Although our cultures are sometimes total antitheses of each other, I think that Japan and the UK do have a lot in common.
We’re both small, well-developed islands densely populated with prolific tea-drinkers, and we both have our own idiosyncrasies that, to the rest of the world, must seem quite mad. For instance, the Japanese have toilets that wipe your arse for you and the kind of unfussy appetites that come from living on an island where only a fifth of the land is suitable for growing anything on. Meanwhile, we’re sat in Blighty eating black pudding and watching Fawlty Towers, apparently a source of much bewilderment to literally everyone else on the planet.
One of the things we do have in common is a tendency to cluster our bank holidays together. I’ve seen some people complain about how close Easter is to May Day and the end of May holiday – people, I might add, who need to get a hobby – but in Japan it’s even more extreme. Today is the beginning of Golden Week, a clump of public holidays so close together everyone just takes the week off. Sort of like half term, but for everyone.
This is really all quite a roundabout way of telling you about my Easter Saturday lunch at Sake no Hana, Japanese sister restaurant to Hakkasan and Yauatcha. Anyone who knows me will know how much I rave on about these places – I’ve visited them collectively about 25 times over the years (and bought a few birthday cakes from the Yauatcha Patisserie in Broadgate Circle), and although most times I’ve paid my way I am occasionally on the receiving end of a blogger invitation. On this occasion, I was in to try the Koinobori Golden Week menu (£52/head), which runs until 11th May.
If you fancy there’s a special cocktail to start with, though at £15 you’re horribly aware of the St James’s postcode you’re sitting in. It contains sakura (cherry blossom) tea cordial, which tastes subtly of apricot and almond, and is balanced with lime juice. It’s a foamy one (listed as ‘foamer’ and not egg white, so I assume it’s vegan-friendly), and decorated with rice paper cut-outs in the shape of koi fish. It’s quite easy to forget about these and have them cling wetly to your lips in a very unattractive fashion (read: it makes you look like a lizard eating human skin), but it’s all very pretty.
Cups of warm miso soup arrived shortly afterwards, light and comforting, laced with the umami flavours that make Asian food so satisfying. We each chose a main course: for me, fleshy and succulent chicken yakitori skewers with yuzu chilli sauce; for Carla a wedge of soft, flaky miso salmon with asapragus (’tis the season) and wild garlic sauce.
Before that though there was sushi, which is the real reason to visit Sake no Hana because the things they can do with bits of raw fish is simply exquisite. The likes of Yo! Sushi and the stuff of supermarket fridges are ruined for me.
Spicy tuna was predictably my favourite but the crab was a close second. It was interesting to try inari, which I’d never had before. It’s a little pocket of tofu stuffed with sushi rice, which doesn’t sound particularly flavourful or inspiring but has quite an interesting flavour profile of salty and also slightly sweet. Apparently it’s a popular picnic food in Japan, so I guess it’s their equivalent of a mini Scotch egg.
Some of the sushi was decorated with laser-cut nori, which was absurdly extra but also kind of amazing.
‘Koinobori’ is actually the name of the carp-shaped streamers hung up to celebrate Children’s Day at the end of Golden Week. (The menu explains that koi carp are considered the most spirited fish and can fight their way up streams and waterfalls and are therefore ‘a fitting metaphor for a child’s journey through life’, which is sort of beautiful and very bleak at the same time.) Maybe the association with children is why there are FOUR puddings to finish. Mochi is a sort of sweet dumpling made of gelatinous rice flour, and this made the basis of two of them, bizarrely my favourite and least favourite. The ichigo daifuku (strawberry mochi) is the one all in one piece, and stuffed with the traditional red bean paste. The mitarashi dango was two little mochi balls on a skewer, but these felt a little gummy in both taste and texture.
Dorayaki was something I’d never tried before, red bean paste sandwiched between two sweet blini-type miniature pancakes, and the matcha roll kace, very similar to a Swiss roll but with lighter sponge and, of course, bright green.
The Koinobori Menu is £52 per person, though if you’re going on a Saturday lunchtime my pick would be the Umai Sushi Saturday menu (available 12pm-3pm), similarly priced at £51pp but inclusive of half a bottle of champagne and a cocktail. During the evenings though, it’s a well-priced, lighter alternative to one of the more comprehensive tasting menus providing you’re not absolutely ravenous. (If you are absolutely ravenous then go to Yauatcha for dim sum instead. I always emerge from there looking and feeling like a human blimp.)
Sake no Hana, 23 St James’s St, London SW1A 1HA
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in East London and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.