Created by a driven, food-loving first-time restaurateur along with head chef Kyoichi Kai (formerly of Zuma), Kouzu is the latest high quality Japanese restaurant to open in Victoria. Once a neighbourhood not much associated with fine dining, the area seems finally to be coming into its own, with lots of on-going investment and building projects creating ever more commercial space for businesses and restaurants alike.

The team behind Kouzu share a dream of creating a restaurant of which they can be proud, one that uses the best ingredients to create delicious Japanese food in a luxurious but relaxed setting. The menu is, in the main part, traditional but the occasional fusion tweak reveals Kai’s classic French cuisine background.

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Images courtesy of Kouzu restaurant

Just a few steps from Victoria Station, Kouzu is housed in a beautiful 1850s period mansion; the enormous door looking out onto busy Grosvenor Gardens gives way to a small double-height lobby dominated by a fabulous modern art chandelier. One of the staff tells me that the design is based on the pupal cases of butterfly larvae, butterflies being the (understated) motif of the restaurant. Downstairs houses the bar and a restaurant space (as well as a private dining room). Upstairs is an extensive mezzanine floor where the omakase sushi bar and additional restaurant seating are located.

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We make two visits to Kouzu in December and January, the better to sample their extensive menu. On our first we sit downstairs, on the second, we visit the sushi bar.

New Stream Sashimi is one of the less traditional sections of the menu, bringing together Japanese and European influences in all six dishes.

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As soon as Yellowtail with Truffle Dressing (£15) is served to the table, the heady scents of truffle fill the air. On the palate, the shiso, myoga, ginger and spring onion hit the tastebuds first, and for a moment I’m disappointed. However the truffle flavour asserts itself a few moments later, and leaves a deliciously earthy aftertaste.

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Salmon with Yuzu Soy Dressing (£11) is a punchy dish of salmon dressed in yuzu, soy, ginger, garlic, sesame seeds and a ravigote sauce (the latter a classic French vinaigrette with shallots, capers and herbs). For me, the dressing has been applied a little too long before serving, resulting in the salmon being “cooked” by the acid and slightly too pappy in texture, but the flavours are super.

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Beef Fillet Tataki (£17.50) is beautifully cooked over charcoal and sliced, and served with what is described as an oriental sauce and julienne salad. The sauce is sharp and the little salad heavy in shisho, which I love. That said, although tataki simply refers to seared and sliced meat, I can’t help but wish for a sesame-based sauce, which I (no doubt unfairly) associate with the dish.

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For the price, I expect the Foie-Gras and Spinach with Teriyaki Wasabi (£12) to be far less generous. Instead, I’m delighted with the generous lobe of perfectly cooked liver served with wilted spinach, a light fruit coulis and a wasabi and teriyaki sauce. The combination of flavours is superb, with the bold umami of the teriyaki and mustardy heat of the wasabi complementing rather than overpowering the foie-gras.

Small Dishes and Salads offer a range of little sides that can accompany orders from any other section of the menu; likewise the short and sweet Vegetables section – the two could easily be amalgamated.

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There’s not much that can be said about Edamame (£4.50), served with a sprinkle of sea salt as we read the menu and decide what to order. I’d love to see a little inventiveness here, with a couple of options such as a spice and salt blend or even a sticky chilli sauce.

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I have to order Agedashi Tofu (£6.50), one of my staple orders when I go out for Japanese food. Kouzu’s version is another fusion dish, the blocks of fried tofu sitting not in the normal soy and dashi broth but in a glutinous vegetable and fish stock sauce. Whilst I like the sauce well enough, what I’m less keen on is how it smothers the tofu blocks, resulting in a lack of the crisp surface I usually enjoy against the pillowy interior.

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The Portobello Mushroom with Garlic Butter (£6.50) is firmly in the European camp, indeed I’m unable to detect any Japanese influences at all. Whilst the meaty mushroom, herby garlic butter and thick, glossy Madeira sauce are tasty, I find this dish a little at odds with the rest of the menu.

Items From The Charcoal Grill cover the widest price range, from £12 to a whopping £85 (though that is for 200 grams of high grade wagyu rib).

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I absolutely adore the Lamb Chops with Spicy Miso Paste (£12), which are served medium rare, with a selection of grilled vegetables. Lamb meat and fat are both delicious, the miso really works well here. The vegetables are all individually cooked to just the right level of crunch, full of fresh garden flavour and a simply foil to the main.

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Yakitori chicken (£12) is offered shio or tare – the first is served with smoked sea-salt, the second basted in a special soy sauce. I’m expecting it to come in sticks, as that’s how I’ve usually enjoyed it but here the tender pieces of chicken thigh are simply piled on the plate alongside grilled spring onions, peppers and chinese cabbage.

Tempura has a menu section of its own.

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We ask for a mix of the various different vegetables, each available to order separately. Batter is super light and crisp, just as it should be, and each vegetable is perfectly cooked inside.

The Specials section might be mistaken for main dishes, based on the prices, but as they’re not significantly larger than many of the previous dishes, I’d be wary of ordering a traditional two or three course meal and expecting to be satiated.

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Roasted Black Cod (£28) is almost a given on high end Japanese restaurant menus these days. Marinated in miso, it’s perfectly cooked – the signature soft and silky texture that is a trademark of this species of fish is shown off nicely. The white miso sauce is a thing of beauty, and I like the orange and fennel salad, to cut through the richness and lighten the dish.

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Duck Breast with Sansho (£25) is described as being served with a Japanese pepper sauce. However, this is another of the dishes that strikes us as more French than Japanese, with that classic, glossy sauce. The duck is superbly tender and beautifully cooked, as are the vegetables served alongside.

Lastly there is the extensive From The Sushi Bar selection including sashimi, nigiri sushi, sushi rolls and a few more nibbles.

For these we dine at the sushi bar, served by our personal sushi chef, Voy. He is happy to talk to us about the ingredients and I enjoy watching him as he works.

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We run through the fish and seafood we would like to enjoy before Voy starts creating our nigiri sushi, moving from lighter white fish to stronger and fattier ones.

After forming the rice (in a small sized block, just as I requested), all the fish are painted in nikiri, a thin sweet of soy, dashi and mirin, before being grilled with a blowtorch, topped with a garnish and served to individual dishes on the counter.

First is yellowtail (£6 each) with pickled jalapeños and a tiny dribble of truffle oil.

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Next is scallop (£5 each), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with a cherry tomato and ume plum compte and thinly sliced fresh shisho leaf. The shape of those blow torched browned cracks is the cause of much hilarity on my instagram feed!

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Third is salmon (£4.50 each), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with avocado and some minute slivers of katsuobushi.

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For nigiri sushi four, we have a split. I have ikura gunkan nigiri (£4, so named as the shape of the nori wrapper suggests a warship) filled with juicy salmon roe.

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Pete has instead chutoro (£7 each, medium fatty tuna), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with a puree of sundried tomatoes, chopped chives and a couple of bright yellow kiku (edible chrysanthemum) petals.

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Next, Otoro (8.50 each, the fattiest tuna), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with daikon, Japanese mustard cress and a tiny dusting of ichimi togarashi (chilli powder). The balance of rice, fish and garnish is excellent in all the pieces we have, but particularly so in this one, for me.

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We finish our initial selection of with a spicy tuna roll (£8 for six pieces) includes tuna, tobiko (fish roe), crab “miso” (the brown goo from inside a crab), avocado, spicy mayo, cucumber and probably a few more I’ve missed! Again, this has a great balance of flavours and textures.

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Voy asks us if there are any  we’d like to have again, or any new ones we’d like to try.

We pick the salmon and the chutoro to have again, plus I ask if tamago is available.

Voy rings the changes by changing the garnishes second time around, thus the salmon, once painted with nikiri, blowtorched and topped with daikon is finished with ikura and shiso leaves.

