sakagura

From Palate to Palette: Sakagura

London is a global kitchen, serving up everything from Italian to Indian, English to Ethiopian, Peruvian to Persian and all imaginable inter-mixings of the above.

Incredibly exciting, but sometimes overwhelming.

When I am down with a bout of Tastebud Overload, the thing I crave the most is Japanese food. Clean and simple flavours, and a cooking technique that transforms ordinary ingredients into something halfway between dinner and art.

Nowhere is this more evident than Sakagura, which sits tucked away in the calm oasis of Heddon Street. Sakagura specialises in Washoku cuisine, or traditional Japanese cooking, which has been registered on Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list. Washoku is fundamentally about showing respect for nature, taking seasonal ingredients and preparing them in a way that showcases their natural appearance and taste.

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The name “Sakagura” means “sake cellar”, and it’s a fairly comprehensive one that you’ll find here. Sake from all over Japan, and of all different styles.

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Downstairs at Sakagura

Food and Drink:

As a devout member of the school of “Treat yourself”, we fairly went for it. Three starters, two mains, two desserts, two cocktails and a fully fledged sake flight. In any case, ordering as much as possible from a menu only helps you make up your mind about the return visit.

Cocktails:

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Left: Kakubin at Torys (choya aged umeshu, kakubin whisky, tobacco liqueur, toffee syrup, soda water) Right: Better know your shochu (potato shochu, coffee liqueur, freshly squeezed lime juice, calpis, shiso leaf)

Starters

The tuna tartare was a work of art. Finely minced tuna came suspended on a wooden board, shot through with a gleaming black seam of caviar. Spring onions, sesame, wasabi and extra caviar were served alongside. These we mixed into our tartar to taste, using a dainty little paddle shaped spoon.

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The sashimi floated in on what can only be described as an iceberg, draped with juicy slices of sashimi and garlanded with a meadow of edible flowers. Ornaments of blood purple ginko leaves carved from beetroot, baby cucumber flowers and bamboo turned this dish into a Japanese landscape painting, and made it rather heartbreaking to eat.

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Wasabi, freshly grated

We did things by the book and moved from delicate to rich: starting with scallop, moving through to sea bream, kite fish, hamachi, tuna and salmon.

Mackerel sushi rounded out the starters, with beautifully seared skin and carefully vinegared sushi rice.

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The sake pairing for our starters was spot on: daiginjo to pair with the limpid tasting sashimi, and herbaceous taruzake (cedar wood aged sake) to cut through the mackerel’s oiliness.

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Sake pairing: Gekkeikan Daiginjo sake (left) and Taruzake (right)

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Mains

The mains did not lower the tone – Kinoko mushroom rice pot was stirred in situ, spooned into our bowls with a helmet of crispy rice crust. The robata grilled lobster was a fiery shade of red and came garnished with a whole candied chestnut and ginger root.

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Mushroom rice

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From the lobster emanated a glorious smell, incredibly smoky, mouthwateringly savoury. We were surprised to learn that nothing but olive oil, salt and lime juice went into the making. My dining companion performed a thorough chopstick dissection, extracting every morsel of meat.

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Our mains came with a warmed autumn sake, presented in a gorgeous tokkuri, and amber coloured koshu (aged sake).

Warming the sake made it taste sweeter and brought out its gentle rice fragrance. For me, the koshu was the killer pairing – paired with mushroom rice, it creates a chocolatey, nutty, shiitake party in your mouth.

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Warmed sake in a tokkuri

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Koshu: notes of chocolate, coffee, mushroom and roast nuts

 

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Choose your cup

Dessert

One word of advice: don’t leave without ordering the raindrop cake. Just exactly like eating a real dew drop, but far better. We were presented with two, one garnished with gold leaf and the other with cherry blossom petals delicately suspended within.

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We couldn’t not order the Sake Kasu Ice Cream, sake kasu being the lees that are filtered out of sake during production. While I sadly couldn’t detect the flavour of the sake lees my companion happily polished off the lot. The chocolate wasabi flavour is still on my mind…

Our desserts came paired with a rich, juicy aged umeshu by Choya and a zesty yuzushu, both of which are almost desserts in and of themselves.

