Towards the end of last year, a new and fancy looking establishment popped up a stone’s throw from the office.
Clever, I thought. The phrase ‘captive audience’ springs to mind.
Yet in the few intervening months between then and now, I had never managed to do anything about my curiosity. Except for that one time I went for a quick drink (sake), nary a foot had I stepped into M Restaurant and not a morsel of M Restaurant food had I tasted.
It was obviously fate then that the second Philip Harper dinner was to take place at M.
Philip Harper is the world’s first and only non-Japanese toji (master sake brewer) in Japan. Read here.
The ‘M’ in ‘M Restaurant’, case you wonder, stands for Martin. Martin Williams in his previous incarnation built up the Gaucho Grill chain into a global brand, but has since stepped away to launch his own eponymous restaurant.
As part of the Philip Harper roadshow organised by Asami of World Sake Imports, we were to spend an evening brushing up on our sushi making skills. Skills that were, in some cases, underdeveloped. After making our own, we would be allowed to relax and enjoy the rest of the carefully planned sake and caviar themed menu. I’d done a lot of eating in the past few days, so I didn’t mind putting in a bit of elbow grease for my supper that night.
We started off in the upstairs Tasting Bar, where fine wines are available to sample on tap.
My attention was immediately drawn to the Japanese wine. Partly because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but partly because I had never clued into Japan’s wine producing capabilities.
The label read ‘Koshu‘ (甲州) – in a sake context, Koshu refers to ‘aged sake’ and is written differently, whereas in a wine context, it refers to the grape variety. The bottle below was filled with the last drops of ‘Grace Wine’, a white wine christened after the Three Graces. I’ll be back to try this very soon…
Our most fantastic and charming host for the evening was Zach, who serenaded us with humorous comments and plenty of drink. He made overtures with a Japan themed cocktail named ‘Umami’, after the fifth taste discovered by Japanese scientist Dr Ikeda in the 1900s.
Although Umami was originally extracted from kelp, M have concluded that the same effect can be achieved through blending Hibiki 12yo Japanese whisky, Haig Club whisky, plum juice and soya milk. Let’s also not forget to set sail that pansy petal on top.
Next, Chef Jarrad (ex Chiltern Firehouse) was introduced to us, bearing a slate of swordfish and quinoa sushi and some richly thick soy sauce to pair. Oh quinoa, you trendy super grain.
In high spirits and high anticipation, we descended a rather grand staircase for the sushi masterclass to begin.
Chef Jarrad demo-ed the sushi technique…
…Before letting us loose on the pre-prepared ingredients.
Upon dipping my hand into the sushi rice, I found that the grains clung desperately to my fingers. No matter how I tried, they refused to adhere to the nori where they belonged.
My resulting roll looked pretty handsome – if you were to apply the standards of a paleo-chef.
As many things in life do, the sushi making quickly escalated into a cut throat competition. After some intense rolling and sesame sprinkling (and rice eating), the very deserving winner was selected and walked away with a fine bottle of Philip Harper’s Gold Medal winning “Kinsho“. I reckon there was some side arrangement where the winner had pre-agreed to splitting winnings with the judge.
Sake and Caviar
There are many things that you may not immediately think to pair with sake, and not many occasions where you will have the opportunity to do so. For example, how many European restaurants do you know that provide sake pairings as an option?
It is through events like this therefore, that people will have the opportunity to broaden their horizons a little, to access new pairings under the guidance of someone with experience.
Although the menu at M was safe and sushi based, but there were one or two dishes where the sake and caviar were allowed to shine together. In particular, the caviar garnished parmesan tuile, where the little luxury pockets of saltiness presented a buttery foil to Philip’s full bodied and strong tasting sake.
An evening dedicated to the wonderful trifecta of sushi, caviar and sake is a glorious evening indeed…
…and things got even better when I found the golden instamatic photo booth downstairs.
Last Thoughts: It is deeply exciting to see more and more of sake pairing events springing up across the city. Gradually, a new and open minded crowd is being introduced to the national drink of Japan in fun and modern contexts.
And come their next restaurant meal, perhaps they will be asking for a glass of sake instead.
The caviar came from Volzhenka, who source their black pearls from the “City of Caviar”, Astrakan. It remains a family owned business, and has done so for its half a century of operation.
Many thanks to Asami Lewis and World Sake Imports for their efforts to promote sake abroad, and to M Restaurants for their hospitality. Last but not least thank you to Philip, who sacrificed many hours to drinking with us when he could have been spending time at home with his nephew and niece.
Philip’s “Insider’s Guide to Sake” remains the best introduction to sake available. Read more here.