Friday, 27 April 2012

Sticks N Sushi, Wimbledon

Wimbledon isn't know for its wealth of culinary creativity. Wimbledon town is home to a plethora of eateries many of which sadly are more of the Walkabout/Nandos variety. There is even an establishment called Jimmy Spice's "World Buffet" which boasts of its prowess in the fields of Chinese, Indian, Italian and Thai cuisine. (£9.99 for unlimited Tikka masala with your lasagne with your spring rolls anyone?) An impressive breadth of purported skill for any chef.

 If you venture up the hill to swanky Wimbledon Village, the inhabitants may be somewhat wealthier but the food on offer to them is still not as high quality and varied as you might hope. There are, of course, exceptions to this rather bold statement; the Lighthouse does a decent supper and I'm dying to pay a visit to the comparatively new Lawn Bistro whose menu sounds lip smackingly enticing but in general I wouldn't race across London at the prospect of eating in SW19. I'm quite sure there may be many delightful establishments in both the Village and Town that I just haven't been fortunate enough to visit yet but from experience so far, that has not been the case. Wimbledon's attitude to food was summed up for me by the manager of Claude Bosi's Fox & Grapes last summer during one of the most apalling meals that I have ever had the misfortune to encounter (and the only time that I have ever walked out of a restaurant without paying for some of my food) when, upon paying £25 for a lobster and being unable to scrape more than a forkful of lobster out of its dried out carapace I was essentially informed "well what do you expect for £25, this is Wimbledon?". I don't care if I'm in a 4 Michelin Star restaurant on the moon, if its billed as lobster then there had better be lobster in it, end of. I hope that said manager has since experienced what £20 will buy you lobster wise in Mayfair...

Anyway, having set the scene for the general gastronomic malaise in SW19, back to the matter in hand, Sticks n Sushi.

Ordinarily I would have a rant about the use of the rather irritating "n" in the middle of the name. It could be interpreted as an uneccessary attempt to be trendy, albeit in a rather 90's way. One might ask why the more sedate ampersand couldn't have been deployed ? - 'Sticks & Sushi' looks much more classy. However, on the basis that S&S (I'm going to use the ampersand even if they don't) already has nine outlets in its native Denmark I will let it drop. Yes, you did read that right. Nine outlets in Denmark then one in Wimbledon, unusual business expansion plan maybe but one that I very, very much hope will work for them- there is certainly the gap in the market.

Located on Wimbledon Hill in the bit that straddles the area between super posh and well, not so posh, its easily accessible and is going to be a big hit. It's only been open a month and local Wombles L&S already seem to have eaten there multiple times per week (enough to ask for a loyalty card and no, there isn't one. Yet.) I joined them on a rainy Wednesday to sate my Japanese food habit recently acquired in the land of the rising sun.

Their picture, not mine!
First impressions of the decor are that this is a pretty huge floorspace (maybe explaining why they opened in lower price per sq ft Wimbledon & not Soho). Decorated in the kind of luxe/industrial that Scandinavians seem to do so well; big silver pipes and ducts overhead, a giant brick print curtain across one whole wall but with low lighting, touches of leather and ergonomic wooden seating to keep it classy.
The cocktail list is not massively extensive but uses more unusual Japanese ingredients and had enough choice that I struggled to make my mind up opting first for a yuzu and whisky creation then later for a yuzu martini. I love yuzu and find it unlike any other fruit flavour despite the fact that it is often described as a Japanese lime. They are, however, virtually impossible to find in the UK. Indeed S&S confirmed that theirs are shipped in monthly from Africa. So my yuzu quest continues, if anyone finds any let me know!
Yasaisticks (posh name for raw vegetable bits) with miso dip were tasty with the tip offering a rich and powerful umame flavour. The ubiquitous edamame beans served alongside crackers were also fine.