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Left: Yuzushu | Right: Choya aged umeshu

We stayed long into the afternoon, over-running our initial time budget by quite a long shot. London life can be one long rush from A to B, which makes moments of pause so worth treasuring. In any case, food that is so beautiful and well prepared is worth taking time to appreciate.

As we walked down the street, my partner in crime turned to me with a smile.

“I’m full,” he announced. “And so are my eyes.”

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Address: Sakagura | 8 Heddon Street, W1B 4BS

Reservations: [email protected] | 020 3405 7230

 

time for tea

Time for Tea – Sushi & Robata Grill and Canton Tea Co

What is the strangest thing that you have smuggled across Customs and Border Protection? Chewing gum into Singapore? Sobrasada from Majorca? Well, let me tell you about the time that my mother smuggled three Camellia Sinensis tea saplings all the way from China. These were to supposed to keep the family in ready tea supply for perpetuity but sadly the British weather had other plans.

Clearly we are quite obsessed with tea, but the beautiful thing about tea is the obsession it inspires across the world. Widely believed to have originated in China, it comes as no surprise that its status in Chinese culture is particularly significant. Owing to its bitter taste, discoverers took it for medicine, along with other “bitter vegetables” such as chicory and sowthistle. “Big Red Robe”, a type of Oolong tea, was even christened after its healing properties – when the Empress Dowager was cured with brew from its leaves, the emperor decorated the bushes with his red robes. Over time, tea usage changed from medicinal, to ceremonial, to pedestrian. Today, it is both a drink for officious and ordinary times.

Oolong

Da Hong Pao. Photo credit: A Lux

It was only until the 17th century that tea hit British shores, initially peddled under the dubious name of “China-water”. Hard now to imagine this island nation without it – is there anything more quintessentially British than Builders’ Brew? These days, you can even buy tea grown in Scotland.

In recent years, interest in other varieties has developed, perhaps stoked by a combination of scientific evidence and clever marketing. Now elevated to the halcyon heights of a “super food”, tea is commonly pitched as a stress-relieving, fat busting, anti-oxidant super brew. Aside from the 6 official types of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black and pu-er), retailers have unleashed their creativity to bring us everything from Opium Smoke to Pandan Chiffon and a whole host of similarly Willy Wonka-esque blends in between. The proliferation of choice has also been stoked by the emergence of artisan tea boutiques, who work hard to source more obscure teas and support small scale farmers from around the world.

Canton Tea Co is one such tea boutique, focusing on artisan, small and ethical tea growers based in China and Taiwan.

canton tea co

 

On 22 November, they partnered with the newly opened Sushi and Robata Grill at the Kensington branch of Wholefoods to host a 7 course supper featuring Japanese food paired and (mostly) Chinese tea. Each dish was served with a specially selected tea, and the tea was also incorporated as a base ingredient in each dish. Yes it’s true – the pairing menu concept shows no sign of abating…Having said that, experiencing a foreign interpretation of traditional Chinese tea culture was educational and refreshing.  Any destressing/ cholesterol inhibiting/ antioxidant properties obviously provided added peace of mind.

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Canton Jasmine Pearls, rich and gold.

time for tea

The Menu

Our menu for the evening was prepared by Masa Tanaka, Executive Chef at Sushi and Robata:

7 Tasting Plates Matched with Canton Teas

English Breakfast Jelly in Tomato & Tomato Carpaccio with Japanese Green Tea Dressing and Alfalfa Sprout

Canton Jasmine Pearls

Mackerel Sashimi cured with Genmaicha

Canton Hojicha

Jasmine Cha Wan Mu Shi (steamed savory custard)

Canton Dragon Well

Prawn and Broccoli Tempura in Green Tea Batter and with Matcha Sea Salt

Canton Triple Mint

Salt Baked Hojicha Duck Leg

Canton Chocolate Tea

Sencha Smoked Scallops

Canton Big Red Robe

Ice Cream Tempura with Earl Grey Ice Cream

Shochu

 

time for tea

English Breakfast Jelly in Tomato and Tomato Carpaccio

Highlights

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Mackerel sashimi

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Prawn tempura with matcha sea salt

Needless to say, the food was oishii. Pairing food with tea was also a bit of a revelation – there is nothing like finishing a 7 course meal still feeling light as air.

