Eating Japan

Japan is the trickiest country for dining I’ve ever visited. With a cuisine so different from our own, and menus written in an alien alphabet, it would be so easy to order the boiled pig’s rectum without ever realising it! Of course, on the other hand, said rectum would probably taste delicious and leave you wishing you could find it back home.

I enjoyed almost everything I ate in Japan. And there’s so much to choose from. If you imagine that you “know” Japanese cuisine because you’ve been to a half-dozen different Japanese restaurants in England, think again. The equivalent would perhaps be to visit a half-dozen pizzerias and imagine you know Italian cuisine.

Whelk, liver and fish - all delish

Whelk, liver and fish – all delish


There is one bit of serendipity in the history of Japanese cuisine that makes life slightly easier on the bemused western visitor: plastic food. They’ve been displaying realistic plastic replicas of the menu outside restaurants for more than 70 years, astonishingly realistic copies, and those restaurants that don’t want to splash out on plastic food make do with photographs. Pretty much everywhere else in the world a menu that includes photographs of the food would be the lowest possible form of tourist-fodder. Here in Japan there’s absolutely no stigma attached and at least with pictures of the food you might be able to guess at what you’re ordering.
Even the ice is plastic

Even the ice is plastic


There’s no plastic food at the really high-end restaurants, of course. But then again, they aren’t exactly looking for random tourist trade anyway. What you would typically see of a high-end Japanese restaurant from the street is: (1) a simple door, much like any other front door along the road, (2) a discrete sign with some Japanese characters (which might read “Restaurant Chihana” or perhaps “Kawasaki Secretarial Services” for all you’d know!), (3) and that’s it, no other hint that it’s even a place to eat. You’re welcome to try just ducking through a doorway at random – but only if you don’t mind the embarassment of finding yourself in a massage parlour rather than a dining room.
Restaurant? Or accountancy firm?

Restaurant? Or accountancy firm?


Still, the adventurous foodie has plenty to explore without going high-end.

Oh, but there is just one more thing that might trip you up. The Japanese need to serve you exactly what you ordered. Forget any notions of using sign language to indicate that you’ll eat whatever the chef recommends, or that you’d like the daily special. In our experience the staff weren’t happy at all until they’d extracted from us exactly what we wanted off the menu and how many of them we’d like. Essentially, they don’t want to make a mistake, and that’s very laudable but a bit frustrating at times! My favourite example wasn’t food-related at all, but a hair straightener that Maureen needed to buy at an electronics shop. There was a long and painful pantomime at the cash desk, with three staff involved and bemusement on all sides, until we finally worked out that they were only trying to ask us how many hair straighteners we wanted. Er. One? Do Japanese women often bulk-buy these things? Organising themselves into some kind of beauty co-operative?

So challenges aside, what kind of memorable meals did we find in Japan?

Chef at work

Chef at work

Kyoto Mame Hachi
This place was a good find early on, one of about a thousand restaurants on Pontocho street. Here we sat at the counter while the chef served us a series of delicious treats, many of them including tofu – a Kyoto speciality. The last course was sweetened tofu, which ate like an exceptionally good panacotta and was dusted with sweet matcha green tea powder.

Basashi

Basashi

Aoyagi
Another good restaurant, this time in Kumamoto, where we had a private booth and charming service by the two young waiters left to deal with the tourists (being a provincial city, we found even less English spoken in Kumamoto than Kyoto!). This was our first chance to try horsemeat sashimi, and the selection included liver and “mane fat” – neither of which are anywhere near as good as the excellent taste and texture of the lean horsemeat. The rest of the meal was delicious too.

Making tako-yaki

Making tako-yaki

Kumamoto street food
As we were lucky enough to be in Kumamoto for their annual festival of lights, we got to wander around grabbing snacks and nibbles from all kinds of food stalls. I saw the magic of tako-yaki being made; three guys with nothing but long pins, turning a load of octopus-chunk laden batter into beautiful round balls – they were delicious mouthfuls, still piping hot. We also had generous cups of local sake, an amazing spicy beef stirfry, and some very powerful sea urchin and potato croquettes.

