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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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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

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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?

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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.

 

 

Hedonism

International Sake Day Part I: Hedonism

The best occasions deserve multiple celebrations. Part I is covered below, while Part II at Matsuri is covered next.

Not long after the first encounter, I found myself skipping back down the same path to happiness and Hedonism. My mission: to warm up for International Sake Day.

To avoid repetition, I defer uninitiated readers to my quick explanation of International Sake Day here, but suffice it to say that it wouldn’t be wrong to think of 1st October as New Year’s Day in the Sake world.

Continuing the analogy, Hedonism was celebrating New Year’s Eve, with a very special edition of expert Honami Matsumoto‘s Sake pairing masterclasses.

House of Sake Honami

Honami Matusmoto, Founder of House of Sake: www.houseofsake.co.uk. House of Sake is the official Sake consultant to Hedonism Wines.

Titled  The Terroir of Yamagata Prefecture & Dewazakura Brewery, the event was extra special as Honami would be joined by 5th generation brewers Akari & Shotaro Nakano of Dewazakura brewery, and the Sake would be paired with cuisine from delicious Kikuchi restaurant. Not only would this be an opportunity to hear about Sake straight from the source, but it would also be an opportunity to enjoy the natural affinity between Japanese food and sake.

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We eased into the tasting with a sparkling, cloudy, Dewazakura Tobiroku Sake. A passion for bubbles, I’ve noticed, is one of those things that transcends borders and language barriers. The creamy mouthfeel, rich rice aroma and subtly sweet taste always draw me back to this sparkling number in particular.

 

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Left to right: Oka Ginjo, Tobiroku Cloudy Sake

With a bit of alcohol now coursing merrily through the system, guests began to anticipate what was in store. As Akari and Shotaro talked knowledgeably about the origins of Sake, the brewery itself and the raw ingredients that go into making Sake, Honami led us through the food pairing.

Left to right: Oka Ginjo, Dewasansan, Omachi, Ichiro, Izumi Judan Ginjo, Yuki Man Man

Left to right: Oka Ginjo, Dewasansan, Omachi, Ichiro, Izumi Judan Ginjo, Yuki Man Man

Sake number one was of course Dewazakura’s signature Sake and the winner of the IWC 2015 Ginjo category. Romantically named “Cherry Bouquet – Oka Ginjo”, you can imagine the delicacy of the nose, a beautiful efflorescence of cherry and peach flavours flowering the glass. This characteristic is typical of Ginjo Sake, a grade of premium Sake previously only made for competitions. Dewazakura’s innovation was to begin releasing it at an affordable price to the mass market, effectively triggering one of the most creative periods in the history of Sake making. Our entry dish was appropriately light, taking on the form of cured flounder sashimi. Having never tried cured sashimi before, I was curious to discover that pickling the fish overnight has the effect of producing a tighter, firmer flesh. While many Ginjos could have overpowered such a delicate fish, the Oka Ginjo at no point intruded, owing to the dominance of floral over fruity notes, and its shorter finish.

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Our next dish was another typically Japanese offering – fried pork cutlets, with a mouth-watering salted plum paste and dried shiso. More robust in its flavour, this required a savoury Sake to handle the umami – in this case a Junmai Ginjo made from Dewasansan rice, aptly named Dewazakura Dewasansan. Dewasansan rice is grown in Yamagata prefecture where Dewazakura is located, and is so called as “Dewa” is the archaic word for Yamagata, where there are thirty-three or “San San” mountains. This type of rice typically produces mellow, slightly herbaceous tasting sake. In this case, the Junmai Ginjo had some sweet and fruity tones, nicely bringing out the saltiness of the pork dish and the plum paste.

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For the third course our familiar friend sashimi made its second appearance, this time in the form of luscious pink salmon. Dewazakura’s Omachi Junmai Ginjo was the choice Sake for this dish, as it was able to cut through the oiliness of this fattier fish. Here “Omachi” refers to the rice strain used for brewing the Sake, which is also the oldest indigenous rice strain to Japan. The thing about Sake made from Omachi rice is that it tends also to have a wilder, deeper flavour; a flavour that has garnered its own loyal following of “Omachists”, or diehard Omachi Sake drinkers.

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By this stage we had experienced three knockout food and Sake pairings, and were well warmed up for the three perhaps more unique choices to follow. The fourth pairing was all about Dewazakura’s 2008 champion sake, Ichiro Junmai Daiginjo. “Ichiro” means one straight road, so called as a symbol of Dewazakura’s dedication to focus on Ginjo making. Slightly thicker and more lingering, the sweetness tinged with a hint of spiciness was a perfect partner to the white miso chicken skewers. Juicy, lip-smacking food that hugs you back in the darker months.

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And then the dish that foreigners will forever associate with the Land of the Rising Sun: sushi. Kikuchi sushi rolls are something else – generously filled rolls of seven colours, ingredients that glistened with freshness. Spinach, eel, salmon, tuna, squid, omelette, cherry blossom pickles represented the seven colours of the rainbow, and came served with Kikuchi’s special Tosa soy sauce, a smoky and complex number. “Tenth degree” or Dewazakura Izumi Judan Ginjo, was the Sake chosen for this dish. A Sake fit for Bond, this is possibly one of the driest Sakes you might easily come across. Also known as the “Martini lovers’ Sake”, the crisp flavour and Tanqueray aromatics cut perfectly through the fatty flavour of the Rainbow roll and had a pleasant, palate cleansing effect.

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The final course was the simplest, and yet my favourite dish of the evening.

Seasonal vegetables, gently prepared in dashi and light soy, absolutely non-fussy. A nod from the chef to Nature, as if to say, “taste what Nature did, I cannot do any better!” Sincerely prepared and thoughtfully presented kabocha, aubergine, yam and shishito – autumnal, with the earthy flavour that comes off ingredients which have been retrieved just moments ago. The Sake choice for our final dish was intriguing, bearing the artistic name – “Snow country”, or Yuki Man Man. The choice was intriguing, as Daiginjo tends to enjoyed for its freshness, whereas Yuki had five years of age under its belt at 5 below zero Celsius. In essence, maturation had the effect of turning what would have originally been a vividly fruity brew into something darker, more muted and caramel. With the age came a silky smoothness. Overall, aged sake can be hard to pair with Japanese food, but the simplicity of the vegetable dish let the flavours of the Sake flow over, and the overall effect was a mouthful of delicious autumn flavours.

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From sparkling to still, fresh to aged, dry to sweet – it felt like we had covered a lot of ground both in terms of knowledge and in terms of the flavour spectrum in one evening. Dewazakura is a brewery that is close to my heart, due to their enthusiastic support of a ball I helped organise a year ago. Since then, the young couple have gone on to win several awards, most recently the coveted title of 2016 IWC Champion Sake with Dewanosato, and the brewery itself won IWC 2016 sake brewery of the year. With young blood at its vanguard, the future of the Sake world is bright – and certainly not lacking in flavour!

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Honami holds frequent tasting classes at Hedonism. Stay appraised of future tastings here.

 

All Sakes mentioned in this article are available to purchase at Hedonism Wines:

Dobiroku Sparkling Sake

Oka Ginjo

Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo

Omachi Junmai Ginjo

Ichiro Junmai Daiginjo

Dewazakura Izumi Judan Ginjo

Yuki Man Man Daiginjo 5 Years Matured

All by Dewazakura Shuzo