We were searching for a venue for a friend’s birthday last week. It was a bit of a ‘milestone’ birthday, so we wanted somewhere with atmosphere and good food. We spotted the 40% deal on Toptable and thought,”Why not?”
The restaurant itself IS beautiful, but the atmosphere was slightly ruined by the escalators that were out of order. Trying not to trip on the way up with the totally impeccable and impassable concierge behind me was pretty nerve-wracking. Our table wasn’t ready, but by the time I made the totally ridiculous trip to the toilets (afore-mentioned concierge vaguely waved in direction and I toddled off, spending an awkward minute by the hidden till waiting for the lift) we were all happily seated with a very charming Thai waiter. He made us feel totally at ease and had an enthusiasm for the food and the restaurant that was really disarming.
After paging through the menu, I noticed that some of the dishes that had been fairly heavily reviewed had been removed from the menu. It also seemed that a few of the most expensive dishes had been removed. The menu was now in English with Japanese kanji next to it, which was a little disappointing because I would have liked to see romanji to understand some of the ingredients.
We started with a glass of the Hanyu Jack of Clubs 1991, a 15 year old whiskey that one of my friends joined immensely and was happy to sample with the 40%, despite the steep £18.50 price tag for 50ml. I’m not a whiskey drinker, but he was totally enamoured, ready to propose after the first date, etc. I shared a carafe of the Asamurasaki Akai Sake (£16) with the birthday girl . Our waiter told us that the sake was very smoky and very different to other sakes in that it was a red colour, and not clear. Having tried sake before we were very happy to have it, but did appreciate the fact that he did confirm it was to our tastes.
We took awhile to go through the menu and choose our own personal picks and preferences. The great thing about dining with friends from Hong Kong is that we have very similar tastes and hardly any items that we wouldn’t eat, but our palates are diverse enough to keep the meal interesting. Seared fatty tuna sushi was vetoed as the birthday girl noted that the tuna served in Sake no Hana is not known to be sustainable. We also vetoed the wagyu beef, as online reviews indicated that it wasn’t worth the price tag. We’ve happily had wagyu in Hong Kong before so weren’t desperate to try it here.
We settled on sesame aubergine (£6), salmon, seabass and octopus sashimi salad (£11), the crunchy king crab roll (£14.50) and sea bass carpaccio with yuzu ponzu sauce to start. We also chose the grilled yellowtail with daikon ponzu, the black cod tatsuta age with rice (£14.50), marinated sake chicken (£8), Berkshire pork katsu with shiitake mushroom (£7.50). Our waiter was great in gently breaking it to us that maybe we had ordered too much without making us feel like total gross gluttons. On his recommendation, we decided not to get the king crab roll or the pork katsu. He rightly said that the pork katsu was a dish you could get elsewhere in London whereas the other dishes were a little different.
The aubergine, sashimi salad and carpaccio came first. The serving of aubergine was decently sized, with about six sticks of gently grilled aubergine with a very thick sesame paste on top. The thickness of the sesame paste was surprising – it had a texture not unlike molasses and could easily be manipulated into a ball and eaten on its own. The thickness wasn’t unpleasant, just surprising, but maybe would have been too rich if you ordered it for yourself. The sashimi salad was delicious: the seabass, salmon and octopus were all soft, fresh and succulent and the ponzu dressing on the salad was very moreish. The carpaccio was the least enjoyable of the three dishes. The fish was very fresh, but the ponzu dipping sauce was exactly the same as what was served on the salad but in a more concentrated form. We considered this unlucky ordering on our part. It really needed something else to make it a dish worth ordering again – spring onions on the fish? Daikon in the ponzu? It was really disappointing and the presentation was a little lame. The pieces of seabass were draped artlessly over one side of a plate with a deep dip in the middle for the sauce. For what Sake no Hana charges, they can definitely do better than this.
The marinated sake chicken came next, and was absolutely delicious. Eight succulent pieces of chicken, each deliciously juicy, with salad and a topping of crispy lotus root. We loved it, but this was the first point of the night where we discussed how the menu gave very little understanding of the size or sometimes the contents! The crispy lotus root was pretty poor – tasteless and greasy, which made me feel happy that we hadn’t ordered tempura. A restaurant like this really shouldn’t be tripping up on its garnish.
The black cod came next, served in a black pot in a style similar to kamameshi. There was more than enough to serve the three of us, and it was absolutely wonderful. I’ve always found it amusing that miso-marinated black cod is considered an A-list dish in London whereas any izakaya in HK or Japan will serve it, obviously to varying degrees of skill. Our waiter mixed the cod with the rice, where it flaked off beautiful and mixed up with the rest of the dish. Um, this was super-noms and beautifully subtle. The soft flakes of cod melted in your mouth alongside the slightly sweet rice, and there was a lovely sharp taste of ginger to spice it up. It was a dish that really made me miss home, an absolute warmer of a dish. But again, without the waiter’s explanation you might think from the description that you were getting black cod next to a bowl of rice.
Unfortunately, we were left waiting for the yellowtail cheek for quite sometime. Our waiter was apologetic, even to the point of telling us that the chef totally forgot, but we were happy to sit our sake and chat and wait for it. Was it worth the wait? I love fish, and this was grilled to perfection on a base of ponzu-soaked daikon radish. I relish every chance I get in the UK to eat a lovely fresh piece of fish, especially cheek. It was a huge piece and we were happy to tuck it in. But seriously, what’s the obsession with ponzu here? Three dishes we had used the exact kind of ponzu. Don’t get me wrong. I love ponzu. But seriously, there are ways to adjust it per dish. It made everything feel a bit ‘samey’, which I’m sure is unfair and unlucky ordering on our part.
We squeezed in passionfruit cheesecake with yuzu ice cream and white chocolate pistachio mousse with lychee sorbet for dessert. Both cakes were lovely and the lychee sorbet was so refreshing, but I’m said to say I’ve had better yuzu ice cream before and both sorbet and ice cream were ruined by being plopped on top of a layer of crumble.
All in all, I couldn’t fault anything about my Sake no Hana experience. Some of the staff were cold, but our waiter was wonderfully attentive. Yes, the lifts to the bathroom suck, especially if you have a late booking like we did and end up worrying that you are going to be stranded down there/attacked like in a Japanese horror film but they’ve managed to work around the constraints of designing a unique restaurant in a listed building admirable. I loved their drinks list, but you will need to make use of your wonderful waiter to explain the dishes and the various sizes of the dishes to get the most out of the experience. And while I couldn’t fault anything, I can’t laud it either. It’s competent, it’s beautiful and I enjoyed eating good Japanese food in a gorgeous setting. But the dishes lacked either a true ring of authenticity or an edge to elevate it in any way. Without the 40%, I don’t know if I would visit again.