S&S offer a variety different fixed platters of different size and shape some majoring more on the fish side of things others of the cooked chicken variety. Quirky names like "bankrupt", "green keeper", "man food" and "four meal drive" give you a clue as to their content. You can also go down the a la carte route but platters are the most cost effective way to get a taste of lots of things.
A wealth of yakitori options are on offer. From the traditional terikayi chicken type options to the less Japanese sounding goats cheese & ham or beef and herb butter they all sounded divine and (unusually for fussy old me) I could have merrily eaten all of them. There are so many bad examples of how not to do fusion cooking out there so it was a pleasant surprise to find one that really works. Although Japan and Denmark are geographically distant, gastronomically there are certain parallels; clean, simple flavours and presentation and a fondness for fish being just a couple! 
Table for 2 / sticksnsushi with additional choiceWe opted for a Sticks n Sushi platter with additional choice for three. Here is what a two person portion looks like on their website and, unlike many establishments, the picture was near as dammit true to life. Yum.

Salmon, hamachi, prawn & tuna nigiri all consisted of good quality, fresh fish and well seasoned rice. Hard to say anything beyond that, very nice but nigiri is nirigi really.

Large Futimaki rolls were equally tasty: ebi tempura being a favourite.

The yakitori was where S&S really shone. The tsukune chicken was a stick of seasoned minced chicken meatballs, asparagus with bacon gave a salty crunch but the best by far was the chicken teriyaki with spring onion yakitori. The sauce went beyond the usual teriyaki and was thick, gelatinous and very moreish whilst the chicken was juicy and grilled to perfection.

Highlights of the Uramaki inside out rolls were the  'Tuna sparkling roll' - the sparkle taking the form of some orange shiny roe and the 'Cut the ... roll' consisting of surimi, sugar snap and sesame.

Dessert was one of the real highlights of the meal. Usually in Japanese restaurants (and indeed in Japan itself) there are not a huge variety of desserts designed for the western palate. Mochi and red bean paste take some getting used to. S&S however, has chosen to take the route of offering desserts with a Japanese twist, for example. The desserts on offer are much more varied and interesting than those listed on their website.

Espresso chocolate fondant was topped with crispy caramelised hazelnut pieces and served with a creamy hazelnut ice cream. The fondant was just molten in the middle- a minute more in the oven and we'd have been in trouble- and the flavour of espresso was prominent without being overpowering. All in all, a seriously good dessert. Creamy green tea parfait held a vivid and deep matcha flavour with the red of strawberry nougat made a colourful contrast on the plate. Cubes of financier added a more solid texture to the dish.

Service was extremely attentive and really accommodating. I'm allergic to avocado which can make sushi a minefield but the chef prepared a special platter for me, not something many places would do on a fixed group menu. Both the yakitori and the sushi were both equal in quality to anything that I tried in Japan last month and, in some cases, much better. High up my list for next time will be the scallop kataifi yakitori where scallops are wrapped in a crispy birds nesty thing and also the ebi bites, looks like a type of prawn popcorn - sounds delicious. I will be back again very soon!

Sticks N Sushi on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Ben's Canteen, Battersea

A glorious Sunday morning dawned and following a promise I was looking forward to a saunter around London watching some maniac marathon runners do their stuff from the sidelines. Couple of drinks maybe and a pub lunch? No sireeee. This marathon runner stalking thingummyjig is almost as exhausting as the marathon itself*. Several hours later with an unhealthy dose of blisters- yes I managed to get blisters as a spectator, don't ask- and very soggy from a torrential downpour I found myself heading back through Battersea feeling both starving hungry and just a little bit grumpy. 
(*massive exaggeration alert)

I had been tempted by the sound of Ben's Canteen for a very long time having been mutual followers on Twitter and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to refuel. My end of marathon day sentiments seemed to be echoed by the sandwich board outside Ben's; not a Bloody Mary maybe and a bit late for brunch but a gin and burger would have exactly the same effect.

The decor of the restaurant is quite rustic with stripped wooden floors, chunky tables and mismatching chairs. The toilets are unusual but follow quite a cool idea of letting a local artist loose in each cubicle to put their own stamp on it.

