Posts Tagged ‘Japanese in London’

TenShi in Islington

I’ve lived in Angel Islington for close to five years now, and I love this ‘hood.  The many food-shopping options and shopping options, generally, make me happy.  As does running along the Regent’s Canal and being able to walk to work.

What holds Islington back from Best Neighborhood Ever status, I think, is its high percentage of mediocre restaurants.  So whenever I hear about a new place in the ‘hood with good reviews, I show up with high hopes, and honestly, I’m usually disappointed.  The latest example of this cycle of disappointment:  TenShi sushi, which opened earlier this year and has gotten recommended a number of times by TimeOut for being good value.

prawn tempura roll

I didn’t order anything very unusual, and yet it was all sub-par.  The prawns in my prawn tempura roll were flavourless, and instead of including crunchy cucumber slices with just the right dab of sweet mayo and wasabi, the rolls were flavored only with soy sauce. In fact, everything at TenShi that I tried tasted of soy sauce:  agedashi tofu, udon noodle soup.

yaki soba

Yaki soba, again, tasted mostly of soy sauce with a dollop of grease mixed in.   Whoever worked the kitchen that night was a lover of soy sauce, for sure, and I kept thinking of that scene in the Joy Luck Club where the clueless dinner guest destroys his food by dousing it in soy sauce.

Service was attentive and fast, and the prices were low (four mains and two shared starters totaled £60).  But if I’m craving sushi and want to stay in the ‘hood, I’ll  stick with Sa Sa Sushi (which is closed on Sunday evenings – hence why I was at TenShi on a Sunday evening).  So without further ado . . . .
Tenshi on Urbanspoon

Sa Sa Sushi

I’ve meant to do a blog post about Sa Sa Sushi for ages.  It’s one of those places where I eat very often and take for granted, and I feel very protective towards the kind and welcoming people who work there, so I suppose a part of me didn’t want to subject them to potentially-unfriendly scrutiny.  But you know, after eating the fish here at least three times a month for a couple of years, I owe them a shout out, no?

assorted nigiri and rolls at Sa Sa Sushi

Jon and I don’t vary our orders much here.  It’s our prerogative to avoid exploring the menu when it’s just a quick bite out in the neighborhood.   Which is all to say, I vouch for the rolls and the nigiri and have no opinion either way on Sa Sa Sushi’s other dishes.   Prawn tempura roll, of course, is one of my favorites, as are the crunchy-and-spicy [insert any fish here] rolls.  I like, for example, that when you order a spicy tuna roll, you don’t end up with a mayonnaise-chili-mash of last-week’s tuna.  Instead, the roll includes a hefty piece of identifiably-fresh tuna that is delicately spiced with chili.

udon noodle soup at Sa Sa Sushi

Jon’s an udon noodle lover, so he gets this a lot.  I’ve had a taste of his a few times, and it’s good, but when I show up at Sa Sa, I’m there for the fish.

Service at Sa Sa can be slow, but most times the slow-ness is due to the care with which the sushi chefs are making each roll and piece of nigiri (I’ve watched them while sitting at the sushi counter up front).

The restaurant’s decor is bright and inoffensive, if a bit charmless, and prices are reasonable (£4-6 a roll), so the tab usually comes to £20 a person if you’re sticking only with the sushi options (which you should).

I’m not claiming the place is a destination restaurant, but I confidently assert that Sa Sa is one of the best places to eat in Islington and miles better than what I’ve tried at TenShi.

Sa Sa Sushi, 422 St. John Street, EC1V 4NJ, 020 7837 1155; closest tube station:  Angel (exit the station and make a left, away from Upper Street and towards City Road).
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Tsuru Bishopsgate/Spitalfields

I love working near Spitalfields market, partly because it means my commute is short, and mostly because the food options are about ten thousand times better than they were in Canary Wharf.  Still, I’m nothing if not a complainer, and for a while I’ve bemoaned the lack of good sushi options for lunch.  Itsu is OK in a pinch.  Japanika isn’t bad but there’s no seating.

A few months ago, I was excited to learn on “Good for Lunch” that Tsuru Sushi had opened a branch at 201 Bishopsgate.  Bizarrely, despite keeping an eye out for Tsuru while walking on Bishopsgate numerous times, I couldn’t find it.

