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.

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.

Samurai Sushi Restaurant, South Lake Tahoe

This is the 100th post on this blog. If you’re a lurker who hasn’t popped up and said hello in the comments section before, please do – it’s always good to feel that people I’m not related to read this!

It would not be an exaggeration to say that a large part of our reasoning behind going skiing every year in Heavenly, on the California/Nevada border at South Lake Tahoe, has to do with the presence of the very best sushi restaurant I’ve ever been to. A disclaimer here; I have never been to Japan. I have, however, been to cities all over the world boasting large Japanese populations, and not one of them has been able to serve me sushi this good.

Lake Tahoe (as clear, clean and blue as it looks in these pictures) is about 200 miles from San Francisco and its enormous fishing docks. Samurai Restaurant (2588 Highway 50, South Lake Tahoe, CA, 530-542-0300) is insistent on the freshness of the fish served – as it says on the menu, if it’s not fresh, they don’t have it. This means that on certain days not everything on the menu will be available, but the choice offered is enormous, and whatever is available is guaranteed to be excellent. The owner, prides himself on the restaurant’s Japanese chefs, all trained for years to produce perfect bullets of rice, seasoned with vinegar he prepares himself, and topped with perfectly cut, perfectly fresh fish. The waiters and waitresses bend over backwards to help and answer questions about the food, and the restaurant itself is a little oasis of quietly decorated peacefulness on the busy Highway 50.

A starter section offers a number of non-sushi options, including an exceptionally good Agedashi Tofu (tofu in a thin, crisp rice-flour coating and a dashi sauce), a flavourful beef rib in a teriyaki-type glossy sauce, and these oyster shooters. Each little sake cup contains a shucked oyster and its juices, a little rice wine vinegar, a raw quail egg, spring onion, toasted sesame seeds and chilis. It’s a rich and flavourful mouthful, to be tipped straight from the cup onto a waiting tongue and tasted thoughtfully.

Although we visited a slightly embarrassing four times in two weeks, we didn’t get to the section on the menu with the hot main courses; the sushi is so good that to miss an opportunity to try it would be a real pity. Here you can see some red snapper (in the front of the picture) and Amaebi (sweet prawns) Nigiri. The sushi here is seasoned minutely, to a degree where extra wasabi and soy is barely necessary; each different kind of fish has been prepared with a slightly different seasoning. This snapper takes on a very little flavour from the rind of the lemon separating it, and is adorned with a tiny dab of chili and some of the green part of a spring onion. This chili also makes a perfectly balanced appearance on the albacore tuna Nigiri.

The Amaebi Nigiri is accompanied by the heads of the raw prawns. The heads are deep-fried until so crisp that the whole thing, eyes, beak and all, is edible. They are served with a piece of lemon to squeeze over, and if you are lucky, the people you are eating with will be too squeamish to eat them so you can gobble the lot yourself.

Samurai is on the California side of the lake, so California rolls are mandatory. There’s a large selection of Maki rolls and other, more American offerings. The salmon skin rolls (with what I think are alfalfa sprouts – any alfalfa-familiar readers who can identify these for sure are invited to comment) are crisp and smokily delicious.

House rolls from the large selection on offer – not at present visible on the restaurant’s website – are really, really well worth sampling. The Crabby Crabbington showcases the local King Crab leg with soft-shelled crabs; my favourite, the Crouching Tiger (the bottom roll on the right), is filled with crab and other good things, covered in a tempura batter, then wreathed in prawns and Unagi (more about that later) and its sauce. Above the Crouching Tiger roll you can see Mr Weasel’s favourite, a J-Lo roll, full of avocado, crab and a spiced raw tuna. Fights broke out each time we visited over which rolls to select. Visit with someone of a gentle nature in order to get exactly what you want.

Uni (sea urchin) was firm, sweet and tasted of the sea. Exactly right and beautifully fresh (it’s so disappointingly easy to find restaurants serving ancient, stale Uni, as I did a few months ago). Finally, the Unagi (crisply grilled freshwater eel) here is the very best I’ve tried anywhere. You can watch it being grilled fresh at the sushi bar, and it arrives on your plate hot and crackling. The eel is selected carefully here for a fatty layer beneath the skin which will create that crisp finish when heated quickly. The meat is tender and sweet, and the sauce which is brushed across the top is delicate, finishing the sushi perfectly.

