls and scatter each with a bit more mixed peel. This pudding is best eaten at room temperature, but you can also have it warm if you can’t wait!

Roast chicken quarters with chorizo stuffing

I’m a big fan of the sorts of stuffing you can push into pockets underneath the skin of a chicken, leaving the skin to crisp up beautifully over the savoury filling. Stuffings like these should be fatty enough to baste the chicken from beneath the skin, leaving the meat moist and juicy; flavoursome enough to give their character to every bite of the meal; and reasonably dense, so they don’t swell and leak out of the sides of the skin when you cook them. This one’s an absolute doozy.

I’ve used chicken quarters here rather than a whole chicken – they cook a little faster, you’ll get more nice nibbly crispy bits, and it’s a bit easier to distribute the stuffing evenly this way. To serve four (or in our case two, with some left over for sandwiches), you’ll need:

4 chicken quarters
125g chorizo (use half of one of those dry looped sausages, and choose a good-quality one)
75g fresh white breadcrumbs
Juice and zest of ½ lemon
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1½ teaspoons fennel seeds
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

If you don’t have any breadcrumbs in the freezer (I usually pop the stale ends of any white loaves in the Magimix and whizz them into crumbs, then freeze them – it means there’s usually a decent supply of breadcrumbs kicking around if I need them), blitz them in the food processor before you deal with the other ingredients.

Put the chorizo in the food processor bowl and reduce it to a rubbly texture, like fine gravel. (You’re aiming for little chunks, not paste.) In a separate bowl, use a spoon to mix the chorizo rubble with the crumbs, the juice and zest of half a lemon and the coriander and fennel seeds, which you will have ground up roughly in a mortar and pestle.

Use your fingers to poke little pockets under the skin of the chicken quarters, and push a quarter of the stuffing mixture into each pocket, pressing so it is firmly packed. Season each chicken piece on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat some olive oil in a large frying pan and brown the stuffed chicken quarters, skin side down, for 5-7 minutes, until the skin is taking on some colour.

Transfer the chicken pieces, skin side up, into a large baking dish. You don’t need to add any more oil – there’s plenty in the chorizo. Roast at 220°C (420°F) for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 180°C (355°F) for half an hour. Rest the chicken pieces for a few minutes before serving. We ate this with some halloumi sautéed with red peppers and sweet onions, and some rice, the savoury chicken juices spooned over.

Scotch broth

It’s been a very busy month or so, and those of you who follow me on Twitter will have noticed that I was in Scotland for most of last week. I had good fun chomping on tablet, drinking gin and jam (if you are in Edinburgh and fancy a really, really clever and delicious cocktail, head straight for Bramble Bar – I can’t recommend their various egg-based flips enough), eating black pudding (much saltier than the southern variant, largely because of the inclusion of bacon rinds), and failing to spot any of those square sausages or any Arbroath Smokies. Bother.

I didn’t manage to find any Scotch broth either, so the obvious remedy on getting home was to make a large saucepan of it. The ultimate deliciousness of your broth will depend on the stock you use, which should definitely be homemade – lamb or beef is traditional, but any good, rich stock will work here (I cheated and used some stock I found in the freezer that I’d made a few months ago from a pork hock and some bits of shoulder – chicken stock is also excellent here, but it needs to be rich and dense). This is one of those dishes that it’s worth making a stock for from scratch, so if you don’t have anything likely in your freezer, try poaching a lamb shank or a bit of beef shin for a few hours and use the stock from that. You can also shred the resulting cooked meat into the soup – if you’re making your stock from scratch, just fish the bone out when you add the barley and lentils, shred the meat and add it to the broth with the chopped vegetables. If you’re using freezer stock which is sufficiently rich, you can happily leave the meat out.

Pearl barley is what marks a Scotch broth out among other, lesser broths. I’ve also thrown in a large handful of red lentils, which are a wonderful thickening and enriching agent for this kind of lovely lumpy soup. As with many stewed and simmered dishes, you’ll find this tastes even better if you leave it in the fridge overnight once you’ve made it up, and reheat it to serve the next day. To serve four (with some left over) you’ll need:

2 litres stock of your choice (see above)
150ml vermouth
75g pearl barley
75g split red lentils
2 medium potatoes, peeled
2 carrots
1 leek
1 large onion
1 red pepper (totally inauthentic, but very tasty)
1 small turnip
1 heaped teaspoon herbes de Provence
1 lemon (again, not strictly authentic, but damn good)
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring the stock to a simmer with the vermouth and toss in the barley and lentils. Simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, skimming any scum from the top of the pan with a slotted spoon.