So here’s my tip for those in search of sushi when near Liverpool Street station:  despite the restaurant’s Bishopsgate address, Tsuru’s entrance is actually off Primrose Street, and even from Primrose Street, it’s easy to miss.  You’re more likely to see the Pret a Manger next door because for some reason, Tsuru has eschewed proper signage.

salmon-avocado rolls and prawn tempura rolls (background)

salmon-avocado rolls in the foreground (£3.95) and prawn tempura rolls in the background (£4.25)

In any case, Tsuru is worth searching out.  The ready-made rolls always taste freshly made.  In fact, a couple of times, the prawn tempura in the prawn tempura rolls was still warm and crispy.  Yum.  Another plus:  the rice isn’t stone hard/refrigerated to within an inch of its life.  For ready-made stuff, Tsuru’s rolls are  good.

pork katsu curry (£6.10)

I should confess I’m not always eating healthy when I drop by Tsuru.  Pork katsu curry hits all the buttons – crispy, relatively grease-free, and generous amounts of slightly-sweet curry and rice.  You can order it in chicken, too, but given the choice, I’ll take pig every time.

chicken teriyaki (£6.35)

Chicken teriyaki (looking kind of gross in the above picture, I must say) is comprised of thigh meat, which is my fave if I have to eat chicken.  It’s not bad, but when I’m ordering a hot lunch, the katsu curries always win me over.

Tsuru’s outdoor seating on a nice day is shady and pleasant, and there’s plenty of indoor seating as well.  For a quick, inexpensive and tasty lunch during the work week, Tsuru is a great option.  You can even get tap water served in a proper glass.

Tsuru Sushi, 201 Bishopsgate (but accessible only via Primrose Street, look for it next to a Pret a Manger), EC2M 3UG; 0207 377 1166; closest tube station: Liverpool Street Station

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spider roll at Sake No Hana

spider roll at Sake No Hana

Last April, when Jon and I visited Sake No Hana, it was still basking in the glow of post-opening hype. Even if I hadn’t blogged about it, I’d remember that the food was good, but not good enough to justify those prices.

Two weeks ago, Jon saw on TopTable that Sake No Hana was having a 50% off promotion, and you know, at half off, we thought Sake No Hana was worth a re-visit.

Things got off to a bumpy start when Sake No Hana couldn’t find our booking. They found us a table, but then we were uncertain whether we’d still get the 50%-off deal. Jon, being That Guy, was prepared to walk if the resto didn’t give us the discount. So, we asked our server if we’d be getting the discount, and there was much consulting among the various people who visited our table afterwards to confirm that, in fact, we would like the discount.

In the end, we got the nod. Feeling slightly awkward about the whole thing (there had to have been a graceful way of claiming the discount, no?), we tried to put it behind us, and we ordered with gusto.

seaweed salad at Sake No Hana

seaweed salad at Sake No Hana

I’m normally a fan of seaweed salads at Japenese restos. I love the slight crunch of the seaweed, along with the nutty sweetness of rice vinegar and sesame oil. It’s also, usually, a pretty cheap dish.

Although I wondered why Sake No Hana’s version was priced at £12.50, I figured at half off, I’d give it a try.

Well, the salad was super colorful and chock full of mushrooms. But the dressing was too acidic and citrusy – everything just tasted sour. The mushrooms lacked flavor, which meant they were just glorified sponges, soaking up more of that over-citrused dressing. The salad didn’t even have varied textures to save it. Too bad. Even £6.25 was too much to pay.

Sesame aubergine at Sake No Hana

Sesame aubergine at Sake No Hana

Sesame aubergine (£5.50) was much hyped a year ago, so Jon and I tried it out. It wasn’t bad, but the sauce was too sweet and thick. I would’ve preferred if the aubergine’s natural sweetness had been allowed to shine, instead of its (almost) drowning in sauce.

Because I had a craving, I ordered the spider roll (pictured at the top of this post). £10.80 gets you an elaborate, pretty-looking roll, but I couldn’t taste the soft shell crab. When it comes to sushi, simple is best. I feel sad when good seafood is overwhelmed by fussiness.

Tosa tofu with bonito flakes at Sake No Hana

Tosa tofu with bonito flakes at Sake No Hana

Despite not being a vegetarian, I love tofu. Especially if it’s deep fried. So the tosa tofu, crusted in bonito flakes and deep fried was a must. Crispy and hot on the outside; creamy and soft on the inside. I liked it, and though it normally costs £7, for £3.50, it was a steal.

Pork ribs for two at Sake No Hana

Pork ribs for two at Sake No Hana

Last time we ate at Sake No Hana, we got talked out of the pork ribs and steered towards some un-tasty crab. Not a mistake we’d repeat this time! Even at the regular price of £22, you get a lot of pork for your money. The enormous pork ribs were served in a cast-iron pot, almost French style. Jon and I loved its homey fattiness. It’s really the last dish we’d expect at a Japanese restaurant, but the braising liquid was beautifully clear and light, as if it’d been strained clean. All that was left was a sweet-salty-sour goodness.