The giant wordsearch on the wall had me fixated and resulting in my blurting out random words throughout dinner much to the annoyance of A & E whose conversation was punctuated by my shouts of "gazelle", "hippo" etc as words popped out at me.

Having been called by the sirens of the Ben's twitter account towards the mythical and much praised Scotch egg (an all day breakfast one don't you know!) I was devastated to discover I was too late, other devotees had guzzled them all, the selfish buggers. No matter, the absence of Scotch egg just means I will have to return (as does the absence of the rolo chocolate tart with peppermint icecream but more of that later). Straight onto the main event then....

Although it was a Sunday and the roasts sounded amazing, I wanted to check out the rumour that Ben's offer one of the Best 10 Burgers in London.

The burger sauce is really good. I'm not going to try and hazard a guess as to what goes in it other than to say that its both tangy and creamy at the same time and, whilst I'm overusing words ending in "y", its also bloody yummy.

A&E did both order the roast and the beef, in particular, was beautiful. Note that I don't say it looked beautiful. I know is was beautiful because E had so much beef on her plate that it was almost a whole cow so I obliged with some plate clearing assistance. Both rare and tender, call me selfish but I can't wait to go back and have a whole plateful to myself. 

Dessert was probably my only slight dip in the evening. I had been eyeing up a rolo tart with peppermint ice cream since the menu arrived however it was all gone and, despite appearing again on the newly printed evening menu (albeit this time with spearmint icecream) none was to be forthcoming. There had also been a white chocolate tart on the first menu we were given but this too had disappeared from the menu we were handed at dessert time. I wasn't feeling terribly inspired by the remaining non chocolate desserts (including rhubarb eton mess, lemon three ways, Dark Star Cheesecake and rum jelly with coke ice cream) but really wanted a taste of something sweet so went for lemon three ways.

The three ways in question were an ice lolly, lemon curd and a lemon sponge pudding. The ice lolly was more style than substance, it looked great in the tower on the plate but tastewise lacked in flavour a little. This essentially meant that the dessert was lemon sponge pudding with lemon sauce. It was an excellent sponge, all light and fluffy and suitably sweet and zesty and the curd sauce was equally delightful

The staff are absolutely lovely and very knowledgable about the food that they are serving and dealt brilliantly with my minor childish tantrum over the rolo tart (I thought the whole point of the Rolo is that you save the last one for someone hmm? hmmm?)

The wine list is comprehensive and priced by the glass or bottle, we settled on a couple of bottles of Spanish tempranillo that slid down quite nicely and warmed us up on a chilly, wet spring evening.  If you're in the Clapham Junction area there is really no reason not to give Ben's a try.

UPDATE:  I have been back to Ben's again since my original visit. Lured by the Twitter sirens once more, I saw the promise of a midweek barbecue on one of the few evenings that we have been able to call "summer" so far this year. The burger was good (although a little overdone perhaps due to an unruly barbecue) but the pulled pork roll was sublime and a total bargain at 6 pounds. I think Ben's is increasingly likely to become a reliable neighbourhood staple for me.

Ben's Canteen on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Tokyo: Ueno Park

I hold my hands up and admit that I am a nightmare to travel with.  Half the fun is in the advance planning for me and several months can be spent researching locations, restaurants, transport, weather. You name it and there is a fair chance I have researched it. So when it came to planning a trip to Japan one of the major criterion was weather and more specifically blossom or sakura. I consulted various websites detailing the bloom dates in various towns over the preceding five years to try and ensure guaranteed blossom.  So we arrived. No blossom. Not a problem, still two and a half weeks of the trip to go and quite a journey south. Two weeks on and down in Kyoto there is still no blossom. Back to Tokyo and our last full day in Japan having left Ueno Park to the last possible moment, perhaps most famous for its blossom and the hanami parties- essentially picnics- held under the trees.  There were odd patches of blossom so I didn't go completely without...

