Kaiseki menu at Hakubai, Kitano Hotel, New York City

Cornus flowers
Cornus display in the Kitano lobby

The Kitano, a few blocks south of Grand Central Station, is one of my favourite places to stay in New York. The hotel is Japanese owned and run, and stepping off the Park Avenue sidewalk into the lobby is a bit like stepping through a teleporter, straight into an Asian hotel. There’s Japanese floral art, a service ethic imported straight from Tokyo, a green tea machine in every bedroom – and it’s wonderfully, extravagantly clean. Best of all, there’s a simply superb Japanese restaurant in the basement; one of those inexplicable well-kept secrets, which you won’t read much about in guide books or online. I am assured by a Japanese friend that given the decor, kimono-swathed waitresses, and lacquered tableware, it is very easy to mistake Hakubai for somewhere similarly swanky in Kyoto before you even get to the food.

I was there for the food rather than the hallucinatory experience of being in another city, but I have to admit: going from a view of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings to a restaurant that feels half a world away is a great sensation.

Hakubai was on my list of must-eats in New York because it is one of the very, very few restaurants in the city that offers a kaiseki menu. Kaiseki is a bravura food-as-art performance of a meal. This isn’t hyperbole; a kaiseki meal really is regarded as art, and like other kinds of art, it has a formal structure. You’ll find many exquisitely prepared tiny courses, which are carefully chosen to reflect the season. Looks and taste are equally important here, and there should be a very wide variation in textures between the courses. Modern kaiseki usually proceeds with an appetiser, sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish, and a steamed course (not necessarily in that order), perhaps with additions from the chef. The courses are served at carefully timed intervals on decorative lacquer and porcelain dishes, decorated with real leaves, flowers, and tiny pieces of edible garnish. This sort of thing doesn’t come cheap, of course; Hakubai offers two kaiseki menus, one at $170 a head, and an oknomi kaiseki (what-you-like kaiseki, which is what I ended up ordering) at $95.

Because a kaiseki meal is meant to appeal as much to the eyes as it does to the mouth, the best way to take you through what I ate is through pictures. This is a meal worth saving up for if you happen to be visiting the city. We had the excuse of a couple of celebrations – a birthday, the end of a university course – but if I were you, I’d do my very best to make up some reason to celebrate, sell the car, and use the money to hotfoot it to Hakubai.

Cold sake
Cold sake in a Venetian glass bottle, crushed ice and sakura blossoms. I'm struggling to think of a nicer way to start the evening.
Sesame tofu
Sakizuke: an amuse-bouche-type starter course. Sesame tofu with a raw okra and fresh wasabi garnish. The tofu, made in-house, is delicate, silky and has a subtle sesame flavour.
Hassun: a course emphasising the seasonal theme. From top right, clockwise: monkfish liver; a cold grilled cod salad in a very light rice vinegar dressing; herring roe; spinach and bonito salad. The monkfish liver, sometimes called aquatic foie gras, was a real seasonal treat, but the standout here for me was the herring roe, which is very hard to find.
Herring roe on kelp  (komochi konbu)
A closer view of the herring roe on kelp (komochi konbu). This was only the second time in my life I've eaten it. Komochi konbu is hard to find; it has a short season, and western diners can be a bit squeamish about raw roe, so it's not very popular, which is a great shame, because it's fabulous stuff. The herring lays its eggs on each side of a piece of kelp - you're looking at a cross-section of the egg mass. The kelp is the dark stripe in the middle. This is all about texture - it's beautiful, sea-tasting roe with a soft crunch, wonderful dipped in a very little soy.
Futamono: a lidded course. This is chawan mushi, which you might have encountered elsewhere: a steamed savoury egg custard. This was densely flavoured with pork, mackerel, crab and herbs, with a tiny ball of sticky mochi in the centre.
Mukozuke: a sashimi course. Sashimi on crushed ice in an earthenware oyster shell. From the top, you're looking at chu toro on a spicy perilla leaf, fluke and amberjack (a Japanese fish which, again, is hard to find outside Japan) with lemon. All impossibly fresh.
Takiawase: a course of vegetables and fish, meat or tofu, prepared separately. The grilled scallops are served with lightly dressed, steamed spaghetti squash. Above them is a tofu and seasonal vegetable salad with some very fresh bamboo shoots, and to the right a grilled Spanish mackerel dish.
Shiizakana: the most substantial course. There was a choice between sushi, tempura or steak (with a $30 supplement for Kobe beef). This was so good I went back a few nights later for a sushi-only meal. Back row, top to bottom: toro (fatty tuna), hirame (fluke), ika (squid), tai (red snapper). Front row, top to bottom: amaebi (sweet shrimp), anago (sea eel), uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe).
Mizumono: a course of seasonal desserts. Green tea ice cream, vanilla ice cream, and mochi (glutinous rice flour cakes) in caramel. The mochi were so soft they only barely held their shape. A lovely (and necessarily - I was very full by this point) light finish to the meal.