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Chutoro is served with the same garnishes as previously, at my request.

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We finish with fat slices of nori-wrapped tamago (£3.50 each), astonishingly light and fluffy. It lacks the tree-bark layers of the traditional cooking method but however it’s made, it’s fabulous.

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At the end, desserts.

On our first visit we are too full, but accept a plate of mini macarons served with our tea. Flavours are super but texture of shell enormously inconsistent.

The next time we finish with a scoop each of sorbet, mine a puckeringly sharp yuzu and Pete’s an unexpectedly creamy chilli cacao. Both are super smooth and served with a stick of light crumbly biscuit.

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Both of us agree that although Kouzu is not a budget dining option, the majority of the dishes are really excellent value for their quality; this is a restaurant we are very keen to return to, albeit most likely for special occasions. My top tip would be to skip the specials, which will quickly ramp up your bill, and select a feast from the new sashimi, grill, small dishes and vegetables sections which are very reasonable. For sushi lovers, an omakase visit to the sushi bar is certainly recommended, our deluxe sushi selection above came to exactly £97 (without drinks, desserts and service).

Service, incidentally, is helpful and friendly without being obsequious or overfamiliar and location is excellent for public transport.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Kouzu restaurant.
Kouzu on Urbanspoon

 

There’s something very indulgent about taking a mini city break in your own city of residence.

Holidays at home (or staycations, in the American vernacular) usually involve heading out of town; a shorter journey than heading abroad, perhaps, but further afield than the place you live. On the rare occasions we allocate leisure time to our local area, we tend to day trip, returning home to our own beds overnight. But booking a night in a hotel in your own city transforms a couple of day trips into what feels more like a proper holiday. It’s so much fun! Added bonuses: the travel is easy, and you don’t need to take much luggage.

Pete and I recently spent a night in the Citizen M Bankside hotel, within easy reach of Borough Market and Maltby Street Market, as well as other local attractions.

Read on for my personal guide to the area, plus a review of the hotel.

Borough Market

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Borough Market needs little introduction from me; a food market much loved by locals and tourists alike.

I love to come and shop here; browsing through the huge array of fresh produce – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables – and a vast selection of other food items; bread, cakes, biscuits and doughnuts, charcuterie, cheese (oh my, such wonderful cheese), honey, truffles, coffee and tea, fresh filled pasta, beers and wines…

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Some of my favourite stops include:

  • Neal’s Yard Dairy is an Aladdin’s cave of cheese – all kinds and all in perfect condition – served by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff who are happy to guide you and give a few tasters as you make your choices; I always buy some delicious Coolea plus an oozer and a goats cheese as well and often a piece of Stichelton.

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Neal’s Yard Dairy

  • Jumi is the outlet of a small and young cheese producer from Switzerland, I recommend their marvellously pungent Murgu (blue) and the creamy soft La Bouse – don’t be put off by the cowdung translation!
  • Cheese lovers will also love The French Comte stall, selling not only the cheese but other items from La Franche-Comté. And there are many more cheese vendors besides these.
  • Utobeer has a fantastic selection of bottled beers, making it a great place to buy gifts for beer lovers.
  • Turnips is one of the larger stalls at Borough, almost a mini-section of the market on its own and has a fabulous range of produce. I often find the fruit and vegetables a little pricy but I do make a beeline for their mushroom stall; there’s a fabulous selection, in very good condition and fairly priced. I can recommend the king oyster mushrooms in particular, but have bought many different mushrooms over the years.
  • Visit The Tomato Stall for full-of-flavour tomatoes and juices from Arreton Valley, on the Isle of Wight.
  • Bread Ahead Bakery has created quite a stir, most notably for their doughnuts, the creation of baker Justin Gellatly. I’ve been unlucky the previous two visits to their stall, once I was too late and the doughnuts had run out and the next visit was over Easter, and they had replaced them with hot cross buns. When I finally got to try them on this visit, I loved them so much I went back for more the very next morning! Of course, do try their other baked products as well.
  • I first discovered Caroline’s Free From Bakehouse after I met her through blogging and social media. She’s won many awards for her gluten-free range and also offers some dairy free and sugar free items in her range.
  • Tartufaia Truffles sell fresh truffles as well as truffle-infused products, including a very tasty truffle honey.
  • If you love charcuterie, you’ll be spoiled by Borough Market, as there are many stalls and shops to choose from, offering British and European charcuterie of different types. I don’t have a single favourite, but have enjoyed items from several stalls over the years.
  • Although you can sometimes now find Chegworth Valley fruit juices in supermarkets and farm shops, you’ll find an impressively wide range here, plus fruit from their farm too.
  • For fish lovers, there are several fresh fish mongers (Furness and Shellseekers are two from whom I’ve bought good quality seafood), I’d suggest checking all of them to see what appeals on the day. You’ll also often find high quality smoked fish and eel on sale; House of Sverre and Muirenn Smokehouse are two such vendors.
  • Meat is readily available too. I’ve loved the game birds and venison I’ve bought from Furness, and the bacon, sausages and various cuts of met from the Ginger Pig. There are also several butchers selling meat directly from the farm, including Rhug Farm, Sillfield Farm, Northfield Farm, Hillhead Farm Wild Beef, Wyndham House Poultry and many others. For those looking for camel, ostrich, zebra, crocodile and various antelope, try The Exotic Meat Company.
  • There are a number of stalls selling products from France, so do explore. I tend to head to Le Marché du Quartier as my first port of call.
  • Indeed, it’s not just France that’s represented at Borough Market; there are stalls selling produce from Argentina, Croatia, Grenada, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Turkey… a lovely way to travel the world without leaving London!
  • I’ve only recently discovered Spice Mountain, but want to explore further, as based on my brief initial visit, they offer a really wide range of spices, including a selection of spice blends.

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There are also an ever-increasing number of street food vendors, selling hot and cold food to eat there and then. I’m not a huge fan of eating on the hoof, so I’ve not paid much attention to these, but there are plenty to choose from.

For more information on traders and opening times, visit the Borough Market website.

 

Cheers!

I’ve already mentioned Utobeer within the market (and there are a number of wine vendors too).

Take a very short detour out of the market proper to Laithwaite’s Wine, at the north end of Stoney Street. It’s a great shop in its own right, with a wide range of wine and helpful staff. But in the Favelle household, it’s better known as the easiest way to reach The Whisky Exchange (the other way in being through Vinopolis); a small shop space housing a truly impressive selection of whiskies from around the world.

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The Whisky Exchange

Back to beer lovers, there are several breweries to visit in the area around Borough, Maltby Street and Bermondsey Street. Look up Anspach & Hobday, Brew by Numbers, Bullfinch, Four Pure, Hiver, Kernel, Southwark Brewing Company, Partizan

Local pubs include The Rake, a favourite with lovers of real ale but frustratingly tiny inside, so best visited during warmer months or very quiet times of the day.

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Umbrella art installation just outside; Brew Wharf

Another great place to stop for a pint or two is Brew Wharf, within the larger Vinopolis complex, which offers a range of beers from London, the rest of the UK and international breweries. They also brew on site in their own microbrewery.

Wine Wharf, just in front, is the wine lovers option; another lovely space in which to enjoy a drink is Bedales Wine Bar and Shop, within the market area.

 

A Warming Pit Stop

I love to stop regularly for coffee or hot chocolate, especially during the colder months, but let’s be honest, I find excuses in the summer too.

The Rabot 1745 cafe sells a tasty selection of hot chocolates; their salted caramel is my current favourite.

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Monmouth Coffee is the best known caffeine option, but I’ve only once been able to find an inside space to sit in all the many visits I’ve made to Borough Market over the years; I’m not one for drinking on the go, nor do the benches outside appeal. The coffee is, of course, super.