While the pulses are simmering, chop the vegetables into small, even dice. When the 30 minutes are up, add them to the pan with the herbes de Provence and simmer for another 20 minutes. Add any shredded meat you’ve reserved along with the vegetables, if you’ve boiled a bone especially for this recipe.

Taste for seasoning and add the juice of the lemon. (This lifts the flavour of this rich soup, which I rather like.) If the soup is thicker than you like, just dilute it down with some water or some more stock until it reaches the consistency you fancy. Stir well before serving with big wedges of bread.

Sen of Japan, Las Vegas

So you’re in Las Vegas, and you’re craving really, really good sushi and sashimi. You’re almost certainly based somewhere on the Strip, and as a result you’re faced with an embarrassment of choice. All of it really, really, really expensive.

There is a vast amount of Japanese food on the Strip, which there simply isn’t space to cover here. Shibuya at MGM Grand and Okada at the Wynn are excellent, and come near the top of my personal list. Apparently Brandon Flowers from the Killers has been seen stuffing his face at Sushi Roku at the Forum Shops; and, of course, there’s an outpost of Nobu at the Hard Rock – these restaurants are probably among the most fashionable of the sushi joints you’ll find in town. Thing is, if you are set on eating the best the restaurant has to offer, this means ordering the omakase menu (the chef’s choice of what is freshest and best on the day). And this usually means taking out a new mortgage. Shibuya’s omakase menu is $115 per person, Okada’s omakase isn’t advertised – but the Wynn press office would like you to know that there’s a very special omakase they’ll do you for $1500 if you win big. Sushi Roku’s omakase is a rather more reasonable $90, but it’s a very Americanised, chain sushi experience, full of mayonnaise, fried bits and avocado – go to spot rock stars, not for the food. And Nobu has degenerated from its 1990s position as a real temple to food to being a place to see and be seen with some incidental raw fish. An omakase menu there will set you back “$100, $150 and up”.

As we’ve noticed before, as soon as you get away from the neon and the crowds on the Strip, restaurant prices tumble. After all, the locals need somewhere to eat, and some of them are pretty exacting. So if you can gather yourself together for long enough to drive the six whole miles out to Sen of Japan, you’ll find an omakase menu that will make your soul sing, for a $55 which seems absurd when held against some of the menus at the big casinos, where you’ll get less for…more. There are no semi-naked, gyrating ladies, like you’ll find at Tao at the Venetian or Social House at TI. There are no floating tables suspended beneath fabulous images projected onto waterfalls, like there are at Okada. I like it all the more for that.

Hiro Nakano, the chef/owner at Sen of Japan (8480 W Desert Inn Road #F1, Las Vegas 89117, tel. (702) 871-7781) used to be head chef at Nobu (pre-downward-slippage, judging by what we were served here). He prepares the hot food, while a chef from the sadly defunct Shintaro at Bellagio is poised behind the sushi bar for the cold bits. Service was terrific, chatty and friendly; our server, John, seemed genuinely amazed that two Brits on holiday would travel that six whole miles for good food. And the food…hoo boy.

Sen’s omakase changes daily (as all omakase menus should, and few seem to), so what we had will be representative but not necessarily what you’ll find when you visit.

We opened with yellowtail sashimi (above), laid on a roll of shaved daikon, garnished with slivers of jalapeño, crisp garlic shavings, coriander and soy. Clean, beautifully balanced, and as fresh as you like. Next out was a generous bowl of sashimi and mizuna salad, flavoured, alongside the expected soy, with garlic olive oil and some very surprising capers. This is (as you’ll also have gathered from the coriander and jalapeños with the yellowtail) not Japanese food in its purest form, but I am not an authentiseeker in these matters; if you’re going to insist on limiting your set of ingredients to those found in Japan, you’ll be missing out on some really interesting and apposite flavour combinations – and Chef Nakano is extraordinarily good at putting these together.

On to the hot courses. First out, an oddly familiar black cod (actually a kind of bass) in miso, served with a pickled ginger shoot on a plate swirled with wasabi-tinted Japanese mayonnaise and crushed pink peppercorns. This is, of course, the same black cod that was made famous by Nobu, Nakano’s last head-chefly posting, presented rather differently. Wherever I’ve eaten a similar dish (and this does crop up at an awful lot of Japanese restaurants) I’ve loved it – there’s a recipe on Gastronomy Domine for a similar, grilled arrangement you can make with some salmon, black cod being hard to find in most fishmongers. Mine’s nothing like as pretty as this (it’s a recipe I was given by a Japanese friend about a decade ago, and is more along the lines of something you’d find in a Japanese home), but it tastes great. For prettiness, though, the Sen of Japan version takes the biscuit – and we cleaned those long plates.