Spot the bird.
In summary a grey, windy and rather chilly day was not how I had hoped my Ueno Park experience would pan out....

We started in the north of the park from Ueno station on the JR train line. At least nine  museums are located within close proximity including the National Museum of Science and Nature , the Ueno Royal Museum, and the National Museum of Western Art. as well as Tokyo zoo. Wading through the hordes of overexcited groups of Japanese schoolchildren we headed towards our target for the morning, Tokyo National Museum.

Tokyo National Museum is worth a visit if you are interested in better understanding some of the historic Japanese periods throughout the ages and seeing artefacts from each era.The building it is housed in is also quite beautiful. Just like the British Museum or the Met in New York, you could spend an entire day there and only scratch the surface but for me it was more interesting to dip in and see a few of the highlights to get some context to what I was seeing elsewhere.  The park is far from being only about museums, it also holds several shrines including the Toshogu Shrine (close to the zoo) and Bentendo Temple in the middle of Shinobazu Lake.

Bentendo Templev

Some of the lonely businessmen and my favourite of the Ema Shinto shrine plaques.
I had heard stories of how lower ranking businessmen are sent by their bosses to sit all day and guard the best sakura spots but had never quite believed it to be true until I saw it with my own eyes. Junior accountants, lawyers, management consultants all suited and booted just sat, all day, on a blue tarpaulin awaiting the arrival of their colleagues after hours.

One thing that cannot be disputed is that the Japanese truly do LOVE blossom. Gaggles of people were crowded around the few trees already in bloom taking pictures on everything and anything from top of the range Canon SLRs to the most basic of mobile phones. Much posing and peace finger signs ensue.

Wandering down along the long, straight lane of over 1000 cherry blossom trees, around a quarter were about to bloom and many early sakura hunters were out in force.  Restaurants and shops all release special sakura themed dishes or products, even international companies get on the bandwagon, I came home with a limited edition Le Creuset blossom shaped tea set and Lanvin, Celine and Dior sakura handkerchiefs all at much lower prices than the non limited edition would be at home.

Reaching the Southern end of the park I took a detour towards the lake. During sakura season numerous street food sellers line the bridge that crosses to a small islet set out into Shinobazu Pond. 

All kinds of weird and wonderful sweet and savoury finger foods are on offer and stalls are busy with passing trade.   I ordered a barbecued chicken yakitori stick. In all honesty it was a bit disappointing, too much overly sweet sauce but it was a bit early in the day for salted sardine or chilled octopus kebabs.

Baby octopus anyone?
Locals and tourists weren't the only ones eyeing up the seafood....

You can't go to Tokyo and not visit Ueno Park no matter the time of year- it is such a melting pot of Japanese culture and a relaxing spot in an otherwise non-stop city.


Saturday, 7 April 2012

Hiroshima (and Okonomiyaki)

We arrived in Hiroshima on a bitingly cold morning. I hadn't been sure what to expect of the town which is known, lets face it, for one thing and one thing only, a huge and awful atomic bomb. It would have felt wrong not to visit at all and to fly past on a Shinkansen train bound for somewhere more "fun". Equally though, there is something a little ghoulish about only visiting somewhere because of its disastrous history. It was therefore with a little personal trepidation that we pulled into Hiroshima station.

What struck me first was quite how well developed the main town is considering its comparative youth. Other than in the Peace Park by the river, there are no apparent signs remaining of the city's destruction and it is a quiet but thriving city.

As we wandered arond the children's peace monument looking at the strings of brightly coloured origami birds of peace sent to Hiroshima from children's schools all around Japan, a visiting group of children assembled into a group and began to sing first in unison before building into a crescendo of three part harmony. Their sweetness and innocence contrasted so poignantly with the horror of what had happened before. Even cynical old me may have shed a tear. Like the use of poppies in the UK to mark Remembrance Day, the little origami birds of peace are a pretty way to teach children about the ills of war and also to never forget but look forward.

Visiting schools leave chains of little coloured birds that they have made back in the classroom which are then subsequently displayed in glass cases surrounding the children's monument. 