Round the corner, Gelateria 3Bis offers coffee, ice cream and hot chocolate and has the advantage that there’s usually a couple of spaces free at the tables and staff are friendly.

For those who don’t mind drinking and walking, there are also a number of takeway coffee vendors within the market.

 

Maltby Street Market

About twenty minutes walk from Borough Market is the much smaller but altogether funkier Maltby Street Ropewalk Market. You might think it’s not worth the walk, since Borough is so much bigger, but you’d be missing out. The small selection of stalls, tucked under the arches or along the narrow alley are charming, and most are not duplicated over at Borough. I don’t think the vendors list on the website is up to date, but there is always a good range of high quality produce, some to buy and take home and some to enjoy on site.

My picks include African Volcano for the best peri peri sauce and delicious hot food made with the same (the sauce itself is a must-buy ingredient but save space to order Grant’s pulled pork in a bun, peri peri prawns or peri peri burger are), Monty’s Deli for pastrami and salt beef sandwiches, Hansen & Lydersen for smoked salmon, St John’s Bakery for doughnuts. There are usually also a range of beer, wine and cocktails on sale from various of the stalls and arches such as Bar Tozino, which also sells fantastic jamón and other tasty Spanish snacks. Next time I visit, I’m keen to try Gosnell’s London Mead.

Open on weekends only, and do check dates as can vary during winter.

If you enjoy rooting through architectural salvage, a rummage in LASSCO is in order, at 41 Maltby Street.

 

Bermondsey Street

Bermondsey Street is the trendy hub of a local community that clearly values good food, a relaxed vibe and quirkiness. Where once it might be have been described as up and coming, it’s now firmly “upped and comed”; gentrified but still rather hip. Deserving of a post in its own right, I’ll simply point you towards Pizzaro (and older sibling Jose) and Zucca and suggest you explore this neighbourhood on your own. Do share your favourite finds with me, though!

 

Tourist Attractions

Southwark Cathedral is an Anglican cathedral, dating mainly from 1220 and 1420, although the nave is a late 19th-century reconstruction. All are welcome to attend services. Visitors may also enter to admire the cathedral, unless it is closed for an event. Do be mindful not to disturb those at worship.

HMS Belfast is a floating naval museum within a warship permanently moored alongside Tower Bridge. Adult entry is £15.50.

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I can’t believe I’ve not yet been inside The Shard, though I’d love to enjoy the views from the higher floors and I’m keen to try Hutong and Lang for high end Chinese and afternoon tea, respectively. You can buy tickets to access the Viewing Gallery online, though be warned, it’s £24.95 for an adult ticket.
 

Eating Out

If I offered a list of every good restaurant within the area, this would soon turn into a book!

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Breakfast at Rabot 1745

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Elliot’s Cafe

Favourites in 2014 include two meals at Rabot 1745 (which offers a great breakfast menu, as well as their regular lunch and dinner offerings), some delicious dishes at Elliot’s Cafe (I did feel a few dishes were much pricier than justified; then again they’re always full!), a simple, tasty and reasonably priced menu at Hixter Bankside (but we had some frustrating issues with service which were eventually resolved by managers but not reflected in the bill), and I’ve always enjoyed Brindisa for a snack or light meal.

 

Hotel Citizen M Bankside

My first encounter with a Citizen M hotel was up in Glasgow; it was the perfect option for an overnight stop en route to Islay and had vastly more positive online reviews than other budget chains I considered. The Bankside property offers much the same and is less than a 10 minute walk from Borough Market.

The immediate vicinity is the focus of a lot of recent development, with several new restaurant and cafe openings along the short stretch between the Blue Fin Building and Citizen M.

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Exterior and internal garden area, images courtesy of CitizenM

Check in is meant to be self-service, with a bank of check in computers provided just by the entrance. It’s very straightforward, so we find it a little disconcerting that there are always at least two members of staff to assist, and they tend to step forward immediately, rather than allow guests to self-service first. It’s friendly, but somewhat negates the point of self-service over a traditional check in desk.

Lifts to residential floors can only be operated by those with a room key card, which is good as the open-plan ground-floor lobby is enormously busy throughout the day and evening.

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Rooms are small but have been very cleverly designed to maximise space, and a lot of thought has been given to convenience and comfort; these are too often overlooked in favour of funky design. Beds are huge and very comfortable (though rather high off the ground, and it’s a bit of a clamber for whoever gets the window side). Storage is minimal but sufficient for a one or two night stay. Keeping the sink outside of the bathroom cubicle makes both seem more generous; the shower is much larger than the cruise-ship-style pods often used by budget chains. Much appreciated touches include a large TV with a good selection of films available on demand (and without extra charge), power sockets that cater for various international plugs, a USB charging point and a funky lighting system that allows you to set mood with coloured lighting; I particularly appreciated the ability to keep an unobtrusive red light on in the bathroom pod overnight. Despite the small size, I find the Citizen M rooms more comfortable and appealing than many poorly designed larger rooms I’ve stayed in over the years.

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Another thing I enjoy about Citizen M hotels is the very bright, colourful and quirky design. The public spaces are a sensory overload of funky lighting and Vitra furniture, and all kinds of artwork and random objects to add interest. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I love it, and very much enjoyed wandering around peering at all the things.

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Ground floor spaces

The lobby is cleverly divided into areas for lounging around reading or chatting, for working (power sockets provided), for eating breakfast, for relaxing. The only slight issue is that, as it’s open to non-residents too, it can be hard to find space during busier times.

You may decide not to eat at the hotel, surrounded as you are by so many fantastic food options, but the hotel does provide breakfast and dinner. The former is in the form of a breakfast buffet; you can either include it when you book or pay on the day, as you prefer. The quality is better than I’ve experienced at far more expensive hotels, the pain au chocolat was superb, and the sausages and bacon good quality. For dinner there are just a handful of choices, but again, what I tried was tasty and decent value too. You are also permitted to bring food in from outside, so go ahead and buy yourself a picnic from Borough Market or order a takeaway from a local restaurant.

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Top row, breakfast; bottom row, dinner

In another nice change from other budget chains I’ve stayed in (and indeed, higher end places in the UK too), service is friendly and helpful to everyone, something we noticed at the Glasgow property as well.

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View into the internal atrium area from the corridor to our room

I’ve also now signed up for the free-to-join Citizen M club which gives me 15% off the best available rate when booking future rooms at any of the Citizen M hotels.

 

Kavey Eats were guests of Citizen M Bankside hotel.

 

One of the pleasures of a holiday in France is simple, classic meals in inexpensive local restaurants serving the same dishes they have been serving for generations. They are all about delicious food; familiar rather than innovative. Service is warm and friendly and you wish you could visit more often. You feel envious of the locals who are able to enjoy such a place as their neighbourhood joint.

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Images courtesy of Le Garrick gallery

Having often been disappointed by French restaurants in London I no longer expect to come across a place like this here in the UK. Even less so in the Tourist Heartland between Leicester Square and Covent Garden. So it was with a little trepidation that I accepted an invitation to visit Le Garrick, now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The offering is simple – classic regional French food in a cosy, casual setting. Reading the menu is a stroll down memory lane for any of a hundred happy trips to France over the years.

There are a few tables upstairs but most are down a (rather terrifying) spiral staircase; the underground space is atmospheric but too dark for me, especially at our table which lacks an overhead light anywhere close by. Eating by candlelight may be romantic but when it’s difficult to read the menu, it’s time to dial it up just a notch or two.

My little point and shoot camera struggled as much as we did. The only one that could “see” at all was my SLR using my 50mm lens wide open at f1.8 – sorry, that’s for fellow camera geeks! Luckily, the wonders of technology allows me to pull the details out and make the colour less candlelight orange, so you can actually see what we ordered much better than we could!

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A basket of bread. Freshly cut so the surfaces are still soft – should go without saying but is so often not the case!