Samurai Sushi, Lake Tahoe, five years later

Mostly pictures today; I have a triple-whammy of jet-lag, a dose of the plague or something caught from an unsanitary bloke on the plane, and a complementary dose of blind panic about my Mum and Dad, who are stuck in Cairo. The odd text message from them is escaping Egypt, along the lines of: “Tanks outside window. Your father is having a snooze”.

I don’t usually post about restaurants more than once here, but Samurai, a little place up in South Lake Tahoe which remains one of my favourite sushi restaurants anywhere for its freshness and consistency, deserves a new post. I’ve been back to the restaurant a few times for post-skiing sushi every year since 2006, and standards at the restaurant remain as high as ever. Thanks to Geoff and Helen for being such brilliant hosts, and for making me and Dr W feel like regulars on the strength of a handful of visits separated by 12 months each year. So without further ado, some pictures. I am off to cough my lungs out and try to make a phone call to my besieged parents.


Escolar nigiri
Escolar nigiri, a comp from Geoff, who guessed (correctly) that this buttery fleshed fish from the Gulf of Mexico would be something we wouldn't find in the UK.
Hamachi collar
Barbecued hamachi (yellowtail tuna) collar - tender, intensely savoury, with a gorgeously crisp skin
A big heap of sushi - those are quail yolks on the flying fish roe. Just gorgeous.

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.

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.

Aubergines with den miso

Years ago, before I’d even met Dr W, I had a boyfriend whose sister-in-law was Japanese. She and I didn’t agree on much, but we did agree that these aubergines (which she made every time I visited her house) are pretty sublime.

Takako used to make this using those lovely wee Japanese aubergines – the sort that leave you gasping with their visual similarity to eggs and explain the whole eggplant nomenclature thing (not obvious when you are 18 and the only eggplants you have ever met are purple and shaped like a torpedo). Happily for those of us without a supplier of dear little Japanese aubergines, this works very well with the purple sort too. Aubergines are a wonderfully meaty sort of vegetable. Although this works really well as an accompaniment, this lovely meatiness means that you can happily serve this dish as the main event, with rice and perhaps a salad dressed with some rice vinegar. It’s also a good win if you have an unexpected visiting veggie, and, being one of those things you serve at room temperature, I think it’s really, really good as part of a picnic. These do soak up quite a lot of oil, as is common with aubergines, but hell – it’s not like you’re making this dish every day. To serve two, you’ll need:

2 medium aubergines
200g shiromiso (white miso)
2 tablespoons sake (Chinese rice wine is good here if you have no sake)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons mirin
6 tablespoons ground nut oil

As usual, if you’re having trouble finding white miso, head for a large independent health food shop. They tend to have a bewilderingly good selection of miso, seaweeds, pickled ginger and the like. I have no idea why, given that most of the other nutty, protein-knitted, fermenty things masquerading as food that the health food shop I use sells are things I have no interest in ingesting at all. Boo hippies.

Start by slicing the aubergines into three lengthways. Slash the cut surfaces diagonally, without cutting all the way through the flesh, and without cutting the skin. Fry in the hot oil over a medium heat, turning halfway through, until the skin and flesh is golden brown, and the aubergine is soft.

While the aubergine slices are frying, make the den miso by combining the mirin, sugar, sake and miso in a small frying pan and bringing to a very gentle simmer, stirring all the time. Cook the sauce for two minutes and keep warm until the aubergines are cooked.