Kaiseki feast

Kaiseki feast

Iwaso
Iwaso is a famous old ryokan on the island of Miyajima, and the classic way to stay in a ryokan is to have a complex kaiseki meal served in your room (or since there were four of us, in a private dining room). The meal was intricate and delicious, including some huge local oysters, and even more fun for eating it in our yukata – essentially our dressing gowns, which we were allowed to wear around the hotel and indeed out on the island.

Simply soba

Simply soba

Soba noodles
We enjoyed soba in their simplest form in an old building in Narai. They come cold, and are simply dipped in a light soy broth before slurping up. Absolutely great for concentrating on the perfect texture and the toasty buckwheat taste of the noodles. At the table next door two elegant ladies were slurping up their noodles with a fiercely loud and almost industrial zeal.

Ryu Sushi

Ryu Sushi

Ryu Sushi at Tsujiki Market
We ate so much amazing seafood in Japan, and a lot of it passes through the gigantic and still very traditional Tsujiki fish market in Tokyo. A sushi breakfast here is one of the tourist highlights on a trip to the city, but rather than queue at one of the two or three most famous little eateries we took a blog tip and picked Ryu Sushi. Best. Sushi. Ever. But while I’m on the subject of seafood: over two weeks in Japan I ate seafood every day, much of it raw, and loads of it shellfish – about a ton of prawns at Kondo. So why is it that when I eat shellfish at even good restaurants in the UK I have something like a 50/50 chance of a dodgy stomach? But I never felt better over two weeks of gorging on seafood in Japan? Mystery.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki
This is slutty stuff; the Japanese equivalent of a fat burger in a brioche bun with bacon, barbecue sauce and melted jack cheese. It’s kind of like a pancake covered with oodles of stuff which is all fried and cooked and covered with more pancakey eggy stuff and drizzled with a tangy sauce. It’s served on a hotplate at your table so it’s piping hot while you muck about chopping bits off to gobble down. Both times we had it, mine contained a mixture of cabbage, spring onion and beef tendon – which is sticky and delicious.

There was lots more besides! Not least of which, our two Michelin-starred treats; the kaiseki restaurant Chihana in Kyoto, and tempura restaurant Kondo in Tokyo. Both were fantastic meals, but I think I’ll probably remember some of our lower-key treats for longer. I don’t think there’s any more interesting destination for an adventurous foodie than Japan: everything is strange, but at the same time everything is delicious. Where else in the world can you say that?

Yes, pig's rectum

Yes, pig’s rectum

Review: The White Spoon, Cheltenham

The White Spoon

The White Spoon

There’s a bunch of good places to eat in Cheltenham. Our nearest, a pub called The Tivoli, ain’t one. Of course we tried it as soon as we moved here; two dull starters, Maureen had a stringy bit of lamb she could have chewed all week, and I had some argumentative fish that disagreed with me painfully a couple of hours later. Now yet another good place to eat has opened: The White Spoon, in Well Walk. And like all the others it’s a whole 15 minutes walk away! So far!

Yeah, of course I’m joking. Cheltenham is now very definitely a great town for eating out. It ain’t London, Bristol or Brighton, sure, but it also ain’t even a city.

So, The White Spoon is new last weekend. Service was friendly and excellent, there’s no sign of opening-month meltdown that I could see. The dining room is cosy and informal, with bare wood tables and warm lighting from old-fashioned bulbs in sconces made from copper pipe (the cosy, warm lighting is why I can’t show you any decent photos, sorry!). Their wine list explores some interesting areas; Maureen had a glass of excellent Greek white wine with her main, an Assyrtiko, and I had a powerful Chardonnay with a really surprising caramel flavour. Food!