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La Soupe à L’Oignon (£4.95) is excellent. Full of all the really deep beefy flavours and dark, dark onion that you could ask for. Top marks.

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The presentation of the Foie Gras Du Sud Ouest (£8.95) could be a little slicker – I’m not looking for extra frills on the dish but there’s something a little forlorn about an enormous plate with a slice of terrine at one end and two pieces of toast at the other. Of course, that’s irrelevant next to taste and texture, which are very good indeed and I love the homemade fig jam as well.

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We both order steaks – the Onglet Sauce Au Poivre (£12.50) for Pete and the Faux Filet Sauce au Béarnaise (£17.95) for me. All the steaks can be ordered with either pepper sauce or Béarnaise, by the way.

The service is let down a little by the steaks being delivered and identified by the sauces on the plate and not the cut of steak, so I accept the one with Béarnaise and Pete the one with pepper. Since they’ve put the wrong sauce on both plates, it takes us a few moments to notice the error and swap back, which is fine when dining with your partner or close friends, but less so if you don’t know your companions quite well enough to swap once you’ve already started eating.

That minor quibble aside, the steaks are tasty and the sauces particularly so. (Be warned, the Béarnaise is made with plenty of tarragon so choose pepper if you can’t handle a heavy punch of aniseed). We assume the anaemic-looking fries must surely be undercooked but actually, they are perfect to eat.

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We stick to personal favourites for dessert with a Crème brulée (£5.50) and the Petit pot au chocolat (£6.95).

Pete’s enthusiastic about the generous layer of properly bruléed sugar on top but feels the texture of the custard is closer to what you’d usually find in a crème caramel, a little too firm for his preference. Tasty though.

My pudd has that splendid almost chewy texture of a really dense pot au chocolat. It’s a touch too sweet for me, but my chocolate tastes have changed so much over the years. I’d prefer a little more bitterness from a good dark chocolate. It’s very nice though, and we finish the lot!

Throughout, service is friendly and warm to all tables, with the staff engaging in friendly banter with everyone, newcomers and regulars alike. I like that!

The bill is more reasonable than I expected for both the location and the quality of food. With our dinner we have a 500 ml carafe of red (wines are reasonably priced for London) and Pete has a Bruichladdich whisky instead of coffee. Our bill comes to just over £80 plus service. Of course that’s more than you’d pay for the equivalent in a rural neighbourhood restaurant in France, but property rents, rates, wages and food costs are much higher here too.

We are happy to have discovered a restaurant that does credit to our familiar French favourites and will definitely be back soon.

 

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Le Garrick restaurant.

Le Garrick on Urbanspoon

 

Pete and I have quickly become regular visitors to Yijo Restaurant since our first visit just a couple of months ago. Head chef Jun Pyo Kwon serves up a delicious, authentic and very reasonably priced menu in this unassuming neighbourhood restaurant, just by Central Finchley tube station. You may have tried Jun Pyo’s cooking before, as he developed the menu and launched Kimchee restaurant in Holborn; of course, its location dictated the need to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. During one of our many chats, Jun Pyo explained his desire to open up his own place, where he could offer customers his personal insight into Korean cooking.

The restaurant specialises in Korean barbecue – which I mentally think of as yakiniku even though that’s a Japanese term – but there is also a range of other delicious dishes, with more to come soon – Jun Pyo and restaurant manager Cindy Roberts are finalising a new menu which will be available shortly.

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first image from Google

Of course, the Korean barbecue is excellent. It’s such a sociable (not to mention delicious) dining experience cooking, talking, eating, cooking, talking, eating…

You can choose individual plates of meat or go for one of the mixed platters, which are excellent value and generous too.

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We’ve also tried several other dishes including jap chae (sweet potato glass noodles and vegetables stir fried), tteokbokki (squidgy rice cakes in a fiery sauce), chicken mari (rice paper chicken and vegetable wrapped rolls), bokkeumbap (stir fried rice) and of course, a variety of pickles and salads.

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Yijo Cooking Classes

We’ve also had great fun attending Yijo’s recently launched cooking classes, learning how to make kimchi in the first and making our own tofu (and several dishes using it) in the second. Both the classes we attended were held in the restaurant over a Saturday long lunch but Yijo are also offering classes in a central London cooking school.

In the kimchi class, Jun Pyo shares a wealth of information about the different varieties of kimchi enjoyed in Korea, and lots of tips about variations we can make to the recipe he shares with us. Each student makes their own kimchi to take home – one to ferment and age, the other to enjoy fresh. At the end of the class, we are served a traditional meal of tofu, kimchi and pork.

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In the tofu class, as the process is more time consuming, Jun Pyo explains how to soak the beans and then demonstrates how to grind and strain them to make soy milk. Then we work in pairs to cook pots of soy milk, which Cindy and Jun Pyo made earlier in the morning, adding coagulant and straining into tofu presses when ready. Again, Jun Pyo shares tips on how to achieve a richer almondy flavour and ideas on how to create flavoured tofu. This time, we go on to make three dishes using our fresh tofu – a stew made from the leftover ground soy beans, a simple salad of fresh tofu and dressing and a fried kimchi and tofu dish. We sit down to enjoy these together after the class.

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Each student is able to take a block of home made tofu away with them, plus a pot of the leftover ground beans. Pete and I coat ours in panko breadcrumbs and deep fry them for a quick and tasty lunch the next day.

These classes are a really wonderful way to learn more about Korean cuisine and the practical nature of the classes will give you the confidence to recreate the dishes at home. Check out all Yijo’s classes and events here.

 

Kavey Eats attended the cooking classes as guests of Yijo restaurant.
Yijo on Urbanspoon

 

I left the decision of where to eat on my birthday till a few days before. Twitter friends kindly helped me create a shortlist of fabulous options but in the end I remembered my longstanding desire to visit Scott Hallsworth’s Kurobuta Izakaya to try his small plate menu of inventive, modern Japanese food.

True to the nature of an izakaya (most commonly loosely translated as a pub), Kurobuta (which itself is the name for prized black pig breeds in Japan) is a casual environment with a relaxed and friendly vibe and friendly service.

The food is a step above casual, however; it shows enormous attention to detail, creative flavour and texture combinations, beautiful presentations and an appealingly wide range of choices.

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Fresh ginger-ade was punchy and balanced. My sake choice matched the menu description exactly and was light and delicate.

Guided by the cheerful Sam, we initially chose 6 dishes between two of us, adding one more savoury and a dessert to our meal later.

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Baby Shrimp Tempura with Spicy Mayo and Warm Ponzu Dipping Sauces (£10)

Superb quality prawns in a perfectly crisp batter – albeit a thicker one that I’d usually describe as tempura – these were served hot out of the fryer, with a simple spiced mayonnaise and thin ribbons of onion. Pete usually refuses to eat prawns but was persuaded by the unusually soft texture. An excellent start!

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Miso Grilled Baby Chicken with Spicy Lemon Garlic Sauce (£12)

Moist pieces of chicken. A good balance between sweet sticky marinade and a little acidity from the lemony sauce.

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Roasted Scallop with Yuzu Truffle Egg sauce and Yuzu Tobiko (£12)

A lovely combination of tastes and textures; large plum scallops, very fresh and cooked just right, with a beautifully rich sauce – essentially a Hollandaise made with yuzu in place of lemon; garnishes carefully chosen to add more complexity of texture.

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Beer Grilled Beef Fillet with Wasabi Salsa (£17)

This was the most expensive dish we ordered; I would probably have hesitated had it not been a celebratory occasion. But I’m so glad we did – a generous pile of very tender and perfectly cooked beef with enoki mushrooms and a real kick to the sauce and salsa.

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Nasu Dengaku; Sticky Miso Grilled Aubergine with Candied Walnuts (£8.50)

I adore nasu dengaku and this rendition didn’t disappoint. I missed the added texture of the skin, though that was cleverly replaced with the sweet, sticky, crunchy candied walnuts atop each cube of aubergine. The flesh was beautifully cooked to bring out the natural flavour, and enhanced by a beautiful miso marinade.

