After two trips to Japan in two years, I’ve fallen even more in love with Japanese food. Both holidays gave us plenty of opportunities to enjoy traditional washoku cuisine, particularly in the multi-course kaiseki ryori meals we enjoyed at a number of ryokans.

While sushi is increasingly popular in the UK, the many, many other dishes that make up this tasty cuisine have been less widely available. But in the last few years, particularly in London, Japanese food is growing its fan base and more and more Japanese restaurants are opening their doors. It’s not that we didn’t have Japanese restaurants before, but they certainly weren’t (and still aren’t) as ubiquitous as Indian, Chinese, Italian, Thai…

I’ve written previously about London’s ramen awakening; after Wagamama popularised a simplified version, authentic ramen is now coming into its own.

Sushi remains a lunch-time favourite, sold by supermarkets and sandwich chains across the country, but Chef Toru Takahashi of Sushi Tetsu is one of a new generation bringing the higher end experience to the UK. I’ve not yet been, but it’s very high on my wish list!

Even kaiseki ryori is now available in London – another place that I’m enormously keen to visit is The Shiori, where Chef Takashi Takagi recreates a Kyoto-style kaiseki experience for enthusiastic London diners.

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I learned about Chisou Japanese Restaurant during a chance encounter at a United Ramen pop-up I went to in January. A fellow diner told me about it, having recently taken up a job with them. Recently, he extended an invitation to visit and try their Japanese menu for myself. There are actually three restaurants in this mini-chain – the original Mayfair branch which opened in 2002, the Knightsbridge location I visited, which opened in 2010, and the newest one out in Chiswick, which opened in 2012.

Each restaurant has its own head chef – at Knightsbridge, Chef Ryota Tsuji is at the helm. The core menu is common to all three restaurants, but each head chef also offers a selection of their own specialities as well.

On the website, Chisou describe themselves as closer to an izakaya (casual Japanese bars that also serve food) than to a formal kaiseki restaurant, though I’d place the Knightsbridge restaurant somewhere between the two. It’s definitely more upmarket than most izakaya but not as rarefied as a traditional Kyoto kaiseki restaurant. The website is not great – clicking on Food (in the hope of seeing the menu) takes you to a long passage about private hire, which would be far better given its own section of the menu. Scroll down, down, down past all of that to eventually find the menu, laid out in sections you have to read one at a time. Use the sub-menu on the left to navigate between these. Frustratingly, prices are not listed – one of my pet hates; a complete website revamp would be a great investment!

Still, the menu has many appealing dishes including several that I haven’t much encountered in the UK.

I take friend and fellow Japanophile MiMi with me to review.

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We are warmly greeted by general manager (and sommelier) John who is a little disappointed that we’re not wine drinkers, and that we also turn down the offer of sake, but cheers up when we ask for umeshu (plum liqueur) instead. It’s lovely to be served our sweet Ozeki Kanjuku Umeshu (£6.50 glass) with a whole alcohol-pickled plum in each glass, which I greedily eat after finishing my drink.

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Chewy, slightly fishy strands of seaweed with sesame seeds are a tasty nibble, placed on the table soon after we arrive. Edamame beans (£4.50) are served simply, in salt.

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Horenso salad (£9.90), described as “ baby spinach topped with spicy prawns and sweet carrot, drizzled in yuzu vinaigrette” is artfully presented, though a little fussy. I’d like just a few more prawns, given the price tag, but the flavours are excellent. And the yuzu comes through loud and clear, which is good news since we both love it. When the dish arrives, we’ve forgotten the mention of sweet carrot on the menu, and wonder what the strange  orange fibres are made of – their flavour doesn’t clue us in to their carrot nature but they do add an interesting texture.

Hotate Carpaccio Yuzukosho Salt (£11.95) is described as wild-caught Alaskan scallop carpaccio served with yuzukosho and ponzu sauce. The scallops are delicious, served in thin sashimi slices. I can’t detect the yuzukosho (a salty spicy condiment made from yuzu citrus) very well but the dressing, rich in sesame, is refreshing.

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Yakitori (£4.90) is disappointing. It’s offered coated in chef’s “special sauce” or lightly salted, and we choose the latter but find the yakitori woefully under seasoned. The chicken meat has very little flavour and these are a bland, chewy let-down.

Tempura Moriawase (£13.90) is another dish that I think is over-priced for the portion. The quality of the ingredients is good and the tempura is excellent – a lovely light batter cooked to a perfect crisp and not at all oily – but a plate of three prawns, one small piece of fish and a small number vegetables is not enough for the price.

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Chawan Mushi (£7.50) is an absolute winner of a dish, one of the best of the night. Within the delicately flavoured savoury custard (that has just the right wobble and silken texture) are prawns, chicken and mushrooms. It immediately transports me back to the delicious chawan mushi I enjoyed in Japan and both MiMi and I agree we’d come back to Chisou for this dish in a heartbeat.

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The menu offers lots of choice on sashimi and sushi, but we decide to leave it in the hands of the chef, and order Sanpin Sashimi (£19.90). The chef selects three different types of fish from the catch of the day and three pieces of each are served. Knowing what I pay for excellent quality fresh sashimi at Atari-ya, the mark-up seems a touch high once again, but the quality of fish is decent.