Turnip impersonating beetroot

Turnip impersonating beetroot

My starter was of goat cheese and beetroot, hardly an unusual pairing. The Cerney Ash goat came three ways: the cheese, fresh curds, and a set custard which had the most delicious texture. Beetroots and carrots were pickled, charred and dried to crisps. All very tasty. Maureen’s crab tortellini came in a very dark, rich broth with a really punky south-east Asian flavour… lime and ginger? This broth was the star, so powerful that the well-cooked tortellini could have been filled with crabsticks for all we’d have noticed!

For main I chose duck, hooked by the idea of “red wine turnip”. And yeah, these little cubes of faux-beetroot tasted fantastic and partnered the juicy pink duck very well. Good confit potatoes too. Maureen went surf-n-turf: pork belly and sea bass with smoked potato and salsa verde. The pork was a lovely block, very well treated, the flesh moist and the skin scorched to add a nice bitter note along with the piggy fat. The smoked potatoes were full-flavoured and stood up with the pork very well. The dish probably didn’t need the fish, especially as it was small beside the pork belly, but it was well cooked with good charred skin too. The mustardy salsa verde gave the dish its tang.

Pork and sea bass

Pork and sea bass

Puds were not the strongest course. My custard tart had very thin, damp pastry that added nothing to it. The custard itself was good, the blackberries and meringue shards adding fruit ‘n crunch respectively. Maureen’s raspberry and pistachio fool was an oddly messy bowl of stuff, given the great presentation of everything else so far. It was tasty enough, and I’ve seldom seen such plump and delicious raspberries!

The White Spoon deserves to do well. It’s a lovely spot with a good menu. As you can see, I’ve picked a few holes, but we enjoyed all our dishes and I’m looking forward to returning to find out how the menu changes and evolves. This is chef’s first time as head of his own kitchen, apparently, so it’s only going to get better. The meal was about £32 for three courses without drinks, and I’d say that’s about right.

Review: Historical Dining Rooms, Bristol

Note the lard... and bacon bits! Phwoar!

Note the lard… and bacon bits! Phwoar!

If there’s one restaurant in the UK that you should dress up for, it’s surely this one. The Historical Dining Rooms, above the Star & Dove pub, goes the whole hog in decor, service and menu to cast you back into the past. In that it trumps Heston’s Dinner, which showcases historical food but is otherwise stylishly modern. So yeah, that’s my recommendation, dig out your waistcoat or something with a bit of lace and fit yourself into the theme!

Of course, we decided on dinner here last minute and so it was jeans for us. The decor is absolutely authentic Victorian with a peppering of Georgian, down to the choice of colours, the detailed stencilling, the potted palms and the archaic piano to one side. There’s no knowing wink or lip service here, this is a historical dining room. There ain’t another anywhere (that I’m aware of). Service was friendly and superbly informed – about the decor, the menu history and the ingredients. So what about the food?

Lamb stuffed with curried crab

Lamb stuffed with curried crab

We started with some vinegar-dusted crispy Daubenton’s kale, a kale variety apparently almost forgotten. I picked out a starter of “Mendip Wallfish” – a rather beautiful euphemism for snails – served with barberries in a sticky, meaty reduction with a little cigar of smoked eel and a crisp sphere containing crab apple verjus. Barberries? Sharp little dried berries with a citric flavour, which gardeners will know as the berries of the “Berberis” shrub (betcha didn’t know they were for eating, eh?). The whole dish was sticky, funky, punky flavoured goodness.

Maureen’s starter was “Skuets” of veal sweetbread; the minced sweetbread was coated in a smoky and flavoursome crumb and accompanied by slices of lamb’s tongue and a beignet of sweetbread. The intense meatiness of the starter was cut by some sharp apple sorrel leaves. Nothing light, simple or fresh about either of these starters – this was digging into the historical trough, and very toothsome it was.

