The most consistently annoying thing I find about people is the way that some attempt to show off how cultured they are at every chance – and with the subtlety of a drunk elephant wearing aviators trying to get into a panda-only ballet class. Such people are not particularly hard to find; you just have to watch out for mind numbingly-pretentious phrases like, “I’ve read the book and it was sooo much better than the film” or “I actually ate at [insert obscure South American country] restaurants when I went travelling there and it was sooo much better than anywhere in London.” Whilst these sweeping statements may be true, the self-righteous people that mindlessly spout these phrases seem to have only travelled or read book in order to bring it up – utterly contemptible human beings who should be turned away from restaurants and have their passports revoked.
It does raise a question, though: When these people, from obscure South American countries, visit London and want a taste of home, where do they eat? Surely these places are as close as you’ll get to their nation’s cuisine. For example, if you’re in a French restaurant and you can hear conversations in French (over the sound of the SOS flares you have to use in a futile attempt to gain the waiter’s attention or wake him up), you can assume it has received the expat’s approval.
This does work both ways; restaurants propagating themselves as offering the cuisine of a particular nation are not beacons of authenticity when the very indigenous people they purport to represent choose not to dine with them. Sake No Hana on St. James’s Street was quite the extreme in this regard. There were more Asian people in the restaurant than staff and everyone else combined. It seemed expats not only came here, but indeed flocked. I’ve never been to Japan, though it seemed this was as close as I’d get without leaving London.
On walking through the main entrance at Sake No Hana, you notice the entrance and exits to the restaurant – two single-lane escalators with a lift in the middle, surrounded by dark porcelain tiles and panelled mirrors – very modern, very futuristic – I felt like I was in the Matrix. This Matrix feeling was owed also to the amount of wood in the restaurant (about as much as in Keanu Reeves’ acting), consisting of large intertwining wooden beams that must make diners feel like they are in a giant Jenga tower. It really was stunning. Somewhat standard procedure in Asian restaurants added to the ambience – the open kitchen, which allowed for the unmistakeable aroma of Asian cuisine to fill the room. The large, red, shoji-style curtains protected the diners from the madness that is London traffic but allowing enough light in to fill the room on what was a beautiful summer evening. If books could be judged by their covers, this was one of the best restaurants I have ever had the privilege of visiting.
The menu, also somewhat standard procedure nowadays, was extensive. You could (and I did) finish your cocktail before you finish reading (a perfectly made Sweet Manhattan). After a while, I fell bored of trying to decide so I struck a deal with the waitress – she picks the starters, I pick the main. I briefed her: no vegetarian dishes.
To start we had the tuna tartare (with wasabi yam and dashi sauce); beef rikyu tataki (with a sesame dressing and marinated vegetables; and sesame fried aubergine and fig. Although the combinations were good, I couldn’t help but feel the quality could be matched anywhere. However, the main course was a vast improvement. Partnered by a beautiful bottle of Fernao Pires, Quinta De Sant’Ana; Lisboa, Portugal. I chose the uzuri kuwayaki (quail with shichimi pepper and wilted spring onions); sumiyaki sirloin (30 days aged beef sirloin with mooli ponzu sauce and wild mushroom sauté); and kohitsuji tareyaki (teriyaki glazed lamb cutlets with spring onion). I went straight for the quail which was outstanding- beautifully seasoned, soft and just the right side of tenderness without being too undercooked. The quail was on a bed of onions that, once again, were cooked to utter perfection. The only problem was the amount of quail… 3. This meant one of us would have slightly less of this dish than the other. So I did the diplomatic and gentlemanly thing and had all three (and they say chivalry has died… paah).
The beef was cooked in a hot-pot in front of us, which for us carnivores is ideal. As long you maintain concentration, you can have your beef cooked exactly how you like it (rare obviously) without the risk of your preferred style being lost in translation or just prepared incorrectly. My accomplice also likes her steak rare so we made quick work of it. Our speed wasn’t exclusive to the preservation of the steak’s ‘rareness’ but the quality of the meat and the deliciousness of the sauce it was cooked in played a big role. The lamb cutlets could have been the best meal of the night. My accomplice and I both shared the opinion that this dish had the potential to be a game-changer but was let down by the temperature.
For dessert we had the jasmine honey (a rich milk chocolate mousse with vanilla ice cream, caramelised honey and crunchy chocolate soil) and this was one of the best puddings I have ever tasted. The crunchy chocolate soil acted as a Muller Crunch Corner-type extra in which you could add to the chocolate mousse or ice cream as you wished (and which were delicious on its own). The portion seemed fitting for sharing and washed down with another perfectly made cocktail (espresso martini) was a fantastic end to quite a meandering meal.
Sake No Hana
23 St James’s Street
London SW1A 1HA