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Eel; Salmon belly

After asking about two pork belly dishes, we choose one of them along with Unagi Kabayaki (£25.80) and Aburi Sake Toro (£7.20), plus a bowl of plain boiled rice (£3) and Konomono (assorted pickles) (£4.10). In the end, we are eventually told that neither pork belly dish is available, but we have plenty with our two fish choices, so don’t bother choosing a replacement.

The unagi (eel) is beautifully cooked, coated with a traditional sweet barbecue sauce; the flesh is almost jelly like and full of flavour.

Likewise, the aburi sake toro (seared salmon belly), served with a yuzu soy sauce, is delicious and suitably fatty, as the cut suggests. Visually, they look similar, but flavours are quite distinct.

The pickles are very good: four contrasting colours, tastes and textures.

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I don’t think either of us intend to have dessert but once we glance at the menu, we can’t resist the ice creams and sorbets; two scoops (£4.90).

My yuzu sorbet is the essence of yuzu, just as MiMi’s lychee sorbet is nothing but pure fruit flavour. Her green tea ice cream is decent (though not the best I’ve tasted). My soy and brown sugar ice cream is alright but the soy doesn’t come through at all, which is a shame – I had hoped for the classic flavour of soy and sugar combined, like the glaze on mitarashi dango. I am a little surprised at presentation of the ice creams – thus far in the meal, plates have been so carefully arranged but here the scoops are sloppily shaped and my bowl is actually quite messy.

Overall, our meal has been good, with some real highlights – the spinach and prawn salad, chawan mushi, pickles and unagi. Pricing is a little variable, with some dishes providing far better value than others. Including our two glasses of umeshu and a green tea, our bill would be approximately £70 a head – a lot even given the number of dishes we ordered. Judicious ordering would reduce that – swap out the sashimi and the unagi for three or four additional small dishes and you could bring that down by at least a tenner per person. That’s still at the top edge of what I’d pay. Then again, the restaurants is within a stone’s throw of Harrods and the multi-million-pound mansions of the very wealthy, so perhaps it is simply targeting its locale clientele.

Certainly there are many more dishes I’d like to try, including Buta Bara Kimuchi (£5.90) – belly pork stir fried with garlic and kimchi, Kani Karaage (£13.50) – deep fried soft shell crab with a ponzu dip, Kodako Nanban Age (£8.20) – deep fried and marinated baby octopus, Saikyo Yaki (£12.50) – grilled black cod in white miso, Wagyu Steak & Foie Gras Truffle Teriyaki (£24.50) – featuring 50 grams of Chilean wagyu rib eye, and Sake Chazuke (£4.90/£7.20) – plain rice served in a hot soup and sprinkled with flakes of salmon.

So yes, it’s expensive but the range of dishes and the quality of most of them means it’s worthy of consideration for a little taste of traditional Japanese washoku in London.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Chisou Restaurant.

Chisou Japanese Restaurant Knightsbridge on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

 

During our two recent holidays to Japan, we discovered a real love for yakiniku.*

I was determined to recreate this indoor barbecue experience at home. But there were obstacles: no smokeless charcoal; no indoor barbecue container; no working extractor fan in the kitchen (it died and we’ve not had it fixed); and it can be tricky to find the kind of tender and beautifully marbled beef that is prevalent in Japan.

The first two, I decided to ignore. The third too, though we opened the large kitchen window as wide as it would go. And Provenance Butcher came to the rescue on the fourth.

Founded by a team of three Kiwis and a Brit, this Nottinghill-based butcher’s shop opened just eight months ago. None of the founders have a background in the butchery business – Erin, Guy and Tom grew up on farms in New Zealand and Brit Struan gave up a career in marketing to retrain as a butcher a few years ago – but all four are committed to sourcing and supplying top quality meat. The team have a deep love for 100% grass fed beef, which they currently source from New Zealand wagyu herds. These cattle spend their entire lives outdoors, eat a natural grass diet and are not given growth promoters, hormones or antibiotics. The meat is broken into sub-primal cuts at a New Zealand processing plant, vacuum-packed and transported to the UK by boat. It’s chilled rather than frozen, so further wet-ages during the six week journey. Here, it’s butchered into individual cuts, ready for the customer. Of course, Provenance also sell lamb, pork and chicken and this they source in the UK; the lamb comes from two British farms, one in North Yorkshire and the other in Wales; two fourth-generation farming brothers in Staffordshire supply free range pork and chicken.

When they asked if I’d like to try their New Zealand wagyu I figured it would be perfect for my yakiniku experiment.

One of the cuts they sent was Flat Iron. According to this 2012 article in The Wall Street Journal, Flat Iron is filleted out of the chuck. Care must be taken to avoid a line of tough connective tissue running through the top blade of the shoulder area and, as there are only two such steaks in each cow, many butchers don’t bother, hence the cut is not that widely available. In the UK, it’s more traditionally known as Butler’s Steak or Feather Blade; the Aussies and Kiwis call it Oyster Blade.

Regardless of what name it goes by, it’s a very tender cut that is perfectly suited to being cooked rare or medium rare.

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When our Provenance wagyu Flat Iron arrived, we were hugely impressed at the deep colour and beautiful marbling of fat.