Filet mignon with asparagus and a soy-mustard sauce. Probably my least favourite dish of the evening; tasty, juicy, nicely hung, perfectly medium-rare – but it just wasn’t as interesting as everything else we were served. Still; this is a very steak-oriented part of the world, and everywhere else we’ve had menus of this sort in Vegas, a steak has popped up somewhere. I’m told that if you pay for the more expensive omakase menu at Sen, you’ll find this steak transmogrified into a piece of Kobe beef, bits of foie gras decorating other courses, and things like lobster and caviar popping up here and there. We elected to avoid the pricier ingredients so we could concentrate on the fish, but you might decide it’s worth pushing the foie boat out.

Next up: five pieces of nigiri, with two maki rolls. You’re looking (bottom to top) at tuna (maguro), fluke (a generic name for flatf
ish – hirame), salmon (sake), black snapper (kuro dai) and a cooked prawn (shrimp if you’re American, ebi if you’re Japanese). The rolls, part-visible at the top, were more maguro. All good, all fresh, all nicely seasoned, but not, again, terribly unusual; I suspect that if we’d managed to score seats at the sushi bar and had been able to talk to the sushi chef, things might have turned out a little more exciting. What was spectacular was the accompanying miso soup, which arrived with juicy, fresh littleneck clams straight from California, still in their shells (and, judging by the flavour, alive until moments ago), bobbing around in the hot broth, which took on a breath of flavour from the juices of the shellfish. Beautiful.

The meal was finished off with a hot chocolate souffle with a ball of green tea ice cream. Everywhere does a hot chocolate souffle; this was a good one. The ice cream is terrific – I’m not normally a dessert person, but this was very jolly.

There’s absolutely no reason to stick to the Strip for your Vegas dining. You can even go celebrity-spotting at Sen; apparently Andre Agassi is a regular, as is the city’s ex-mob-lawyer mayor, Oscar Goodman. Admittedly, this is not the handsomest dining room in town, but then again, it’s not meant to be; this is just an excellent neighbourhood sushi-ya which happens to serve up food that will compete with anything you can find on the strip at much, much more sensible prices. Head out there next time you’re in town, and tell them I sent you.

Invalid meatballs

I’m currently in Edinburgh, helping out a friend who’s recently had an operation. Part of my plan for the week has been to get her healing up by cooking things which are tasty and full of good things; we’ve been breakfasting on yoghurt, blueberries and raw almonds; drinking unsweetened cranberry juice diluted with fizzy water; chomping our way through antioxidant-dense sweet potatoes – I don’t think I’ve ever consumed so many vitamins in such a short period before.

I made these meatballs a couple of evenings ago, when the extremely lovely Marsha Klein came round to visit us for dinner and conversation about general anaesthetic. The wounded GSE is, I have noticed, not so keen on vegetables on their own, so I hid a great wodge of spinach (niacin, zinc and vitamin-rich stuff, although the iron content is overstated by Popeye) in the meatballs along with some big handfuls of herbs. A bit of stale bread, soaked in milk, makes these really light and toothsome, and the herbs, lemon and coriander seeds give them a lovely aromatic lift. Alongside some buttered, herby rice; green beans stir-fried with garlic and lemon juice; some Greek butter beans and imam bayaldi from the deli; and a hearty dollop of home-made tzatziki (directions below), these went down an absolute treat. To make enough health-giving meatballs to serve four, you’ll need:

500g minced lamb
2 thick slices stale white bread
50ml milk
4 cloves garlic
1 medium onion
100g raw baby spinach leaves
25g each fresh coriander, parsley and mint
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon paprika
Zest of 1 lemon
1½ teaspoons salt
Several hefty turns of the pepper grinder
Olive oil to fry

6 inches of cucumber, sliced into 1-inch slivers
6 tablespoons Greek yoghurt
20g fresh mint
1 small clove garlic

Tear the bread into little pieces about the size of your fingernail, and soak them in the milk in a small bowl. Dice the onion and garlic finely, chop the herbs and spinach and grind the coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle. Use your hands to squeeze together the lamb, soaked bread, and all the other meatball ingredients except the olive oil until you have distributed everything evenly – keep squeezing as you go, and you’ll find everything sticks together quite satisfyingly. Roll into meatballs about the size of a ping-pong ball, place them on a plate and refrigerate for at least an hour to allow them to firm up. (This will prevent the meatballs from coming apart while cooking, and helps them keep a nice round shape.)