After a morning spent reflecting in the Peace Park in biting winds we needed both heat and sustenance and in Hiroshima there is no better place to get local food than Okonomimura, a multistorey building in the Shintenchi district packed to the rafters with small oknomiyaki outlets offering different versions where you follow your nose until you find one that you particularly like.  Its origins lie in many family owned street food stalls who all grouped together into one building; like a sort of old Japanese version of Hawker House. Although they all serve okonomiyaki there are lots of variations on a theme, some offer buckwheat pancakes, some are vegetarian or specialise in seafood- you have to browse to find the right one for you. This is the true origin of the dish; "okonomi" meaning "whatever you like" and "yaki" meaning "cooked". The primary difference between the okonomiyaki of Hiroshima versus that of Osaka is that in Osaka the ingredients are mixed together before cooking, more in the style of a giant omelette whereas in Hiroshima they start with the egg before layering vegetables, noodles and other options such as squid, shrimp, chicken or cheese on top.
Upon taking a seat at the counter surrounding the hot plate you are issued with what looks like a plastering or polyfilla blade. The dish is layered up in front of you on the sizzling griddle; onions then egg, then cheese and noodles. Last of all is the rich, brown, tangy traditional okonmiyaki sauce and a creamy sauce. 
 Its not the most sophisticated dish in the world and its a messy, hot business eating it as you are hovering over a sizzling hot plate but its about as tasty and filling as you can get for the price and well worth the experience.


Thursday, 5 April 2012

Miyajima Island, Japan

Itsukishima Island is just an hour away from Hiroshima and easily accessible by train and a short ferry ride. Better known by the descriptive name of 'Miyajima Island' or 'Shrine Island', it is unlike anywhere else that I saw on my trip to Japan and was one of my favourite stopovers. It is perhaps most famous for the giant Torii gate out at sea, accessible on foot when the tide is out and appearing to float when the sea is in. At just under 12 square miles it is navigable by foot and has very little traffic.

The island gets awashed with Japanese tourists arriving on the regular passenger ferries, especially at the weekend, so if you can stay at a ryokan overnight you really get to see a different and much more peaceful side to the community once the last ferry disappears onto the horizon and the chatter melts away. 

Like Nara, the island is home to lots of small, wild but very friendly Sika deer who trot up and down the streets occasionally begging for food but generally ignoring the alien invaders many of whom treat them with a great deal of respect as they are considered to be sacred under Shinto religion.

Most towns and areas of Japan have their own special, local sweet delicacy to be taken back to friends and colleagues as a token from your trip. On Miyajima this comes in the form of the Momiji manju, a maple leaf shaped cake that can either be served plain or with various fillings. We tried custard, jam, cinnamon, red bean paste, chocolate, apple and pistachio, some were better than others (hold the bean paste for me please.....)

Lunch consisted of a selection of random street foods. "Meat sticks" were a lot more tasty than they sound, we devoured various shapes, colours and sizes including crab, asparagus & bacon and octopus amongst others. Nothing gourmet but they were good and filled a gap keeping us warm from the biting wind on the seafront.

One of the other island specialities is charcoal grilled oysters with numerous vendors out on the street calling at you to attract you to their wares. I'm never going to be an oyster fan unfortunately so the sales patter fell on deaf ears.

Although the island is small and easily negotiable on foot, the other option for getting about is in a manpowered rickshaw which plenty of the Japanese tourists were taking advantage of. It seemed like the epitome of laziness whilst I was walking along the flat town roads, when I got a further up the hill in the ten minute walk to the cable car I was starting to be a little envious.  Crowning over the island is Mount Misen at around 500m which may not seem enormous but is very prominent on such a tiny island. Although you can climb all the way to the top of the mountain if you're so inclined, we caught the two staged, kilometre long cable cars up to the top and then had a bit of a wander, visiting the small temple but unfortunately didn't see any of the wild monkeys that the signs warn you about. On a clear day you do, however get a 360 degree view out over the ocean and back to Hiroshima.