Pete sliced this 500 gram piece thinly across the grain. I arranged some of the slices on a plate and the rest I submerged in a bowl of miso yakiniku marinade (see recipe, below).

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As well as the marinade, we had three sauces in which to dip cooked meat – some beaten raw egg (with a few drops of soy mixed in), a goma (sesame) dipping sauce and another yakiniku sauce I made with dark soy sauce, sesame oil, shichimi (seven spice powder), sugar, fresh ginger and garlic.

The raw egg dip didn’t add much (I was way too stingy with the soy) and my yakiniku dipping sauce just wasn’t very balanced – way too much sesame oil and soy, not enough sugar, ginger and garlic. We quickly discarded these as failed experiments.

Our favourites proved to be the miso yakiniku marinade (which we dunked beef into before cooking) and the goma sauce (which we dipped the non-marinaded strips of beef into once cooked). We bought our goma sauce back from Japan; it’s Mizkan brand, a Japanese vinegar and condiments producer and available online from Japan Centre.

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Vegetable wise, we had some thin spring onions, mild long peppers (from our local Turkish grocery store) and thinly sliced sweet potato. We’d meant to have mushrooms too, but forgot to buy them!

The sweet potato didn’t cook well, blackening on the outside before softening at all inside. It’s definitely a vegetable we’ve been served in Japanese yakiniku restaurants so I’m wondering if they par-cooked it first, though I hadn’t thought so at the time. Or perhaps some varieties of sweet potatoes are better suited than others? I am on the hunt for the answer!

The spring onions and peppers worked very well.

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We used a disposable barbecue, which Pete lit outside, and bought in once the worst of the initial smoke had died down. We placed it over some old cork boards on a folding garden table we’d set up in the kitchen. It worked well enough, and wasn’t as smoky as we’d feared (though the smell did linger in the house for several hours afterwards). But the main weakness was that the disposable barbecue didn’t generate the level of heat we needed for a sufficiently long time, which meant the last several items took too long to cook.

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Oops! It was only when Pete took the disposable barbecue back outside that we discovered this little scene underneath!

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All that said, I was utterly delighted with our first home yakiniku!

I was also hugely impressed with the New Zealand grass fed wagyu which was full of flavour and wonderfully melt-in-the-mouth because of its beautiful marbling.

 

For next time:

  • I want to find food-grade smokeless charcoal – the British brands I have found seem to be sold for use in fireplaces rather than barbeques. What I’d like to use is Japanese binchōtan, a white charcoal produced from Ubame oak steamed at high temperatures; it is prized for burning characteristics which include very little smoke, low temperatures and a long burning time. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty expensive.
  • I’ll need to source a small bucket barbecue that can safely be used indoors.
  • And perhaps a cast iron trivet or a concrete paving slab might fare better than our cork boards to protect our table from the heat of the barbecue; they did protect the table but didn’t survive themselves!
  • The miso yakiniku marinade was super but I need to find a better recipe for the yakiniku dipping sauce. I might investigate some other tasty dipping sauces too.
  • We definitely need more vegetables and I’ll need to think harder about which ones will work well and whether they need to be par-cooked ahead of time.

 

Miso Yakiniku Marinade

Ingredients
100 ml light soy sauce
1 tablespoon miso
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon garlic, grated or pureed
1 tablespoon ginger, grated or pureed
1-2 teaspoons shichimi (Japanese seven spice mix) or half to 1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 tablespoon cooking sake
1 tablespoon mirin (slightly sweet Japanese rice wine) or additional tablespoon of sake plus teaspoon of sugar

Method

  • Mix all ingredients together.
  • Either heat gently in a saucepan or for 10 to 20 seconds in a microwave. This helps all the ingredients to melt and combine more easily.
  • Add sliced beef to marinade about 30 minutes before cooking.

Note: As we were using this as a marinade, the slightly runny texture suited us well. However, if you’d like a thicker yakiniku sauce, continue to heat gently to reduce and thicken.

 

* Read more about the history of yakiniku in Japan and what to expect at a yakiniku restaurant.

Kavey Eats received samples of New Zealand grass fed wagyu from Provenance Butchers.

Mar 072014
 

In China, Taiwan and North America, yakinuku (literally “grilled meat” *) is often referred to as Japanese barbeque but in Japan itself, it’s very much considered a Korean import. In the UK, it’s not well known at all.

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Showa Taishu Horumon in Osaka

What is Yakiniku?

Yakiniku is DIY dining at its finest! Diners gather around a charcoal or wood burner, usually placed in the centre of the table, and cook their own meal, piece by piece and at their own pace.

Many specialist restaurants have yakiniku grills built right into the tables, with extractor systems to whip away smoke and smells. Others bring portable grills to the table, quickly switching them with a hotter replacement should the coals die down during your meal.

Most commonly, thin slivers of raw meat are ordered according to the cut. A variety of vegetable accompaniments is usually available, though the choice is sometimes limited, and the vegetables are clearly secondary to the meat! Most restaurants also offer a range of side dishes (such as rice, noodles and salads) which don’t need to be cooked on the grill. Again, these are simply a supporting act to the meat.