If you get the chance to visit, order adventurously. Try the items on the menu you think you don’t like – you may just never have had them fresh before. If you’re staying in one of the many Stateline hotels, you’ll need to drive or take a cab – the restaurant is about four miles into California, and hopefully you will be too full to walk that distance by the time they’ve finished with you.

Only another year to go.

Disappointing sushi

I became involved in a conversation yesterday about the horrible habit certain British supermarkets have of putting slices of smoked salmon on cubes of rice, and calling the results sushi. It got me thinking . . . and thinking . . . and thinking, mostly about where I could get my hands on some sushi, rightnowthisminute.

Fate smiled on me in the morning when my parents rang and asked whether we’d like to accompany them to Oriental City in Edgware (see this earlier post for address details and ways to get there). There’s a big, Oriental food court there, and while I usually gravitate towards the Malaysian or Vietnamese stalls, there’s also a stall called Japan Food which I hadn’t tried before.

A sushi chef, knife in hand, napkin on head, was looking busy. I went to ask him whether he had any uni, and he nodded, but made it clear he didn’t speak any English and pointed me at a lady in an apron, who took my order. So far so good. I asked for four kinds of nigiri sushi (nigiri is the kind of sushi which is made from a bullet of hand-shaped rice with a piece of raw or cooked fish, shellfish, omelette or other ingredients neatly placed on top).

Tobiko (flying fish roe), are a crisp, tiny orange roe which are salted and sometimes flavoured before use. Uni is fresh sea urchin. Unagi is a cooked, fatty freshwater eel, grilled in a teriyaki sauce, and I think I am probably safe in assuming that you all know what tuna (maguro in Japanese) is.

They had everything I wanted, which was cheering. It took them twenty minutes to prepare the eight pieces of sushi. This is a bad sign; the chef was working slowly, which is unusual in a trained sushi chef. Worse still – as you can see from the photos, the sushi on the plate was . . . messy. Tobiko had spilled off the rice and out of its nori (seaweed) wrapping, and the unagi didn’t fit on its rice. This isn’t usual. The presentation of jewel-like sushi nigiri is important, and it’s a matter of pride for the chef. My chef was clearly not having a prideful day.

First, I took a tobiko nigiri. Not promising.This wasn’t a good example of the roe; it was oversalted and had a lot of gaspingly obvious extra flavouring. (Good tobiko is flavoured where it’s produced, but not with a sledgehammer and a shovel like this was.) The nori holding it on top of the rice hadn’t been toasted to make it tender to the tooth, and it rustled around in the mouth like a salty Mars Bar wrapper.

Fresh uni is very delicious stuff; if you like the taste of the sea you find in a raw oyster, you’ll love uni, which is firm but creamy, and tastes of sweet ozone and fresh seaside breezes. This was . . . fresh-ish. (I should have asked to see it before ordering.) Fresh uni is sweet, and it’s paler than this. Mine was still seaside-tasting, but a little bitter, and darker than it should have been. Chewy nori again. Disappointing.

The tuna – blah. At least it was quite nice and fatty. It was pre-sliced (how long does it take a guy with a sharp knife to peel two rectangles off a slab of muscle to order?), and had been sitting around for a while, a bit damp. And a horror was lurking beneath it – the rice hadn’t been mixed with the sugar and vinegar mixture that flavours it properly, and I got a mouthful of vinegar. I was beginning to feel seriously miffed.

Good unagi is one of my favourite things in the world. It should have been grilled moments ago, its hot fat crisping the skin and making the flesh tender, painted with a sugary-salty sauce and conveyed straight to the waiting mouth. This crisping makes the skin friable and easy to bite through.

I’ll leave you to guess whether this was good unagi. You might benefit from some pointers: it was stone-cold. It was chewy. It was about as crisp as a well-sucked whelk.

All is not lost. Next month, I’ll be visiting (and blogging from) an extremely good sushi restaurant in California, which does better and fresher sushi than any I’ve tried in some of the very expensive Japanese restaurants in London. I’ve started planning holidays around the opportunity to go there. Watch this space.

(For all you ever needed to know about sushi and quite a lot more, visit this absolutely excellent sushi guide from Randy Johnson, a fish-obsessing American who used to live in Japan.)