Chocolate Tea

All of the teas we tasted were familiar to me, excepting the Chocolate tea. I later learned that this blend was specially created for the Chesterfield Hotel (who put on a Willy Wonka themed afternoon tea, go figure), using a combination of Yunnan black tea and Indian Assam. The gourmand notes came from the addition of Madagascan vanilla and Peruvian Cocao Nibs.  An utter olfactory marvel, one could happily inhale its scent all day…and more marvelous still that the chocolate matched excellently with the smoky brined duck. Douze points!

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Brined duck in preparation

time for tea

time for tea

Sencha smoked scallops, masquerading as pearl nuggets

Purists would perhaps find this free-handedness with tea drinking a little insulting – why dilute your enjoyment of prize tea by mixing it with food, and rushing back and forth between so many different types? Greedy.

Then again, they are missing out on the marvellous way in which culture and traditions are continually reinvented over time. This constant re-inventing of cultures is a wonderful thing, and what ultimately preserves it. In this case, tea culture traveled from East to West, and is now returning under a new guise.

The tension between the need to innovate and a desire to preserve is perpetual, but isn’t it exciting when we make waves?

And to end with some wisdom –

Top tips for tea brewing:

  • Tea bags are easy, but please don’t deprive yourself of the deliciousness of loose leaf
  • Once you’ve chosen your preferred loose leaf blend, such as this, you can reuse your loose leaf tea 2-3 times
  • Don’t use boiling water. I usually turn the kettle off before it reaches the rolling boil. This saves energy and also saves your tea from being destroyed by heat and from turning too bitter
  • Use a tea pot with a removable tea leaf holder, so you can remove the leaves after about 3 minutes. Any longer and you’re making tannin soup.

And what about sake? Want to chat about that?

time for tea

About Canton Tea Co

Canton Tea was founded in 2007 in London by Jennifer Wood. For years she had been unwittingly drinking some of the most expensive green tea in the world, a Pouchong given to her each spring by a tea-farmer friend in Taiwan.

It was the love of this tea that inspired the business. After a career as a copywriter in brand design, she wanted to create a company around the authentic pleasure of handmade tea.

Edgar Thoemmes, a natural entrepreneur with a gift for technology and a highly developed taste for fine tea, soon joined Jennifer. They set out to source the very best teas in the world, travelling to tea farms, meeting the producers and learning about tea. The learning never stops.

Over the years Canton Tea has developed partnerships with the best, most experienced artisans and tea professionals. From Jennifer’s kitchen table, we’ve grown to become one of the UK’s top specialist tea companies with over 120 teas. We now supply Five Star hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, cool cafes, high-end delis, John Lewis, Harrods and thousands of discerning web customers worldwide.

 

 

Not My Sushi Role

Sushi and Sake Masterclass, at M Restaurant

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.

M Restaurant
Square Meal

 

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.

 

M Restaurant Lobby

 

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.

 

Reserved

 

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…

 

Wine from Japan

 

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.

 

Umami Cocktail

Sake in a teacup

 

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.

 

Swordfish Quinoa Sushi

 

In high spirits and high anticipation, we descended a rather grand staircase for the sushi masterclass to begin.

 

Sushi Masterclass

Sushi Counter

 

Chef Jarrad demo-ed the sushi technique…

 

Sushi Rolling Technique

 

…Before letting us loose on the pre-prepared ingredients.

 

Sushi making

 

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.

 

Sushi Roll by Each Sip Sweet

Not My Sushi Role

 

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.

Sushi and Caviar

 

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.

Volzhenka Caviar

 

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.

 

M Restaurant