Yakiniku is perfect for 2 to 4 diners (any more than that and you’ll need multiple grills so everyone can reach). Sit down, check the menu, order your favourites and cook them just as you like them.

Some of the raw meat will come plain – thinly sliced and ready to grill; some will come marinated in a sticky tare (sauce); you may also be given raw egg or other sauces in which to dip pieces of meat once they have been cooked.

Beef and pork are the most common choices. Some yakiniku restaurants specialise in horuman (offal), their menus listing more different types of offal than I ever imagined existed! My first choice is the fattiest and most tender cuts of beef, which work well when flash grilled for mere moments until the fat starts to melt. I’m also addicted to thin slices of fatty belly pork, cooked a little longer until the fat starts to bubble and brown.

* Yaki most commonly refers to cooking on a grill, but can also mean frying or tempering.

The History of Yakiniku in Japan

According to most web resources, including Wikipedia, yakiniku originated in Korea.

The Meiji Restoration (the revival of Imperial rule) gave rise to a burgeoning interest in western culture, including foreign food. In 1872 The Emperor broke a 1,200 year ban on meat eating, though it took some time for long-ingrained cultural taboos to dissipate. ~

Korean food became popular in Japan during the 20th century, especially in the years following World War Two. Korean restaurants advertised themselves as offering chōsen cuisine; the term came from Joseon, the name of the old, individed Korea but when Korea split into two North and South nations following the Korean War, Joseon was appropriated by the North. Businesses in Japan, more sympathetic to the South, removed all chōsen references and instead labelled their food as kankoku (South Korean).

Restaurants serving bulgogi (grilled marinated beef) and galbi (grilled ribs) were known as horumonyaki (offal grills).

Although this is the history trotted out whenever the origins of yakiniku are discussed, isn’t it a little simplistic not to take into account the fact that grilling meat was already prevalent in Japan before the influx of Korean cooking, even though beef was not widely eaten until the late 19th Century?

Perhaps it is the use of the wonderfully-flavoured marinades that mark yakiniku as a Korean-influenced cuisine? But yakiniku, as it is enjoyed in Japan today, is not wholly Korean either – the prevalence of offal and the use of dipping sauces (in which the meat is dipped after cooking, rather than before) are, apparently not common in Korea.

Regardless of the exact origins, the association between yakiniku and Korean food is a strong one and many yakiniku restaurants in Japan commonly offer a range of Korean dishes including kimchi and spicy tofu.

I’m not sure when the general yakiniku (grilled meat) term came widely into use for this kind of cooking but the All Japan Yakiniku Association was established in 1992 and proclaimed August 29 as an annual Yakiniku Day in 1993. The date is described as goroawase (numerical wordplay) because the numbers 8, 2 and 9 can be read as ya-tsu-ni-ku, an approximation of yakiniku.

Yakiniku has seen its fortunes rise and fall according to a variety of influences. In the 1980s, the introduction of modern ventilated systems, which allowed restaurants to easily eliminate smoke and cooking smells, gave open grill restaurants a big boost. So too did the easing of beef import restrictions in 1991, which resulted in a drop in the price of beef. However, the 2001 occurrence of Mad Cow Disease (BSE) in Japan was a set back.

Today, yakiniku is hugely popular and that popularity is still growing. ^

~ This (PDF) article on The Meat Eating Culture of Japan gives a fascinating, detailed history of ancient meat-eating customs, the prohibition of meat and the lifting of restrictions.
^ Here’s an entertaining article from Japan Today with a theory on why and how diners may be forming an addition to meat!

Our Yakiniku Feasts

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The best beef we had in Japan was also our first yakiniku experience, at Maruaki, a Hida Beef restaurant in Takayama in 2012.

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On that same trip, we came across this restaurant in department store restaurant floor. A sign outside invited overseas customers to tell the restaurant manager he was handsome in return for a free beer. We did, he giggled, we received our free beers!

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Gyu-Kaku is a large Korean yakiniku chain with several hundred branches across Japan (and quite a few internationally too). Many of the meats come marinated and there are various dipping sauces, including raw egg ones, to dip the cooked meat into before eating. We really liked the spicy tofu with mince meat side dish as well.

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Another visit to a different branch of Gyu-Kaku, on our second trip.

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We chose Showa Taishu Horumon in Osaka’s Dotonbori district for a number of reasons – specialising in horuman (offal), but with regular cuts also on the menu, it gave me the opportunity to try cuts I’d never normally try; I found the retro ‘50s vibe to the decor rather appealing; I liked the bucket barbecue grills; everyone inside looked happy; staff were welcoming. By the way, Showa Taishu Horumon has a a few branches in the area, this one is located at Dotonbori 1-5-9 1F, on the area’s main street. We had a great meal – I discovered that oesophagus is definitely not for me but confirmed I’m happy to eat cheek and tongue. I chose not to explore the extensive tripe menu! And the regular beef and pork cuts were delicious!

 

Next, Pete and I bring yakiniku into our kitchen for a home made Korean-Japanese BBQ. Coming soon!

 

Although we always chose Japanese breakfasts when our morning meals were included in our ryokan or hotel stays, our Kyoto accommodation was room only, so we headed out for breakfast every day.