For main I’d gone fish, “Stockfish” to be precise. A good piece of ling, properly cooked, with a really good sauce made from pickled walnut liquor. There were two slight flaws in the accompaniments: crisp shallot shells full of buttermilk and onion seeds was a great idea with the vinegary sauce, but the crisp shallot shells weren’t. Crisp, I mean, they were certainly shallots. And the long slices of kale stalk were just uninteresting to eat.

Fish in pickled walnut reduction

Fish in pickled walnut reduction

Maureen’s main was both bonkers and brilliant. Lamb stuffed with crabmeat. Yes, it’s a historical recipe, and yes the damn thing worked! The crab was curried and ate really well with the lamb (though as usual Maureen wished there was more strong brown crab meat flavour). Accompanying it was a crispy tube filled with a creamy curried celeriac, the flavour intensely reminiscent of Coronation Chicken. Petit pois finished it off and the whole thing was sticky and yum.

Being a quick dinner we didn’t have time for puds – a shame, but we’ll rectify that by coming again. If you’ve had one too many identikit gastropub dinners or hotel-restaurant fine dining menus, you want to grab yourself a table here. The style of cooking is unashamedly historical in all it’s sticky, meaty, buttery badness and so makes a glorious contrast to everything modern and fresh. I’m more than happy to forgive a couple of miss-firing elements in exchange for such original cookery in a setting that so much love and attention has gone into. Especially when the price is a reasonable £27 or so for two courses. The wine list is short but quirky and we enjoyed a couple of fine glasses – in cut-glass goblets no less!

The Historical Dining Rooms

The Historical Dining Rooms

Review: Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside

Lake Road Kitchen

Lake Road Kitchen


UPDATE Oct 2016 – just been back to LRK and it’s better than ever. They’ve switched to a no choice tasting menu, 5 or 8 courses, and we enjoyed snails braised in homemade grain miso, slow-cooked octopus with fresh cheese and lovage oil, best piece of guinea fowl I ever tasted with hedgehog mushrooms and cep sauce, broad bean and pea stew with homemade bean miso and a sea buckthorn eclair with scorched meringue. LRK is such an original, can’t recommend it highly enough. Here’s the original review:

I’m going to do the Lake Road Kitchen in Ambleside, and my readers, an injustice. Because it’s really far too long after our meal there to be writing this review. Things just got in the way. On the other hand, it might be interesting to see what lasting impressions a meal leaves you with, in this case almost a month later. I’ve had hundreds of fine meals over the years and there’s no very strong rhyme or reason to which ones stay with me. Originality, location and occasion are probably more important than the simple quality of the food. Noma and L’Enclume really stand out, but then I will always remember the very amazing Pri Lojetsu in Slovenia and the boldly eccentric Stravaigin in Glasgow.

Noma & L’Enclume are both very relevant to Lake Road Kitchen, where they have definitely taken the Scandinavian food trend and transported it to the mountainous north-west of England. So: a kitchen window framed by rough sawn-wood planking. A dish of butter roasted hen-of-the-woods mushroom. Foraged ingredients on every plate. Bottles of fermenting vegetables and fruit on a shelf in the corner.

Hen of the woods

Hen of the woods

That hen-of-the-woods main was really very good. Scattered with hazelnuts and served with bright, fresh yogurt to cut the buttery/earthy taste, along with a bit of acidity from nasturtium leaves and flowers. Maureen had a rich roast veal dish with charred lettuce and sweetcorn, great eating. I’ve started in the middle, since the hen (a huge fungus, by the by) was what I remember best. That and the pre-starter, a wooden board scattered with deep-fried nuggets of partridge to be picked up and dipped into little puddled of fermented wild garlic puree and fresh home-made yogurt. These were so darn good and more-ish I came within an inch of ordering another. Lucky I didn’t, as I remember we were stuffed by the time we left.