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Spicy Tuna Maki Rolled in Tempura Crunchies (£8.50)

There was nothing wrong with this dish; I enjoyed it well enough and particularly liked the subtle added crunch of the tempura batter stuck to the surfaces. But it was far more ordinary than everything else we ordered, and was the one dish I wouldn’t order again.

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Japanese Mushrooms Grilled on Hoba Leaf with Gorgonzola, Miso and Pinenuts (£9.75)

If you’re an umami addict, this dish cannot be beaten. The combination of mushrooms, miso, creamy melted blue cheese and pinenuts was a revelation and I have been dreaming about this one dish more than any other, in the week since we visited. Magical!

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Spiced kombu compressed pineapple, coconut & lemongrass sorbet, caramel, lemon sponge, crumble (£8.50)

A new dessert on the menu, designed by Filip Gemzell, Kurobuta’s executive pastry chef, this is another highly unusual but beautifully balanced dish with lots of flavours and textures to explore. Gemzell kindly gave me additional information about the amazing pineapple – he compresses it in kombu, green chilli, red pepper, lemongrass, Szechuan pepper, vanilla, salt and sugar. About the other wow element on the plate, the coconut and lemon grass sorbet, he was more cagey but it’s such a light, refreshing and delightful combination, I’m going to have a go at recreating it myself. And yes, that’s a birthday candle they snuck on for me too!

The key word that pervades the entire menu is ’balance’ of elements, flavours, textures. Ingredients are consistently high quality, the menu is imaginative, each dish is exciting to eye and palate and service is friendly, smooth and focused on ensuring that all customers enjoy a wonderful meal.

Kurobuta on Urbanspoon

Kurobuta is one of six Japanese restaurants participating in Japanese Journey, an experience organised by Suntory Whisky and the 2014 London Restaurant Festival, whereby diners make their way between the six restaurants and enjoy a Suntory whisky highball and a dish or selection plate at each. Pete and I were invited to preview half the journey at Sticks n Sushi, Shoryu and Chisou Mayfair. Check out photos from our evening on my Instagram page.

 

Yao Yao Cha means Shake Shake Tea in Chinese. The naming approach tickles me and certainly the little shop in London’s Seven Dials area has shaken up the local bubble tea market since it opened earlier this year. Yao Yao Cha’s founder and owner Susan Fang was born in Taiwan but has lived in New York, Dubai, Seoul, Beijing and now London (a city she describes as the most vibrant she’s lived in to date; I’ll drink bubble tea to that!)

In launching this business she wanted to bring us an authentic taste from her childhood, adding global influences gleaned from her globetrotting lifestyle.

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The storefront on Earlham Street and Dagaz, our friendly server

The menu offers classic Taiwanese bubble tea options alongside modern, global flavours.

Bubble tea (aka boba tea), for those who’ve not come across it before, is simply a glass of (usually) sweetened tea with a generous spoonful of tapioca pearls at the bottom. Served with an extra wide straw that allows you to suck the little spheres of tapioca up as you drink. I’ve found that most people either love or hate the chewy texture of the tapioca, with some of my friends describing them as frogspawn (how do they know?) and others delighting in the bounce, as I do.

Most bubble drink cafes sell a variety of drinks, so if tea isn’t your thing (and there are quite a few different teas to choose from) you one of a range of frappés instead. For tea drinkers, there’s matcha green tea, a range of fruit-flavoured jasmine green teas, several black teas including ones flavoured with salted caramel, chocolate, strawberry and lemon. Frappés include blueberry, mango, passion fruit, chocolate and even crème brulée!

The teas can be ordered hot or cold, though personally I think cold works best with bubbles.

Don’t worry if you don’t think you’ll like traditional bubbles either; another option is to order your drink with fruit pop spheres – tiny liquid-filled spheres available in a range of flavours, with not a hint of chewiness to them. Or maybe you’d prefer a flavoured jelly, chopped into teeny tiny cubes?

Teas are £3.50/ £4.50 (regular/ large) and include a portion of tapioca. Frappés are £4.00 and include one flavour of fruit pops or jelly. Extra fruit pops or jellies can be added to any of the drinks.

Oh and, if you visit in the evening, YYC are usually running a 2 for 1 offer on the bubble teas.

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Sweet milky black tea with lychee pops and salted caramel black tea with tapioca pearls.

Newer to the menu is the range of shaved ice desserts, known as baobing in Chinese and hugely popular across China and much of East Asia.

We had a lovely time chatting to Dagaz who came to London from Taiwan just a few months ago and is really enjoying working in Yao Yao Cha, improving his English and exploring the architecture of London.

On his recommendation, we went for one traditional shaved ice (with condensed milk syrup, taro, crème brulée pudding, tapioca pearls and red bean paste) and one modern option with fruit pops and jellies and a mango fruit syrup.

Tapioca pearls are included for free (if you want them) and the £5 price includes three additional toppings of your choice. Of course, you can add more if you like, for 50 pence per topping. Portions are enormous and one is plenty for two to share, or even three if you’ve just stuffed yourself with huge bowls of ramen, as we had!

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Shaved ice with traditional toppings; shaved ice with mango syrup and a selection of fruit pops and jellies

With lots of great restaurants in the immediate vicinity, I hope lots of Londoners discover the pleasure of a shaved ice dessert. With all the sugary toppings, it’s not a healthier option but it makes a refreshing alternative to the creaminess of ice cream and it’s particularly appealing when the weather is warm.

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of Yao Yao Cha.

 

I said a couple of years ago that 2012 was the year of ramen. That was prompted by the opening of four fabulous ramenya in London, each one selling a vastly more exciting (and generally, more authentic) offering than the Wagamama-style facsimile that was prevalent at the time. Since then, the enthusiasm for real ramen has continued to grow unabated – some of the four brands I mentioned in 2012 have launched new outlets; we’ve also seen the opening of United Ramen (which I tried last year during their pop-up phase and went to more recently when they launched their permanent location in Islington) and Ramen Sasuke (which I’m visiting soon). Old hand Ramen Seto (formerly of Oriental City) has moved into a new home near Camden Lock. The famous Ippudo chain is opening in London very soon too.

My latest ramen splurping was at another new kid on the block, Kanada-Ya, which opened without fanfare on the 2nd of this month, directly across the street from Ippudo’s soon-to-open shop. Located on St Giles High Street, steps away from Tottenham Court Road tube station (and the hub of several bus routes), Kanada-Ya brings to London a successful Japanese ramenya founded in Kyushu by Kanada Kazuhiro just 5 years ago. The London store is their third store, with their second being in Hong Kong – a very international expansion from the start!

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With the protocol-chain hailing from Yukuhashi in Fukuoka Prefecture, it is no surprise that Kanada-Ya offers tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen, in the Hakata or Fukuoka style.

Indeed, the menu is very short and simple with just three variations on ramen – all featuring the same base broth, so no options for vegetarians – plus a short list of extras and an even shorter list of onigiri (stuffed rice balls).

I’m surprised not to see gyoza as in Japan, the little dumplings were offered by all the ramenya we visited, but mollified when a member of staff confirms that their Japanese branch does indeed sell gyoza and they hope to do so here too, going forward. The challenge for the gyoza is that, like their ramen broth and noodles (more of which in a moment), they make not only the gyoza filling but the wrappers too by hand and want to make sure they can do justice to their own standards before adding to the menu here in London.

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Pete orders the Moyashi Ramen (£11) which features Kanada-Ya’s 18 hour pork broth, chashu pork belly, wood ear fungus, nori, spring onion and blanched beansprouts. And noodles, of course!