While the meatballs are cooking, chop the cucumber into inch-long sections and julienne (cut into matchsticks) each of these finely. Crush the garlic clove and chop up the mint, then stir the cucumber, garlic and mint into the yoghurt. Set aside.

When you are ready to cook the meatballs, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan and fry them, turning regularly to make sure they are browned all over, for 15 minutes. Serve with a dollop of tzatziki, and feel free to nix all those health benefits by drinking a large glass of red wine while you eat.

Raku, Spring Mountain Road, Las Vegas

I spend more time in Las Vegas than is strictly healthy, especially for someone who doesn’t find gambling particularly diverting. (I don’t think I’ve ever spent more on gambling there than $10 in a week; I am a disaster for casino marketing.) So what’s up with the yearly visit, which this year seems to have turned into two yearly visits? Easy – the restaurants. (And the tigers, the neon and the shows, but mostly it’s the restaurants.)

Something curious happened to the city in the early 90s, when big-name, starry chefs from all over the world started to move into the larger hotels. The Strip casinos now house restaurants headed up by people like Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Michael Mina, Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller and Guy Savoy – heaven for people who vacation for food. If you’re like me, though, you’ll find yourself wondering where the chefs themselves eat.

It turns out that most of them seem to head for Raku.

Raku (see the website for directions, a menu and booking) is a tiny aburiya – a sort of Japanese bar serving food designed to encourage you to get you drinking. It’s open until 3am, so restaurant workers can pile in after service, and it dishes up extraordinarily good food, mostly as small plates. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in years of American eating, it’s not to judge a restaurant by its location. You’ll find Raku in an unprepossessing strip mall well away from the tourist focus of the city, so it’s currently not somewhere you’ll read about in guidebooks – I was told about it by a chef who used to work in the city. You’ll still need to book, especially as the evening wears on; locals pack the place out, and it’s very small, with about 30 covers. And there’s a very good chance that if you arrive good and late, you’ll spot some of the big-name chefs who have filled a cabinet near the bathroom with signed cookbooks and adulatory little notes.

This is one of those very enjoyable menus that doesn’t have any consideration for Western notions of squeamishness. You’ll find items like grilled beef intestine; raw bonito guts; uncooked tongue, prepared sashimi-style; beef tendon; grilled pig’s ear – if, however, you’re dining with a friend who has not yet discovered the wonderfulness of offal, there are plenty of less intimidating options too, especially in the beef and chicken direction. Dishes start at $1.50 for some of the robata (charcoal-grilled) items, and there’s no set structure to the meal, plates arriving as they come ready. We went for a couple of appetiser-sized dishes, some robata bits and pieces and some of the daily specials. It’s hard to impose structure on this sort of meal, so I’ll discuss each dish in the order they arrived in.

Those salted, raw bonito guts, which I’d seen on the online menu before visiting and had been making thrilled noises about at the long-suffering Dr W for two weeks before our reservation, worked as a kind of solid seasoning sauce for this sashimi salad (the menu calls this “Seafood with bonito guts pickled in salt”, and it comes in at a ludicrously low $6), the first dish to arrive. Glorious stuff; the bonito guts taste somewhat like a very salty, extraordinarily umami duck liver might – no fishiness, just an intense, meaty savouriness. The flavour insinuated its way through the whole dish, lifting the very fresh salmon, tuna and mackerel pieces out of mere sashimi territory into something quite special. This dish is, according to our waitress, also prepared with tongues of uni (sea urchin) in season – I’d love to try the bonito guts against the sea-sweetness of uni, and found myself planning our next visit once I was about two bites in.

Dr W will do almost anything for a good Caesar salad. Fortunately for him, there’s a fusion-y version on Raku’s menu – a dried tatami sardine salad ($6.50), whose dressing is like a de-anchovied Caesar dressing with slivers of crisp, savoury mats of what look like straw-coloured noodles – actually dried, shredded sardines studded with cracked black pepper. And, oddity of oddities in a Japanese restaurant, a hearty sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

All this remarkable stuff – the bonito guts, the sardine crisps, and the dashi and tofu we’re about to discuss – is made from scratch in the little kitchen. Especially when you’re dealing with a product like tofu, there’s a chasm of difference between what you might have come across in shops and restaurants that bulk-buy, rather than preparing these things themselves, and somewhere like Raku (the only other tofu I’ve had that’s this good outside the Far East has been at Tanuki, another aburiya in Portland OR that prepares its own).