Last April, we paid £125 with wine. This time, with 50% off the food bill, we paid £71, including wine. Even with the discount, Sake No Hana was no bargain, but I’d say £71 was a fair price for the food, chic decor and attentive, efficient service.

For my sushi fix, though, I’ll stick with cheap-and-cheerful Tomoe.

Sake No Hana, 23 St James’s St, SW1A 1HA, 020 7925 8988. Closest tube station: Green Park

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Sake No Hana interior from Jan Moir

Because I’m a fan of Alan Yau’s restaurants, particularly Hakkasan (yes, I know he sold off control of Hakkasan and Yauatcha recently, but to me, they’ll always be his restos), I’ve been meaning to get to Sake No Hana since it opened a few months ago. Part of the reason I held off, though, is because professional reviews have shared an underlying message of “I am going to say nice-ish things about the food without having to say I really didn’t enjoy the place.” Or maybe that’s just me, projecting. [It seems I’ve just given away the ending to the otherwise-high-suspense, gripping medium known as the restaurant review.]

On the other hand, my friend Jane enjoyed her experience there a few weeks ago, as did my friend Shamini, and another food blogger who ate there twice in a month. So. I went this weekend for dinner.

Grilled blue king crab with ponzu sauce at Sake No Hana

Jon and I didn’t get to sit at one of the fab-looking tatami-mat tables because there aren’t any that seat two. We ended up way in the back of the dining room, by the kitchen and the escalator that takes you out of the resto. In case it wasn’t bad enough that we were in Siberia missing out on tatami mat fun, I overheard both the couple to my left and the one to my right ask their servers why the restaurant didn’t serve house fried rice. Weird. I wonder: do people go to Japanese restaurants looking for fried rice? [Jon, ever the cultural translator, explained that “house fried rice” is what non-Chinese people call fried rice without soy sauce. Fascinating.]

Anyhow, it seems the menu has been updated since all the first reviews of Sake No Hana came out. It’s still organized by cooking technique (grilled, fried, braised, etc.), but in English, not Japanese. So in that way, I thought the menu was pretty easy to navigate. Slightly frustrating, though, was how unpredictable portion sizes were and how one of our servers’ guidance was so off:

Jon and I had thought the braised pork ribs sounded delish, but our server told us it was intended to serve four people and suggested we try the grilled blue king crab with ponzu sauce (photo above), instead. We hesitated – because we sure love braised pork – but she won us over by adding “the crab is really delicious.”

Well, the enormous crab claws were still smoking when they arrived, and the ponzu sauce was poured on at the table, causing much sizzle, steam and general drama. It’s just too bad the crab meat was kind of tough and the ponzu brought about only a slightly sour taste on the crab. £28 badly spent.

And how extra disappointing that it seemed the servers were pushing the king crab all night! (We bumped into acquaintances on our way out who mentioned their server’s very strong rec of the dish).

tempura prawns and courgette blossoms at Sake No Hana

Our prawn tempura and courgette blossom tempura were super oily and a tad soggy, which surprised me because I’d expected the virtuoso grease-free frying at Hakkasan to just find its way to Sake No Hana.

The fatty tuna nigiri we ordered was OK (disappointingly not melt-in-your-mouth); our braised aubergine was interesting, but threw me off because it was served cold and whole. I didn’t enjoy the cold, slimy feel of it, much as I liked the aubergine’s smoky, salty-sweet flavor. Miso sea bass was good, but ever since the rise of Nobu miso cod, when have you ever seen that dish go wrong? At £18 for a smaller-than-appetizer portion, I don’t think I’d get it again at SNH.

So what did I like about Sake No Hana?

I liked the high ceilings, the sleek, black escalators. The carafes of tap water in ergonomic and stylish crystal pitchers. Servers were all polite and generally helpful. Sakes by the carafe were fun to try and pair with food. A lot of the carafes cost £15-£20 and yielded three or four sake glasses. Plain old sesame udon noodles and agedashi tofu were simple but delicious and beautiful. (I’m glad we threw these last two dishes in, and we ordered them only after we’d eaten everything else and realized we were still hungry).

Our tab for two carafes of sake and all the food I just described (the grilled crab, tempuras, nigiri, braised aubergine, miso sea bass, agedashi tofu and udon noodles) came to £125.

I might go back with a party of four or six to sit in the resto’s snazzy room on a tatami mat, but otherwise, there are a lot of other places I’d go (especially for Japanese food and at these prices) before I revisit Sake No Hana.

Sake No Hana, 23 St James’s St, SW1A 1HA, 020 7925 8988.  Closest tube:  Green Park

Photo at top courtesy of Jan Moir Are You Ready to Order.

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