Move the cooked aubergines to a plate and smear the hot den miso all over their upper surface, making sure the paste gets into the slashes. Leave the slices to come down to room temperature before serving – for some reason, this dish is all the more delicious when it’s cold.

Tanuki, Portland, OR

Two pieces of background cultural information before we begin. First up, a Tanuki is an alcoholic, raccoon-dog, Japanese trickster god, who (as in the picture to the right) has a habit of using his scrotum as a disguise, an umbrella, a weapon, a makeshift bivouac and so forth. (If you’re one of those for whom one classical Japanese scrotum-humour Tanuki woodcut is not enough, see this page to get your fill.) He’s also a patron god of bars…which leads us to point two. The Portland joint named for Tanuki is not exactly a restaurant. It’s a very tiny izakaya – a sake bar offering salty, spicy foods to accompany the drinks. And woe betide you if you turn up here expecting sushi, because you’ll be a) disappointed and b) liable to be beheaded by the angry whirling blades of Janis Martin, a chef who just happens to offer one of the best-value and most aggressively delicious omakase menus I’ve sampled. (Janis says it’s not, strictly, an izakaya, but an akachochin – a sort of dive bar. Don’t believe her. This is top-quality dining in a place that just looks like a dive bar.)

We pushed open the door to find a little room seating only 16, lighting that felt like a photographic darkroom, a blue fug of savoury, perfumed steam coming from the kitchen, a soundtrack of post-punk theremin music, and a TV balanced on top of the sake fridge showing a Japanese chef disembowelling herself. (Comedy, I think. These things don’t necessarily translate, but they’re sure as hell fascinating.) I am not usually prone to snap judgements, but from the moment the picture on the television changed to three rubberised Japanese zombies whose eyeballs kept falling out, I was pretty sure I was going to like Tanuki.

The menu embraces Okinawan, Japanese and Korean dishes, all designed to complement (and get you to order more) sake and beer. If you’re familiar with Korean seasoning and heat, you’ll be at home with what’s going on on the plates here. What’s on offer changes daily, but you can expect to find tofu made fresh in-house, real grated wasabi, local and impeccably raised meats, home-made pickles and some extravagantly weird spicing on the list every day.

Tanuki is pretty uncompromising; this is not a menu that panders to the daft and squeamish. ‘Crab brain’ miso, Japanese drinking vinegars and tiny duck hearts threaded on a bamboo skewer take pride of place. The bar is in-your-face scuzzy, the food designed to cram every taste bud you own with sensation. I chatted briefly with Janis about the off-beat setup here, and she mentioned something that drives me mad in Europe and clearly drives her mad in America too – the tendency of new ethnic restaurants to cater solely to high-end, top-class diners. None of your gleaming walls, shimmering waitresses and horrendously overpriced sushi here, more’s the joy. Somehow, I suspect that eel on a stick simply wouldn’t taste as good with a cloth napkin, anyway.

Order sake, and plenty of it. We chose a Korean gukhwaju – a rice wine flavoured with mountain chrysanthemum. Those intimidating-sounding drinking vinegars are actually delicious, and are a good non-alcoholic way to calm burning tongues; there’s only the slightest hint at an acidic fermentation behind a sweet mulberry, plum or strawberry syrupiness that seems designed to quench and soothe.

You can order directly from the menu, or pick a price-point for an omakase meal selected by the chef. We asked the waitress (helpfulness in human form – what I wouldn’t give for a dose of American service culture back in the UK) what sort of amount she recommended two hungry people spend, and she said that $20 a head should be plenty for a full meal. Ten courses later, we left reeling and plump. Two dollars a course per head!

Dishes seemed to get larger as the night progressed. We opened with a soft and meaty hamachi tuna sashimi, seasoned with some of that fresh wasabi and shoyu. We’d barely finished it when a dish of creamy and impeccably fresh uni sashimi (alive, says Janis, until the moment she orders it), on paper-thin slivers of lemon with sweet soy and more of that wasabi arrived. Hoshi kyui, a jellyfish, cucumber and wild herb salad in a hot and sour dressing, packed a fish-sauce umami bite that had us reaching for the drinks and then dipping straight back into the salad the moment we’d swallowed every mouthful. Skewered eel fillets in a sweet soy glaze, oily, salty and crisp, arrived fresh and hot from the grill, accompanied by some of the pickles that are made weekly in the kitchen.