The pork broth is really rather good. Regularly skimmed as it cooks, it’s rich in flavour but light in texture. Tonkotsu is a difficult style to get right; I find some lighter broths too insipid but others with richer flavour so oily as to leave an unpleasant oil slick on your lips. Kanada-Ya achieves a great balance.

The noodles are absolutely excellent! Kanada-Ya make them on site using a specialist machine imported from Japan, that uses a special flour enriched with protein and alkaline salts. They offer the noodles cooked soft, regular, hard or extra hard; both of us find regular to be spot on. I reckon the texture of these noodles is the best I’ve tried in London ramenya so far.

Best of all are the Hanjuku eggs (which you need to order as an extra item). These blow any other ramen eggs I’ve tried out of the tonkotsu! They’re truly magnificent!

Chasu pork belly looks like it might be dry but actually proves to be soft and tasty, though not the best I’ve had.

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I order the Chashu Men (£12.50), which comes with a much larger portion of pork but collar instead of belly. It’s still soft and tastes good but I miss the fat. What I’d really like is the option of this much pork but belly rather than collar. Other than that, the only difference from the Moyashi is no blanched beansprouts.

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Curious about another of the extras, we order a portion of Black Garlic Sauce for £1. It has a lovely charred roast garlic flavour; rather than mix it into our broths, we dip occasional bites of food into it.

That includes the salmon onigiri we order. It’s odd to see these rice balls on the menu, as I’ve not encountered them in ramenya before, though of course they’re a popular snack across Japan. Perhaps they’re an easier option to produce while gyoza are not available? Our sake salmon-filled ones (£3 for 1, £4 or 2) are decent but the salmon inside is a little dull. The ume pickled plum (£2.50 for 1, £3.50 for 2) ones might be worth a try.

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On the drinks front, there are soft drinks only including the regular soft drinks and water, plus hot and cold tea, calpis and Japanese lemonade.

At the moment, they don’t list any desserts but offered us a taste of the ice cream mochi they hope to add to the menu soon. To my delight, these are Little Moons ice cream mochi, a brand I first encountered last year courtesy of United Ramen and they are very tasty indeed. We try the yuzu ice cream mochi (served with popping candy) and the matcha ones. Both excellent.

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With just 24 covers at traditional counter seating, Kanada-Ya is set to be a popular choice for the growing hoard of London’s noodle-splurping ramen lovers.

 

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Kanada-Ya.
Kanada-Ya on Urbanspoon

 

I recently started a new job in Victoria, an area jam-packed with mediocre chain restaurants and coffee shops. When I asked food friends for recommendations, Uni was a name that popped up more than once, with its salmon tacos singled out for particular praise. Taco shells filled with salmon tartare isn’t a dish I’ve ever come across before, so of course, I was intrigued.

It turns out that although Uni takes its name from the Japanese for sea urchin, it’s not a straight Japanese restaurant. Rather, it describes itself as offering Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian food. Japanese food is enormously popular in parts of South America; indeed Brazil is home to the largest population of people of Japanese descent outside of Japan and Peru the second largest. My only reference for the term Nikkei was the Tokyo stock index but I’ve now learned that it’s also a term for American Japanese.

In the main part, the menu is more Japanese than Peruvian, which is not a big surprise when you learn that head chef Rolando Ongcoy once worked at Nobu. The advantage of Ongcoy’s fusion background is an openness to innovate, resulting in some welcome twists on Japanese classics.

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Images courtesy of Uni restaurant

Located on a quiet residential street steps away from Victoria station, Uni is a strange place. The front door opens onto a mid-floor landing part way up a terrifyingly transparent staircase; up leads to white leather stools around a marble counter which comes across like an over-monied art student’s wet dream – I can’t say I’m a fan; downstairs is thankfully much more understated, with soft brown fabrics and no lurid art. There are a lot of covers squeezed into a very tiny space – our corner table was tucked beneath the staircase itself, though I’ll admit it didn’t feel particularly claustrophobic.

The downside downstairs is the tight size of the tables – with small personal plates, water and a drink each on the table, it was a struggle to find space for one dish let alone two or three.

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The drinks list has more of a Peruvian influence with Pisco Sours available, as well as a coconut-based Chilli Mojito. As someone who genuinely adores Midori (melon liqueur) I couldn’t resist the Midoroska (£9.50) which was a simple but delicious and refreshing combination of vodka, midori, sugar & lime. Pete had a Sapporo beer (£4.50).

As well as the cocktails list (alcoholic and non-) there is a small range of sake (including a sweeter sparkling option) and red, white, rosé and sparkling wine. For beer drinkers, there are just two – Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo. The whisky list reveals a big missed opportunity – not a single Japanese whisky is listed!

As we read the rest of the menu, we had some edamame (£4) with sea salt flakes to start.

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Of course, we ordered the salmon tacos (£6) as one of our selection of starters. Described as salmon tartare, cucumber, tomato, masago and creamy miso, I understood on first bite why these garnered such praise from fellow visitors – the crunch of the delicate taco shell is an excellent textural balance to the soft fish inside. I don’t think I’d had masago (caplin fish roe) before but, as part of a mixed mouthful, I didn’t detect a difference from ikura (salmon roe).

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Although I knew the Japanese words of a number of individual seaweeds such as kombu, wakame, arame and hijiki I wasn’t familiar with kaiso, which is the word for seaweed.

I don’t know which types this kaiso seaweed salad with goma dressing (£6) contained but, once again, the balance of tastes and textures was spot on. I love Japanese sesame dressings and could eat this salad every day.

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Peruvian tiraditos are somewhat like (seafood) carpaccio, ceviche and sashimi but not the same as any of them. I’d say the cut of the fish is a little thicker than carpaccio, a little thinner than sashimi and the spicy dressing is not the same as that used to cure ceviche (for which the fish is more commonly chopped rather than sliced too).

We chose the yellowtail tiraditos (£15.50) and found the small plate of fish superbly fresh and beautifully dressed (with kizami wasabi, yuzu & fresh mint). But at over £2.50 per slice of fish, it was steeply priced.

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I really enjoyed the tempura rock shrimp (£15) that our waiter Nachos encouraged us to try, particularly dipped into the creamy spicy sauce. Again, pricy but a decent portion and very sweet, tasty shrimp.

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I’m more of a fan of sashimi (3 pieces per order) than sushi (2 pieces per order) but I like that all the toppings are available either way.

We decided on an order of ibodai (butterfish £6) and toro (fatty tuna £9.50), as these are always part of my sashimi tray when I buy freshly cut sashimi to eat at home from my local Atari-ya shop. Again, the superb quality of fish was impressive.

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The highlight of the meal for me was uni in the shell (£9); I’ve never encountered such fresh, sweet uni in London! The beautiful presentation was just icing on the cake (or should I say ice in the bowl?) against the smooth, creamy treat of the sea urchin roe.

If you’re a fan of uni, you should visit for this one dish, let alone the rest.

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Unagi (eel) is another Japanese classic I love, not least for the traditional sticky sweet sauce it’s commonly glazed with. The unagi maki (£6) with nori and cucumber was excellent.

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Although friends raved about Uni’s wagyu steak, the wagyu tataki (£23) was the most disappointing dish of the meal for me. Served with ponzu, truffle oil & crispy garlic, I felt that the citrus notes in the ponzu sauce completely overpowered the flavours of the beef as well as the truffle oil, which I was unable to detect. Texture-wise, the beef wasn’t remotely as marbled as the (low and medium) grade wagyu I had in Japan; that beef was so rich with fat that it melted on the tongue just like fatty tuna. The garlic crisps were delightful but overall, I wouldn’t recommend this dish.

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For dessert, we shared the mochi moriawase (£6), an attractively presented plate of 4 different mochi – black sesame, yuzu, strawberry cheesecake and chocolate. All were delicious, and we couldn’t agree on a favourite.

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I finished with a pot of genmaicha (£3.50), served in beautiful tea pot and cup.