Whilst the whole island is designated as a World Heritage Site it is at the top of Misen that one of the most important sites is located. Reikado Hall is home to a cauldron that has an eternally burning flame tended by resident monks who glide serenely around the plaza outside the Hall and ensuring that The sacred flame in the cauldron was the one used to light the flame at the peace monument in Hiroshima.

Our ryokan, Ryoso Kawaguchi,  was quite a small one set back on a street parallel to the main sea front tourist thrust. The day that we arrived we were the only non Japanese guests which meant quite an audience at dinner intrigued as to how we would react to ryokan food. Kawaguchi had two onsen bathing rooms, one with a very large onsen that would have fitted at least six to sit  (or just me wallowing about like a hippo in the steam) It really is a very relaxing way to spend the early evening floating around in gloriously warm water before retiring to your room to put on your yukata coat and slippers ready for dinner. Unlike many ryokan where dinner is served in your room at low table on the tatami mat, dinner at Kawaguchi was served in a main dining room downstairs. The meal was served kaiseki style as a series of small courses although scaled down slightly from the traditional full 14 dish offering.

The opening course of seared salmon sashimi was delicate but beautifully flavoured, quite literally melting in the mouth, orange juice giving it a contrasting citrus tang.

Unagi- the evil bony eel!
Unagi was cooked well with a sweet teriyake style coating and served with wasabi broccoli but the tiny bones in the eel and the accompanying skin put me off too much. It is however, considered to be a valuable delicacy so in it went with a smile on my face. 

The Mukōzuke was sashimi of sea bream and mackerel. Tasty and prettily served on a tiny dish.  
The Shiizakana course is usually the most substantial of the meal and in this case was a pork hot pot. 

The ingredients are served chilled and fresh on a tray and you then cook them in the broth as you like it. The broth was unusually creamy but quite delicious based on clams and the slices of raw pork loin cooked in only a couple of minutes. Additions of enoki mushrooms and a pak choi/ cabbage like vegetable added crunch. Small chinks of silken tofu added yet another textural dimension.

Another course of seared beef served with spring onion and yuzu was excellent and I could quite merrily have just eaten a large plate of the beef with some rice and been more than happy. I can't quite find a course within the traditional kaiseki meal that fits the beef so I think we were probably winging it a bit. The next course of tamago and snow peas was a delicate end to the savoury part of the meal.


Sake very much....
The Mizumono conclusion to the meal was  an orange sorbet acting as an effective palate cleanser.

The ryokan was also the location of our first taste of sake during the trip. I had tried sake in England but only ever had it served hot which I didn't like and rather short sightedly it had put me off. I don't know why it had never occurred to me just how varied sake can be, after all if wine can be broad in its styles and appeal then there is no reason why sake can't be either. This one had a very delicate, slightly sweet flavour and was served ice cold.

Although after a relaxing onsen and slow paced dinner it is very tempting to retire for the night in a happy glow, but if you visit Miyajima please, please do make the effort to drag yourself back outside and go for a walk at night. The knee high stone lanterns along the sea front are lit and provide the only light by which to navigate the island as by nightfall all the shops are shut and boarded up for the night. A quiet peace falls broken only by the wind whispering through the lanes. The entire island is a very different place to the brightly lit, gaudy rows thronging with crowds souvenir hunting during the day. 

Personally I couldn't go to Japan and do an entire trip purely of ryokan stays. Whatever any die hard purists will tell you to the contrary, tatami mats are not comfortable and despite layering up the mats a la princess and the pea, it is still not a good night's sleep.  Doing everything at floor level is also kind of touch on the knees. I hate old that makes me sound and feel but sadly its true! It's a great experience and lots of fun to dress up in a yukata etc but you do find yourself thinking about mattresses and duvets in a much more obsessed and yearning way than seems entirely right. 

Ryoso Kawaguchi
739-0500 469 Miyajima-cho Saeki-gun,
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