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On the first morning, we headed out to Toji Temple (for the monthly flea market) and decided to find breakfast once we reached Toji Station. Just as I was starting to despair of finding anywhere, we came across a lovely little coffee shop called Kissa Ippongi. We were warmly welcomed and took two seats at the large communal table to one side. We noticed most of the Japanese customers eating a Western breakfast set and followed suit. This was our first encounter with the fabulously light and thick-cut Japanese sliced bread and we both really liked it. We also appreciated the crunchy dressed cabbage salad and the fresh oranges that came as part of the plate. The bill, including coffees, was just ¥880.

We enjoyed our coffee shop breakfast so much that we sought out other Kyoto cafes for more egg and toast breakfasts throughout the week. Don’t worry – we made sure to eat lots and lots and lots of wonderful Japanese food during our trip!

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Coffee Smart on Teramachi Dori clearly belongs to a true coffee lover, judging from the careful attention given to roasting beans using an impressive Probat roasting machine just inside the entrance. I couldn’t help but be charmed by its retro interior and I suspect it’s original rather than a modern-day replica. For breakfast, Pete ordered toast and egg, which turned out to be a very generously stuffed omelette sandwich. My French Toast, made with that same thick-cut fluffy sliced bread, was superbly light and served with a pot of maple syrup. A little more pricey than our Toji breakfast, the bill came to ¥2000.

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Between the nearest bus stop and Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) we stopped at this “Morning Cafe Evening Bar” called Bear. Indeed, there were a number of soft bears inside including a large one perched on a bar stool wearing a Halloween outfit, who was our only fellow customer. Breakfast was ok but the coffee was too bitter for us here. The bill was ¥960.

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It was the resident cat that first drew us to Shiroi Hana (“white flower”), a coffee shop we passed several times during our stay, walking back and forth along Aneyakoji Dori as we made our way to and from Teramachi Dori (and its neighbouring covered shopping streets). Inside, we were charmed by the bright, polished interior and the row of fancy glass coffee syphons at the counter. Breakfast, with a particularly fine iced coffee for me, came to ¥1000.

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As we were leaving Shiroi Hana the waitress saw me taking a photo of the exterior and came running out to take our photo in front of the entrance; just another example of the proactive kindness we encountered so often in Japan.

We also tried similar Western sets in a couple of coffee chains, but they were not worthy of sharing.

 

You can read more about this and our previous Japan trip under my Japan tag. More to come soon!

Thanks to Michael for help identifying the names of a couple of these coffee shops and to Ish and Chloe for the coffee syphon know-how.

Feb 112014
 

I was really happy with our Kyoto hotel choice for last October’s stay. The previous year, we’d split our 5 nights in Kyoto between the gorgeous Shiraume ryokan in Gion and Hotel Granvia, located in the large and modern Kyoto Station building. That worked wonderfully for our first visit to Kyoto.

This time, I wanted a location near Nishiki Market, Teramachi Dori, Shijo Dori, Pontocho… I booked us into the Kyoto Royal Hotel & Spa, near the corner of Kawaramachi and Oike, chuffed to nab a rate of less than ¥ 10,000 per night for a clean, comfortable and spacious double room. We didn’t take any meals in the hotel – instead we enjoyed breakfast in several different nearby coffee shops, lunch at whatever site we were near during the day and dinner at a variety of restaurants in the vicinity of the hotel.

This little ramen-ya (ramen shop) was very close to our hotel and we stopped in twice during our 6 night stay. Friends have helped me identify the restaurant from my photos – it’s part of a chain called Kairikiya Ramen and this is the Kitashirakawa branch, located on the corner of Ebisucho and Kawaramachi.

The menu includes English translations, one member of the staff had (limited) English and I had a translator app on my S4 so ordering was very simple.

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Across our two visits we ordered soya ramen, chicken kaarage (fried chicken), gyoza, cheese crisps and fried rice. (The dishes we had the first time were so tasty, we chose mostly the same ones on our second visit).

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For one visit, we got the last table. The other time it seemed quiet as we entered but the seats filled up within minutes. The majority of diners were eating alone but we never felt rushed. That said, we didn’t linger for ages, as it’s clear that this kind of business relies on a fast turnaround.

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Prices can be even lower than the menus above show, as there is also a page of Sets combining a bowl of ramen with one or more of the side dishes, for a discounted total.

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It so hard to beat a steaming bowl of rich broth, tangled noodles, soft fatty chashu pork, brightly oozing ni-tamago egg and crunchy menma fermented bamboo shoot. When you add in hot, freshly fried chicken, steamed and fried gyoza, intensely savoury fried rice and those marvellous deep fried cheese crisps, it’s virtually impossible to resist; it was only my determination to also enjoy sushi, tonkatsu, yakiniku … that stopped us visiting another few times… more of which coming soon!

More posts on Japan.

 

Suizenji Joju-en Park

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Suizenji Joju-en is a beautiful park in Kumamoto. When we visited at the end of October last year, it was still lush and green; the autumn colours still to descend.

Daimyo (feudal lord) Hosokawa Tadatoshi originally built a temple, Suizenji, on the site in 1632 but just four years later he replaced it with a tea house, designating the new surrounding gardens a tea retreat; he believed the natural spring-fed water (from nearby Mount Aso) made excellent tea. Tadatoshi named the garden Joju-en for a character in a poem by 4th century Chinese poet Tao Yuanming. Both titles form part of the full name of the park today.