Nasu to ebi nikkei was one of the larger dishes, and came with pearl-like sticky, short-grain polished rice. Elegantly de-veined shrimp, so fresh that they gave to the teeth with a crunch, were poached in a cinnamon tea, and served with a miso-dense eggplant and bok choi preparation. Things were starting to get seriously spicy by now, and our thoughtful server arrived with a pitcher of iced water.

The kitchen uses a huge number of different soy sauces. Shiro, tamari – you name it, it’s probably represented somewhere on the menu. We had two delicate, light meat balls made from wild boar, which came drenched with a gummy, sugary Korean soy.

Suki wagarashi nearly had me beaten. These pork ribs, cooked until the meat was falling stickily and glutinously from the bone, were rubbed in a Japanese mustard and sesame marinade that packed so much heat that I stopped being able to feel my lips. Fortunately, the next couple of courses stepped back from the spice a bit – lonngganisa, a fatty, porky Pinoy sausage, came sandwiched between two deliciously crisp and cooling slices of fresh grilled lotus root. And joy of joys – a baked char siu bun.

They saved the best, spiciest, saltiest and largest dish for last. Jajang bop – a huge claypot stuffed to the brim with steaming hot rice layered with shredded, salted, gelatinous pork, cubes of the kitchen’s fresh tofu and some unbelievably tasty fermented black beans. A raw egg lay on top with a generous portion of kim chee, dosed with a sinus-clearing amount of chillies, some fresh herbs and fat, long beansprouts. We stirred the bowl with chopsticks to scramble the egg through the hot rice, and kept on eating long after our distended stomachs and burning tongues were screaming to our brains to stop.

The lighting (and my fear of chefly beheading – Janis seems quite strict) stopped me from taking any pictures of what we ate, but there are plenty on Tanuki’s own website if you want to get a feel for the look of things; they’re very accurate depictions of what you end up eating. I only get to spend about one week a year in Portland, if that, and it’s fast becoming one of my favourite cities for eating in the world. Something has to be done about this parlous state of affairs; I wonder how the guys at Tanuki would feel if I turned up in their garden with a raccoon-dog-scrotum tent and set up house?

Japanese coleslaw

This coleslaw is very quick and easy to throw together, and it’s a great alternative accompaniment for your barbecues. Wasabi and ginger give this coleslaw a great SE Asian kick, and the sweet white cabbage and carrot shreds really respond well to the savoury dressing.

I’ve used powdered wasabi here, which you can usually find at Asian grocers. It’s sweeter and has more zip to it than the pre-prepared version. Check your wasabi packaging to make sure that wasabi (horseradish on some packs) is the only ingredient.

To serve about four people, you’ll need:

1 white cabbage
2 large carrots
½ inch piece of ginger
3 tablespoons seasoned Japanese rice vinegar (I like Mitsukan, which you should be able to find at a good supermarket)
1 ½ tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 ½ tablespoons soy sauce
1 heaped teaspoon wasabi powder
2 teaspoons soft brown sugar

Shred the cabbage finely with a knife, and grate the carrots. Mix the vegetables together in a large bowl.

Add the vinegar to the wasabi in a small bowl, and leave aside for five minutes. Grate the ginger and stir it into the vinegar and wasabi mixture with the soy sauce and sugar, and keep stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add the sesame oil, whisk briskly to emulsify all the ingredients, and pour the finished dressing over the cabbage and carrots. Toss everything together and serve immediately. This coleslaw does not keep well (the salad will wilt in the dressing), so you have a great excuse to eat it all in one go.

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.

Miso-glazed salmon

Miso-glazed salmon
This Japanese way with fish requires you to think ahead by a couple of days. Once you’ve slathered it with its thick sauce, the salmon needs to cure and marinate in the fridge for at least 48 hours, by which time its flesh will be delicately infused with the flavours from the den miso. Once it’s out of the fridge, it’s simplicity itself to prepare under the grill.