We ordered the house special, which is at the top of the specials board every night. Agedashi tofu – tofu covered in a little light batter, served in a bowl of dashi (a kind of bouillon or stock made from dried bonito and kelp) is served in most Japanese restaurants, but I swear it’s never tasted this good before. The disc of tofu was almost floral in its freshness, and the dashi (considered a true assessment of any Japanese chef’s skill) was outstanding – a totally different creature from many I’ve tried. Alongside the traditional accompaniment of spring onions, the tofu was decorated with a few pearls of salmon roe, shredded nori, some tiny mushrooms and a dab of chilli sauce, all of which acted as seasoning rather than garnish – salt, iodine-richness, earthiness and heat.

I’ve no idea what that tofu cost – we asked the prices of what was on the specials board and didn’t get any answers. (Only dodgy bit of service of the evening, and something that doesn’t seem to be isolated; we got talking to a customer in another Japanese restaurant later in the week who felt he’d spent far more at Raku than he meant to, simply because of that number-free specials board and some flirtation with o-toro and foie gras.) Another special at a mystery price – six tiny crabs, each about the size of a ping-pong ball. They arrived having emerged moments ago a wok of oil so hot that there was no greasiness to them at all, to be popped into the mouth whole, and crunched. I was expecting puncture wounds to the inside of my cheeks, but they g
ave to the teeth like crisp wafers, with a burst of fresh crab creaminess in the centre. I could have eaten twenty.

The robata-grilled dishes arrived in a flurry. American Wagyu skirt steak, marinaded in a sticky soy mixture and served with garlic chips ($6.00). Fat Kurobuta pork cheeks (a ridiculous $2.50, pictured below), threaded on a skewer, caramelised and smoky from their marinade and the charcoal grill. Shishito peppers ($2), delicate, sweet and mildly spiced. And a remarkable thing the menu calls “potato with corn” ($3). Discs of sweetcorn, the hard hull in the centre somehow magically removed and replaced with a smooth mashed potato, the whole then brushed with a little soy-based magic and grilled until they became tender and smoky.

This is a long post for food that’s not terribly complicated: the restaurant deserves it. When something as seemingly simple as the operation of a charcoal grill is done with such aplomb that the results surprise you as much as they did here, you know you’re onto something pretty special. It pays to explore any city’s less central dining; we found two off-strip gems in Vegas on this trip (more about the other later on) to go with Lotus of Siam, another Vegas Asian restaurant in a strip mall. I’ve not even talked about the superbly welcoming atmosphere at Raku, the handsome room or the generally excellent service – the food’s good enough to eclipse all that. If you’re in the city, drive out there or take a cab, and explore the more curious-sounding corners of the menu. You’ll find yourself rewarded a million times over for the effort.

Gordon’s Gin competition

Are there any two sweeter words than “gin competition”?

While I’m busy in my pyjamas today recovering from Phoenix and its near-deadly lawn chairs (see previous post), I’ve got another competition for you. This time, you can win a Gordon’s Gin Friday Pack, full of everything you need for a Friday night in with friends. The pack will include a bottle of Gordon’s Gin, a set of Gordon’s glassware and a Gordon Ramsey cook book.

The deadline for this one is Friday October 9. To enter, leave a comment below letting me know what you’d do with the gin; I could do with some new cocktail ideas!

Entrants must be resident in the UK, and over 18 years old. And although I think this is nannying you to a degree you don’t require – it’s not my business if you enjoy drinking gin by the bottle – I am required to display the Drinkaware logo, which I think is meant to discourage you from doing anything that might get your stomach pumped. Here it is – click on it if you want governmental advice on how to deal with a hangover.

Competition winner!

Janilizi is the winner of the two tickets to Lille – well done! I’ll put you and the Eurostar people in touch today.

I am, as you may have noticed, back from America considerably later than was expected; a friend we were with ended up in hospital for a week, so we stayed with him until he was able to travel back to the UK. Business as usual resumes tomorrow (and I’ll get Twitter going again today) – and I’ve plenty of food to tell you all about! I intend on spending the rest of today staring fixedly ahead in pyjamas.