The garden took subsequent generations of the family a further 80 years to develop and represents, in miniature form, the 53 post stations of Tokaido, the road that connected Tokyo with Kyoto during the Edo Period. The largest of the many rounded tsukiyama (artificial hills) represents Mount Fuji.

It is typical of the Momoyama period of garden design – a central lake is bordered by artfully arranged boulders and pebbles and there are stepping stones within. Paths wind through the gardens, showcasing landscapes designed to be admired from a distance; they are connected by low stone bridges over the lake.

The Izumi (Inari) Shinto Shrine was built in 1878 as a memorial to the Hosokawa rulers and the garden became a public park in 1879. The impressively thatched tea room, Kokin-Denju-no-Ma, was originally in Kyoto’s Imperial Palace but was moved to the park in 1912.

With the sun shining, we took our time to walk around, pausing to admire the view along the route and resting on benches beneath the trees. I was particularly mesmerised by the park gardeners, mowing the tsukiyama in ever-ascending circles, around and around and around…

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Inside the park, there were also a few souvenir and produce shops, including one selling “Kumamoto Banpeiyu” fruit. As far as I can tell, it’s a Japanese cross between a yellow-fleshed pomelo and a red-fleshed grapefruit.

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Sweet Potato Dumplings

Sweet potatoes – both yellow and purple varieties – are very popular in Japan. In Kumamoto, the purple kind feature in a variety of local sweets.

One type, is imokoi; imo means potato and koi can mean either love or a dark colour, so it’s either “dark colour potato” or “potato love”, I’m not sure which! And I love that the local name is ikinari dango which means “all of a sudden sweet round dumpling”, so-called because it’s said to be a treat one can make very quickly for unexpected visitors. Inside a glutinous rice wrapper is a layer of sweet potato and another of sweet azuki (red bean) paste.

Another plainer dumpling contains a sweet potato filling within a glutinous rice wrapper.

This stall outside the entrance to Suizenji Joju-en Park was selling the simpler dumplings for just ¥ 85 (56 pence) each. There were also whole sweet potatoes available, but no ikinari dango on sale, though they were shown on a laminated picture list of products. When I asked if I could take some photographs, the owner nodded, pointing out the large poster portraits hanging behind her and her colleagues; I gather her shop had been featured in a documentary or magazine.

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Entrance to Suizenji Joju-en Park is ¥ 400.

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Sticks N Sushi is a stylish sushi and yakitori restaurant that recently made the leap from its native Denmark to London. The Wimbledon branch opened its doors in 2012, soon followed by the Covent Garden location in November last year. Founded 20 years ago, the chain took inspiration from the Rahbek brothers’ half-Japanese, half-Danish background – their restaurants feature stylish and modern interiors (each one quite distinct from the others), welcoming staff and beautifully presented Japanese food.

Given the existing popularity and prevalence of sushi restaurants in London, we may, perhaps, be a harder market to crack than Denmark but the combination of sushi and yakitori in one place is, as far as I am aware, unique and the attractive and spacious venue in the heart of Covent Garden will surely appeal to locals and tourists alike.

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Exterior and interior images provided by Sticks N Sushi

Because Japanese cuisine was not that well known in Denmark, Sticks N Sushi menus were designed to be extremely visual, so that customers could see exactly what they were ordering; this remains the case today. There are two menus – one showcases a long list of set plates featuring different combinations of sushi, yakitori or both. The other allows customers to pick and choose à la carte. I find the menus rather beautiful and a pleasure to browse through, though the sheer number of choices means it takes longer than usual for me to compare the options and decide what to order.

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The drinks menu also offers a lot of choice – as well as the usual range of soft drinks, there are beers, sakes, shochus, whiskies, ciders and a variety of wines.

The cocktails are particularly appealing, being as they are mostly unfamiliar and rather inventive. Japanese spirits such as sake, shochu, umeshu and whisky feature regularly and I’m happy to see ingredients such as yuzu, jasmine tea, honey and ginger. I like how simple icons in the menu make clear which cocktails come in tall, short and martini glasses. My (alcoholic) Yuzu Lemonade (£7.50) is refreshing but I like my Hanoko (£8.50) even more – jasmine tea-infused shochu with elderflower, honey and fresh lime is an inspired combination.

There are beers from Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo in Japan, plus Meantime here in London. But Pete tries the Sushi N Biiru White Beer (£6.40) and the Sticks N Biiru Black Beer (£6.80) made by Nørrebro Bryghus, a Danish microbrewery in Copenhagen. The two beers are mango-juice orange and a more restrained copper respectively. Chatting to our waitress, we express surprise at the colour of the black beer in particular, only to have her suggest that there isn’t such a thing as a properly dark beer. When we look slightly nonplussed and remind her of Guinness (and all the other popular stouts and porters available) she replies that “those are all made with coffee aren’t they?” I’d say a little staff training on the beer list wouldn’t go amiss!

Pete remarks that the White Beer, described as a wheat beer with yuzu, looks like a glass of Um Bongo. On the nose, it’s a fairly standard wheat beer, a little sweet and grassy but no citrus. In the mouth, it has quite a generous body. It’s on the sweet side with a touch of honey and a little sourness underneath, but still no yuzu that he can detect.