This was a wonderful meal, no doubt about it. We enjoyed nearly everything and really loved several of the dishes.

Certainly Uni is a little pricy, but the uncompromisingly excellent quality ingredients go a fair way to justifying that. We were greedy – not to mention keen to sample all the sections of the menu – and you certainly don’t need to order quite as much as we did, but if you do, the food above comes to £53 per person, with drinks and service on top of that. Take out just a couple of items, such as the traditos and the edamame and it’s already down to £43 a head (food bill) and still a generous feast.

Work is always busy but I’m keen to slip out one lunch time and try Uni’s bento box offering and of course, I doubt I’ll be able to resist a return visit for that uni soon!

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Uni restaurant.

Square Meal

 

A Friendly Argument

I wasn’t expecting an invitation to The House of Ho. I got into a friendly argument with Bobby Chinn you see…

I was a guest in the audience for a panel discussion about the Future of London’s Dining Scene hosted by Land Securities, a property development company behind the new Nova complex in Victoria. Nicholas Lander (former restaurateur and FT restaurant correspondent) chaired the discussion, with input from Henry Dimbleby (founder of Leon), Kate Spicer (journalist), Martin Morales (restaurateur, founder of Ceviche) and Bobby Chinn (restaurateur, founder of The House of Ho).

In reality, there was very little discussion on the future of the dining scene. Instead, the chatting was mainly centred on where we are today, how we got here and what is popular right now. The rise of social media and blogging was inevitably raised, during which Bobby Chinn took issue with a blogger who’d posted a review of his restaurant after visiting on the first day. He was also frustrated by that blogger’s willingness to pass comment on the authenticity of his Vietnamese food without ever having stepped foot in Vietnam.

As input from the audience was encouraged, I stood up and asked a question. Was the visit during a soft launch, with reduced prices to mitigate potential teething issues or was the restaurant charging full prices on the date of the visit? On the first full price day, he replied. Whilst I agree that it’s a little surprising to pass judgement on a new restaurant so early on, I pointed out that bloggers are not professional food critics, rather we are, in the main part, enthusiastic consumers with a voice. As such, if a restaurant is charging customers full price for its food, it should accept being judged on that basis.

We had a bit of friendly but passionate back and forth on the topic (with Bobby suggesting that bloggers might like to sink their own money into opening a new restaurant to appreciate how it feels) before Nick moved the discussion forward.

I should add too that Bobby clarified that bloggers have been pretty good for his business on the whole and he’s appreciated their coverage, which has mainly been positive.

After the panel session was over, I made my way over to introduce myself properly to Bobby and to say that, whilst I don’t tend to review restaurants quite that early on, mostly because I rarely rush to visit when places are so new, I stood by my statement that full prices means being fully open to criticism. Also, I felt that he had conflated two distinct issues – the right or wrongs of posting a review in the early days and the rights and wrongs of commenting on authenticity of a cuisine without the experience or knowledge to do so intelligently. I wondered if his frustration at the second aspect was colouring his feedback on the first.

In any case, I thanked him for engaging in debate so openly and exchanged business cards.

To my delight, as I was getting ready to leave at the end of the evening, Ranjit Mathrani (one of the owners of Veeraswamy, Chutney Mary and Masala Zone restaurants) approached me, shook my hand and told me he was in complete agreement with me, that I had spoken well and he too felt that as soon as a restaurant is charging full price, it should expect to be judged.

A week later, an unexpected invitation arrived from The House of Ho’s marketing manager, inviting me to come in and visit. After such an intense and engaging first meeting with owner Bobby, I couldn’t say no!

Bobby Chinn

So, who is Bobby Chinn? Well, as I discovered, he’s a larger than life character with a story to match. In his recently published cookbook, Bobby Chinn’s Vietnamese Food, he describes himself as an “ethnic mutt” – half Chinese-half Egyptian – who grew up in New Zealand, England and America. I suggest you read the book to follow the story in full but in a nutshell: in the mid 1990s Chinn’s father identified Vietnamese cuisine as one that would soon explode in popularity around the world. So Bobby moved to Vietnam, having recently discovered a love and skill for cooking, ended up establishing restaurants in Saigon then Hanoi, and became a genuine authority on authentic Vietnamese cooking in the process. At the same time, he launched his television career with a show about Asian food for Discovery Network Travel and Living.

In December last year, he opened his first UK restaurant, The House of Ho, bringing his brand of Vietnamese cooking to London. Whilst some of the menu is a faithful rendition of traditional dishes, the rest is Bobby’s modern take on Vietnamese cuisine, bringing modern and international ingredients and techniques into play. His book gives more background on the food he loves to cook, full of stories of street food vendors he persuaded to share their secrets, and the thought processes behind dishes he developed himself.

The House of Ho

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In fact, the menu is a little confusing. Dishes are divided between sections for Light & Raw, Hot & Grilled, Ho’s Dishes, Sides and Dessert. Pricing suggests that the first two sections might be starters, with Ho’s Dishes being larger, but we’re advised that the whole menu is about small sharing plates and are recommended to order 5 to 7 dishes between two, with no real guidance on balancing between the sections.

A Saigon beer (£4.50) and a refreshing Rosy Lemonade (rose petal, kumquat, lemongrass syrup and lemonade £4.50) kick off the meal and soon, our dishes begin to arrive.

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First to come out (in that “dishes will arrive when they’re ready” style of service that make life easier for the kitchen but less predictable for punters) is the BBQ Baby Back Ribs on a Light Asian Slaw (£6 from Hot & Grilled). The ribs are classic American Barbecue and the meat just the right texture – falling away from bone easily but not so soft it’s like baby food. Nice but not very Asian. That requirement is covered by the Asian slaw, which I really enjoy – light, crunchy and refreshing, though quite mild in overall flavour.

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Stuffed Tofu with a Mushroom Medley, Cellophane Noodles in Tomato Sauce (£5 from Hot & Grilled) is a pretty dish. Crisp-skinned soft tofu with a slightly bland filling of teeny tiny mushrooms and noodles, served on a puddle of rich classic European tomato sauce that would be the pride of any Italian mama. I ask Bobby about the dish later; he tells me that the original Vietnamese dish is a more rustic affair with a tomato sauce mixed into mushrooms, noodles and tofu. Knowing little about what is available in Vietnam, I wonder if the sauce is an influence of the French colonial period?

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Another prettily presented dish arrives, the Spicy Salmon Tartare, Chopped Pistachio, Shiso, Jicama with Asian Vinaigrette (£7, Light & Raw). This is excellent, with punchy flavours and some great textures. I’d never have thought of pistachios with salmon but love the combination. Those rice crackers are a thing of beauty and perfect to scoop up the mixed tartare.

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I like The ‘Shaking Beef’, Grass-Fed, 21 Day-Aged Fillet (£14, Ho’s Dishes) better than Pete. We both appreciate the excellent quality of the meat, and how very tender it is. Pete finds the flavours a little too understated, but I love the freshness and tastes of the mixed micro herbs, which add a lot to the dish. Even with the quality of the beef, it’s a little pricy for the portion, given that it includes no vegetables or rice.

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I absolutely love the Apple-Smoked Pork Belly, Braised Cabbage. Egg (£11, Ho’s Dishes) though, goodness me, there’s hardly any cabbage at all – more of a garnish – and two egg halves would make it a better sharing dish. But the fatty pork belly is cooked to perfection and the rich caramelised sauce is very good indeed.

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The portion of Lemongrass Monkfish with a Fish Caramel Sauce (£12, Ho’s Dishes) is disappointingly small for the price tag, though the tastes and textures are lovely. It’s not cloyingly sweet, indeed the key flavour is that of the lemongrass, with the welcome addition of the spring onions.

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A side of Morning Glory (£4, Sides) is simply, tasty and adds some much needed greenery. A jasmine rice (£2.50) is good to mop up juices.