My starter was a gooey slow-cooked yolk and an even slower-cooked piece of sticky… oh drat, forgotten already. Pig cheek? Anyway, the nifty bit I do remember was the scattering of preserved wild garlic seed pods. Essentially these are treated the same way capers are treated in the

Charming carrots

Charming carrots

Mediterranean, and the result are funky little garlic hits. Magic! Maureen’s carrot starter was astonishing (astonishing because she loathes carrots, so why order a carrot starter?), and there was something in the goat-butter roasted carrot that tasted absolutely wow.

I know we had puds ‘cos I’ve got the photos, and my buckwheat pastry was scrummy, but it’s clear in my memory at least that the savoury courses were the stars of the show.

So there we go, that’s me reviewing from month-old memory. Sorry guys! We had a superb meal at the Lake Road Kitchen, the service was excellent, and I’ll be going back the next time we’re in the Lake District. If you make a special trip up to the Lakes for the delights of L’Enclume, I reckon Lake Road Kitchen should be number 2 on your hitlist. It’ll be interesting to see if it still lives in my memory in a couple of years – given the originality on show, it ought to.

A pretty pud indeed

A pretty pud indeed

Review: The Black Swan, North Yorks

Neat bar snacks

Neat bar snacks

They seem to be having a good time at the Black Swan, rummaging the fields and hedgerows for wild ingredients and making all kinds of concoctions and decoctions out of them. As it was a balmy day I enjoyed a bright green and refreshing glass of apple marigold lemonade to begin with. Other enticing cordials were offered, and our lunchtime tasting menu had plenty of forage on it.

The bar downstairs is a dark and properly pub-y space, although I don’t think the Swan makes any pretense of still being the local boozer; it’s a fine restaurant in the bucolic North Yorkshire countryside that happens to be in an old pub building. The dining room upstairs is hung with a changing display of guest artists and is otherwise bright, airy and country. Staff are friendly. Again, for a nominal “pub” the wine list was surprisingly high end, with all but one wine by the glass over £10. So: it’s fine dining.

A very carroty salad

A very carroty salad

The nibbles started down in the bar. Nice fresh radishes in a very good mushroom-y soil, neat scotch quails eggs with a tangy piccalilli sauce. We went for the five course menu, and our starter was a carrot salad. Roast carrot, raw carrot, radish, pickled baby turnips, a few sharp leaves and some hazelnuts bits. This might have come out better with some more deep, cooked flavours but there was just too much raw carrot. It was a nice scrunchy salad, I’ll grant you. Our fish was trout, with a glistening blob of smoked squid ink sauce on top, radishes and a “radish broth”. Which sounded interesting but was essentially chicken stock in flavour. So: inventive combo, but not a gigantic success.

They did a proper pub thing for the main. Lamb, new potatoes and mint: it’s nigh impossible to fail to please with those. And this was a great dish, with a fantastically flavoured piece of belly cooked to perfection and a firmer piece of meat (oops, I forget which!) equally well treated. Neatly presented too, and they even found room for some pickled radish! I guess the garden overfloweth with radishes this week?

That left one, that's a porcini lolly!

That left one, that’s a porcini lolly!

Pre-desserts were three charming ice cream lollies, and the first one gets a prize for most awesomest ice cream this summer; it was a porcini lolly! The dessert looked small, delicate and beautiful with flower petals scattered about so it was surprising how high it punched in flavour. The honey elements, such as the crunchy honeycomb, were all made with a really potent heather honey, the flower petals were a strong mix of bitter and perfume, the little yellow blobs sang lemons and the elderflower sorbet was very clean. Very small dessert, to be honest, but very good. Then again a couple of nice petit fours pretty much filled us up!

Chef Tommy Banks at the Black Swan is obviously thoughtful and inventive, and very clearly in love with the cottage garden they’ve got growing out back. Some of the dishes were not-quite-hits, but all in all I really enjoyed my lunch at The Black Swan as there was so much to like too. I have a good sense that they’re only going to get better. At £55 for the menu it feels about fair, though you could spend a lot on wine.

Beautifully presented pud

Beautifully presented pud

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