Putting aside its colour, the Black Beer has a caramel malt and slightly earthy hops aroma. In the mouth there is toffee and a decent underlying bitterness that’s deep and pleasing.

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Hot flannels are provided shortly after we are seated and, as is common in Japan, we’re encouraged to keep them throughout the meal. It’s a nice touch when finger food is involved.

We are asked a few times if we’d like to order some nibbles to start, with beef tataki being one of the suggestions, so we’re surprised when the mains come out first; our intended starters arrive some time later. Our waitress explains that she placed the order to “come when ready”; I suggest you make a specific request to have starters first if you’d prefer.

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Beef Tataki £9.50) doesn’t quite resemble the neat beef rectangles of its menu photograph but the beef is decent enough. The spicy gome (sesame) dressing is super but neither of us like the smoked cheese and chives and we can’t detect the promised yuzu koshu, a spicy condiment made of citrus and chilli. We are divided on the salted almonds, but they’re completely impractical to eat in any case, whether you use chopsticks, fork or fingers, and most are therefore left behind on the plate.

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Adam (£18.50), from the set menu, includes 1 salmon nigiri, 1 tuna nigiri, 1 yellowtail nigiri, 1 salmon New York (with garlic) nigiri , 1 tuna tataki nigiri, 1 shrimp nigiri, 1 tamago nigiri, 1 inari sushi, 1 black Alaska uramaki (inside out roll), 1 sparkling tuna uramaki, 1 mamma mia uramaki, 1 dreamy California uramaki and 2 gypsy futomaki (big rolls).

The quality of the fish is very good with a nice fresh taste and texture. All of the rolls are very tasty but we particularly love the gypsy futomaki which (so the à la carte menu reveals) contains seared fish, spicy sauce, avocado, cucumber, chilli, red onion, ginger and unagi sauce. The disappointing let down of the plate is the sushi rice which both of us find strangely dry and firm, like it’s been left out for far too long after cooking and mixing. I also find it a touch over-vinegared.

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On ordering, I ask the waitress if there are any other items from the sushi à la carte which aren’t part of Adam and which I absolutely mustn’t miss. She suggests the gunkan trout roe (£3.20 a piece) and I ask for one, with the quail egg yolk on top. Sadly the ikura (salmon and trout roe) doesn’t have the intensity of flavour that I’m used to – good ikura bursts in the mouth with a sharp, salty fishiness that is completely missing here.

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From the Sticks sets we choose Man Food (£19.50) which consists of 1 skewer of goat cheese in dried ham, 1 skewer of pork and basil, 1 skewer of beef with herb butter, 1 skewer of chicken breast with sasami chilli, 1 skewer of chicken tsukune, a bowl of plain rice, a pot of kimchee and a portion of edamame beans with salt and soy.

Asking the waitress if there are any other sticks she feels we simply must not miss results in an addition of 2 skewers of Miso Marinated Black Cod (£14.50 for 2 skewers). The little pot of Japanese Pickles – cucumbers marinated in ponzu (£2), that we ordered with the beef tataki as a starter, is served with the sticks.

Man Food is a deeply delicious set of sticks; but if you’re looking for more traditional Japanese flavours, it’s probably not the set for you. I’d find it hard to resist ordering this set again on my next visit though! The goat cheese in dried ham and skewer of pork and basil remind me of Italian (and I love them both). The soft and tender beef with garlicky herb butter is straight from France. The sasami chilli chicken and tsukune (chicken meatballs), both of which are moist and pack a flavour punch, are more traditionally Japanese. Excellent cooking!

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Edamame is edamame, much as you’d expect. However there is so much salt sprinkled over them that I have to wipe some off before sucking them out of their pods. The kimchee and pickled cucumbers are both decent, though the portions are small for the price. The black cod is undeniably tasty due to the excellent marinade, but the flesh is too pappy-soft, and I don’t think they are good value at over £7 a single skewer.

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Lemon, Yuzu and Meringue (£6) is a martini glass of yuzu sorbet, segments of orange, pieces of lemon meringue, lemon curd, small lemon and lime pearls and mini marshmallows. Oh, and a crispy shard of sugar with black and white sesame seeds. The marshmallows are a little stale and the tiny green pearls don’t contribute anything more than a funky appearance but oh my this dish tastes good – a satisfying citrus showcase!

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Four Tasters (£8) is just what its name implies – a small taste of four Sticks N Sushi desserts. Vanilla crème brûlée is excellent – a soft and loosely set custard full of vanilla with a crunchy sugar topping. Matcha green tea ice cream has a rich deep flavour and I’m happy it’s not too sweet, but the texture isn’t as silky smooth as I’d like. Chocolate fondant with caramel and hazelnut brittle is fabulous with a properly gooey centre of chocolate and caramel and a super nut and sugar crumble. Only the white chocolate with sweet miso and popped rice is a disappointment; the popped rice is soggy like a stale rice cake and there is no discernable flavour of miso in the white chocolate shell or milk chocolate centre.