Marinading fish in den miso is a delicious, traditional treatment. Japanese grocers in the UK often offer fish ready-smeared and packed under plastic for you to cook when you return home. A den miso marinade is also used in Nobu’s utterly gorgeous black cod. I’ve never managed to find any black cod for sale, but salmon is just great here – try sea bass fillets too if you can get your hands on some.

To serve two, you’ll need:

2 one-person-sized pieces of salmon fillet, skin still on
200g shiromiso (white miso)
2 tablespoons sake (Chinese rice wine is good here if you have no sake)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons mirin

Most UK supermarkets seem to be stocking miso, sake and mirin (a sweet rice wine) these days, although the alcohols will be with the foreign foods section, not in the booze section. If your supermarket doesn’t carry miso, have a look in your local health food shop. I’ve noticed that for some reason, they almost all sell a good variety of Japanese kelps, soya sauces, and miso.

Put the miso, sake, sugar and mirin in a bain marie and simmer the mixture (which is now den miso) over boiling water for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the colour darkens. Remove the den miso from the heat and set aside to cool.

Put the salmon in a small bowl and pour over the cooled marinade, making sure everything is well-coated. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge for between two and three days, turning the fish daily.

Grilled salmonWhen you are ready to cook the salmon, lay it with the skin side down on a rack over tin foil. Grill under a high flame for about four minutes, until the miso is caramelising and bubbling as in the picture. Turn the fish so the skin side is uppermost and grill for another four minutes, watching carefully to make sure the fatty skin doesn’t catch and burn.

The fish will be sweet and silky with a crisp and caramelised skin. Serve with rice and a green vegetable.

Oriental Supermarket, Oriental City, Edgware

I needed to restock my storecupboard this weekend, so we headed for Oriental City (see my earlier post on Oriental City’s food court for directions). It’s probably my favourite source for exotic ingredients, as the supermarket extends to cover Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Malaysian and Thai ingredients alongside the Chinese bits and bobs you’ll find in many other oriental supermarkets, and has a remarkably good selection of fresh produce flown directly from Asia.

They’re currently reorganising the supermarket to extend the Japanese section, which has a grand re-opening later in August. All of the shelves are clearly labelled in English so those with problems reading Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Korean orthography do not accidentally buy tinned silk worms (something I have still not been able to bring myself to sample). The supermarket is also an absolute joy for fresh ingredients; the pictures below are just a small selection of the fresh goods on offer.

Six different kinds of chilli. There were more on another shelf, and a further shelf of dried chillis further back in the supermarket.

Turmeric, young ginger, galangal and other juicy, fresh roots for pounding into pastes.

Six different kinds of small aubergine. I used the purple ones towards the right in a Thai green chicken curry yesterday.

The fresh fruits, spices and vegetables extend all the way down one wall. You’ll find Asiatic pennywort, pandang leaves, banana leaves, lily buds, gourds, mooli, a million and one variations on the theme of a cucumber, perilla, lotus roots, herbs like Mitsuba…it’s a challenge to recognise everything.

While many places will only stock one kind of soya sauce or one kind of fish sauce, this supermarket prides itself on the choice it offers. I counted six kinds of fish sauce, and one side of an entire aisle is given over to different soya sauces. The chilli sauce aisle is packed tightly on both sides with bottle upon bottle of the red stuff, and there were seven different brands of instant dashi, alongside the bonito flakes and kelp you need to make your own.

Ex-pats craving snacks from home are well catered for. These Japanese snacks are on offer at the moment so they’re out of the way before the advent of the new Japanese section, which will, apparently, carry even more.

Here’s that crab again, with some other fish so you can get an idea of scale. The fish counter is one of the fewI’ve found that will actually carry fresh, properly prepared fish specifically for making sushi and sashimi at home. (It’s also a good place to find roes like tobiko and a fresh salmon roe.) Cuts of meat which aren’t usually represented in UK butchers are also easy to find here; chicken’s feet come frozen or fresh, and there are even duck tongues for the brave.

If you live in or near London, or if you’re just passing through, try to pay a visit to Edgware and see what you can find at the supermarket. Cook with something you’ve never tried before. Try to find out which is the strongest chilli. Use those canned silkworm larvae to broaden your experience. I’d love to find out how it goes.