I test-dined Smithfield’s Saki to see whether Chef Omakase’s seven-course ‘Cherry Blossom’ tasting menu captured the essence of spring. In Japan, as with the autumn leaves and harvest moon festivals, the blossoming of cherry and plum trees is a time of national celebration.
The progress of ‘Hanami’ (flower-blooming) is announced in a forecast following the news bulletin as it sweeps from the warm south in late March to the cooler north by early May. Under the perfumed branches, friends, families and colleagues toast the Gods of the trees with the brewed rice drink, sake, no doubt hoping for a petal to fall into their cups – a lucky sign.
Not being well-versed in Japan’s gastronomic canon, I hijacked a sake sommelier to guide me through a menu matched with artisanal Akashi sake. Despite the occasional ream of mock tatami, she said that the venue felt authentic, right down to its multi-tasking electronic loos, which are alone worth the trip.
Contrasting blood red walls, a paper white square of seating featured phallic candle stalagmites from which Carry On could eek hours of material. Fellow diners included animate Japanese, efficient with their chopsticks and English women wearing double-cuffs – the uniform of the lawyer.
Seared seabass looked tantalisingly pearlescent and came with a sharp squiggle of plum and rubber glove yellow Nanohana flower. Its aftertaste was Marmite like, backed by savoury umami. This was matched not with sake but an oak matured white wine made from red grapes. The result was too much toast and a trace of tannin – perhaps a deliberate picking to highlight sake’s aptness.
The ‘assorted delicacy of the season’ was bright and busy, incorporating grilled meaty snapper, moist braised duck, crunchy white asparagus set into a cube of tear salty petrified dashi, triangles of young bamboo, a skewered chestnut sweetened mushroom ball and an almost luminous radish fermented in sour plum and crimped into stars. It was harmonised with cool, ultra-premium sake made from grains that were highly milled to get to the starch at the centre (Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo).
Regardless of season, Italians find ice cream irresistible. According to Saki’s Italian maitre’d who fell in love with all things Japanese two decades ago, the homemade cherry blossom ice cream is crafted in such small quantities that he is yet to be offered a taste! Served with a punchy green tea, red bean and cherry infused ‘shochu’ shot, which unlike real sake is distilled, the mild pink, pure cherry infused ice cream mildly evoked coconut in flavour and paste like texture. It was such an immaculate combination that despite a power-cut, I remained entirely focussed on the delicacy.
As chefs cooked by torchlight, we got talking to our neighbours who had recently discovered Japan’s finest forest ‘onsens’ (hot springs).
Seven courses with sakes from differing geography, polished and unpolished grains, served cold and warm cost £99. Whilst this seems sheer in bankrupt Britain, we left literally filled with the joys of spring. Not only had the meal delivered a painstaking procession of plates, it had provided a flavoursome education into sake. Timely, according to my friend, seeing as the number of small, family-owned sake breweries has halved in the past 50 years. You could therefore see establishments like Saki as embassies inviting a new market to taste Japan’s most famous alcohol…
In addition to the Cherry Blossom menu, Saki is seeing-in spring with a free tasting of Akashi, 6-8pm, on April 23.
You can find cherry blossom at Kew Gardens or Hyde Park (by the Albert Memorial).
Saki Bar and Emporium
4 West Smithfield
Tel: 020 7489 7033