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I often find chocolate desserts in Asian restaurants (of various nationalities) far too sweet so the Molten Marou Chocolate Cake (£6.50, Dessert)  is a pleasant surprise. Excellent quality dark chocolate is used to flavour a small cake, cooked just right to give a gooey centre.

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I love my little Lemon-Scented Creme Brulee (£5.50, Dessert). Pete thinks it’s too small, especially as the price point is that of a full size dessert, but the creamy richness and flavour means I’m not too disappointed though he’s right that I could happily have eaten a little more!

Not in the mood for drinking, we don’t pay much attention to the wine menu, but I do enjoy a shot of Misty Mountain, Junmai Usu-nigori Sake, (£6.50 for 50ml) with dessert. When I dither over my sake choice, the waitress kindly suggests bringing me a taster of the two I’m choosing between, which is a nice touch.

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Overall, we enjoy the meal. With such a short menu, I’d like to see more space given over to classic Vietnamese dishes, though I enjoyed Bobby’s interpretations well enough. Ingredients are of good quality, presentation is appealing and I’m always a fan of sharing a higher number of small plates rather than a couple of full size ones.

And I must comment on the beautiful crockery which contributed much to the visual presentation of the dishes – Bobby has an almost Japanese sensibility in the choice of beautiful individual dishes to showcase his food.

Pricing is a bit high, even taking into account the heart-of-Soho location – the BBQ ribs are good value, and the tartare and tofu fair, but the shaking beef and lemongrass monkfish are pricy. With our very limited drinks order, our bill would be around a ton (were we not dining as guests).

Service hasn’t been as consistent as I’d hoped. The tasters of sake were much appreciated. But it has been hard to attract attention even before the restaurant was full and it has sometimes been lacking in focus; at one point, our waitress turned away from us as I was mid-sentence, in reaction to a discussion between the customers and waitress at the table behind us, continued to observe their conversation for the next several minutes, and then wandered off in reaction to it, leaving us with our mouths open and no chance to complete our request. The friendliness is here, but not the attention.

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I did enjoy our window table, looking out on the hustle and bustle of Soho; it’s not every day you see two fundraising teletubbies wandering past as you dine!

 

Kavey Eats dined as guests of The House of Ho.
The House of Ho on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

 

Back in the late 1990s, a friend took me to Matsuri St James. It was a fair bit pricier than the restaurants we more commonly visited, but he’d heard good things about the food and was keen to try. Most of the clientele were Japanese and virtually all of them were men, probably a factor of its location within walking distance of the Japanese Embassy, the authenticity of its cuisine and the suitability of the teppanyaki experience for corporate dining, when Suits with expense accounts entertain groups of Important People.

We enjoyed it immensely. The food was excellent and the teppanyaki spectacle both entertaining but understated. I dropped a business card into a box and was delighted to win a meal for two, which gave me the opportunity to enjoy another fine meal there a few weeks later.

Somehow, after that, I never made it back. It wasn’t wholly a factor of price – even then, in junior roles with junior salaries to match, Pete and I regularly splashed out for special occasions. And it wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it. I think it just fell off my radar. Out of sight, out of mind. Always more restaurants to discover.

And that’s the problem Matsuri continues to face; well known within the London Japanese community and particular the Japanese business and diplomatic sector, it hasn’t really caught the attention of a wider clientele.

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After enjoying some drinks in the upstairs waiting area, we took our seats at the horseshoe teppanyaki tables for a welcome from the restaurant’s President, Yoshinori Hatta. He gave us a brief introduction to the restaurant, during which we learned that it was launched in 1993 as a joint venture between JR Central and Kikkoman soy sauce company; indeed Mr Hatta was originally an engineer with the railway company – now that’s a career change and a half! He introduced the rest of the team including restaurant manager Cristoforo Santini, sommelier Tommaso Riccardo Guzzardo and new head chef Ryosuke Kishi and told us they had recently launched a sushi bar within the restaurant.

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Assorted Sushi – Head chef Kishi-san making sushi for our starter plate. The selection was a little staid, but the quality of the fish was excellent.

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Prawn and Vegetable Tempura – Prawn, sweet potato triangle, shishito pepper, baby sweet corn in a delightfully crisp and light batter.

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Alaskan Black Cod Marinated in Ginger – Our teppanyaki chef Marvin made us smile when he referred to the beautiful cloche as a Japanese microwave! The silky cod was richly flavoured by the soy and ginger marinade. This dish was a favourite for many of our group.

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Txogitxu Galician Beef T-Bone Steak – From a Japanese breed of cattle (prized for wagyu) raised in Spain, this steak had a high fat content that made it rich and melting. Though not a match for true wagyu, it was very good indeed. I particularly liked that our chef cut and served the wobbly fat as well.

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For those who didn’t eat fish, an alternate course of Foie Gras, Smoked Duck and Mushroom was provided and they kindly let the rest of us have a taste. I didn’t detect any smokiness but the richness of the foie gras, moist duck and umami mushrooms was an excellent combination. Also pictured, is the gorgeous Virgule knife that I desperately covet and the fresh white and green asparagus, served with both the duck dish and the steak.

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Garlic Butter Egg Fried Rice – Though it was impressive watching this be fried, it lacked the depth of flavour I expected.

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Fire-Ball Ice-Cream – Dessert was the exact same one served when I first visited, almost two decades ago. There’s something rather charming about sticking to such a signature dish, and of course, it’s fun to see ice cream being cooked and flambéed on the teppanyaki grill. Decent, but would have been far more delicious had the restaurant sourced properly ripened and sweet pineapple.

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One of the key aspects of the teppanyaki dining experience is your teppanyaki chef, who explains the dishes as he’s cooking and adds to the experience by answering questions and injecting occasional humour. Marvin, who manned our grill, made us smile many times so I was irritated when a member of the management team gruffly admonished him to smile more, as though he were a performing monkey. It was, for me, the only sour note of the evening.

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Dishes were matched with sake and wine. With the exception of dessert wine, I’m not a wine drinker, so asked for a sparkling sake. This sweet bubbling option is enormously refreshing, with a floral peachy flavour that I particularly love. My dining companions made appreciative noises about the white and red wines served. I really loved the sweet umeshu (plum wine) served with dessert, Umenoyado Aragoshi.

 

Of course, all this comes at quite a cost. Our menu was specially put together to showcase the restaurant’s signature dishes but I asked Cristoforo to cost it up for me and he came back with a price per head for a group of 6 of £63, comparable to their cheapest set menu, The Matsuri, at £65 per head. However, be aware that The Matsuri Set provides only one main course against our two of black cod and steak, and there is a supplement to upgrade to garlic fried rice in place of steamed. More generous is the Aoi Set, which features both a seafood (lobster) and steak main dish, at £100 per person or the Okagura Set at £145. You can also order à la carte, and comfortably enjoy a nice selection for around the same price as the Matsuri Set. Plus drinks, of course.

Once upon a time, the quality and authenticity of the Matsuri St James offering was more than enough to justify the prices. Today, the popularity of Japanese cuisine has soared and there are more and more and more authentic Japanese restaurants for Londoners to choose from. What’s more, the Japanese concept of restaurants that specialise in a particular type of cooking or ingredient has reached us too and we can visit restaurants offering yakitori, ramen, udon noodles, okonomyaki and even kaiseki ryori. Older Japanese restaurants have stepped up their game by offering more adventurous Japanese menus. Newer ones are often enthusiastically geeky about their chosen area of focus. While Matsuri continues to do what it does and do it very well, it’s competing in a much wider field and many of those in the race are more affordable. That said, it still excels at fine dining for groups of 6-8 and sharing a teppanyaki table with a group of friends remains a great way to celebrate a special occasion.

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Matsuri St James. First two images reproduced with kind permission.

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