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Some of the menu items seem a little too pricey, even taking quality ingredients into account. Sets are better value, though still a touch dear. But the food is, on the whole, very good and I do enjoy the combination of yakitori and sushi on the menu. The balance between traditional Japanese and European innovation is also very appealing.

It’s unfair to comment much on service, since we’re here on a pre-organised review visit, but certainly all the staff are friendly and enthusiastic. One of them assumes my picture-taking of our meal means that we must be on holiday and sweetly insists on taking our picture. I start to say no and think, what the hell, it’s been a good week and a lovely lunch, why not record our happiness?

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Sticks N Sushi.

 

Japanese consumers love limited editions so there was a lot of advertising and press interest when Burger King announced their Kuro (Black) Ninja burger in October. And this special edition was given its own mascot in the form of a cute cartoon ninja complete with black outfit and… a tongue stuck cheekily out! (No, I don’t know why, either…)

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I love BK Whoppers so when I learned that the Kuro Ninja was being launched during our recent holiday in Japan, I really wanted to seek it out.

On a day of eating that a hobbit would be proud of (during which we stopped for multiple breakfasts, multiple lunches and an enormous dinner), we finally tracked it down in Osaka.

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Most striking, of course, is the black bun, coloured with bamboo charcoal. It’s impressively black and with no discernible oddness of taste that we could detect.

Inside is a whopper patty, a round hash brown and a ridiculously long slab of thick bacon that lolls lewdly out from two sides. The regular lettuce, onions and sauce are complemented by Chaliapin sauce – this onion and garlic sauce is named for Russian opera singer Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin; during a visit to Tokyo in 1936, a steak and sauce dish was created for him by a hotel chef and has been named in his honour ever since.

Apparently, various of these elements have been seen before in some of Burger King’s earlier limited edition specials – the black bun also featured in 2012’s Kuro Burger, essentially a regular whopper but served with black ketchup (flavoured and coloured with garlic and squid ink); the bacon “tongue” was at the heart of Big Bacon Whopper, just a month or two before Kuro Ninja was available; and the Chaliapin sauce was a key component of the XT Steakhouse, a 2011 creation.

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What did we think? We liked it!

The balance of flavours and textures worked well enough. I found the hash brown made the burger a touch too big to eat easily; Pete had no such problem. The bacon tongue we folded inside, though that made the burger even bigger. Personally, I’d still choose a regular whopper over the Kuro Ninja… but I would really like to try the Kuro Whopper (no longer available) with its garlic and squid ink ketchup!

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Although the Kuro Ninja was advertised as ¥ 680 (burger only) / ¥ 830 (burger, fries and drink) the branch we went to in Osaka had increased the meal deal price to ¥ 1040 (about £7). But hey, we did get cute Kuro Ninja stickers for that too!

Read more of my Japan content, here.

Tokyo Bento

24 Jan 2014  6 Responses »
Jan 242014
 

One of the (many) pleasures of train travel in Japan is buying a delicious bento box to enjoy during the journey. Bento boxes sold for this purpose are so popular that they have their own name, ekiben – eki means station – and most large stations have multiple ekiben shops to choose from.

Often the contents reflect local regional cuisine but my knowledge of Japanese food is still insufficient to recognise much of what I find inside, let alone be sure of where in Japan in might originate.

Still, the pleasure of presentation, variety, texture and taste is a joy and whiles away the time not spent gazing out of the windows at the beautiful views.

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This ekiben from Tokyo Bento in Tokyo Station was just ¥880 (less than £6).

 

As with most addresses in Tokyo, Zenyaren is difficult to find. When your overnight but sleepless flight from London landed only a few hours ago, and you’ve had a scant 1 hour nap since checking into your hotel, it’s doubly challenging. Luckily, Pete and I are with two Tokyo friends, Masamitsu and Voltaire, who manage, with the aid of smartphones, to track down my chosen venue.

How did Tokyoites navigate their city before the era of online maps and satellite navigation?

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Zenyaren is down in the basement of an office building, about 10 minutes walk from Tokyo Station. We are late for lunch and far too early for dinner, so much of the large space is empty. We are shown a large table in one of the cosier side rooms that break the space up.

The key attraction of Zenyaren is that it gathers together in a single place cooking from seven yakitori restaurants across Japan, giving you the chance to try regional yakitori favourites.

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Indeed, our waiter tells us that in his home region, yakitori is commonly made with pork (even though the word itself means fried or grilled poultry).

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With our drinks (umeshu for me, beer for the rest) come minced chicken balls, given crunch by the addition of finely chopped cartilage. Fabulous, and oddly reminiscent of Swedish meatballs!

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We order various mixed platters of yakitori, our waiter explaining the condiments that are intended for each. It’s a good selection, with each of us favouring different skewers, nothing lasts too long. We also try a chicken skin dish, which is very tasty but I’d like better if the skin were crunchy rather than flacid, and some whole fish that are a particular favourite of Masamitsu’s.

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With another round of drinks, the total bill for four is ¥10,220 (just under £70 at the exchange rate during our visit). For those planning to make a night of it, the menu also includes some reasonable drinks plans (where you pay a fixed price for unlimited drinks from a specified selection). Zenyaren is a great place to go with a group and I can imagine it becomes far buzzier when busy, during lunch or dinner hours.

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