20 January 2012

Soba On A Saturday Night


I have spent the last couple of days flicking through photos from last week. Japan had long been at the top of my wish list and, while some longed-for destinations can't help but disappoint, Japan exceeded every expectation. 

Since landing back at Heathrow last Sunday, I've been thinking where to start in terms of posts. And, five days later, I'm still scratching my head. There is so much to cover, so many incredible dishes to talk about, so many unique experiences to try and make sense of... I could probably spend the next month or more blogging about just four remarkable, densely packed days and barely dent the surface. I've then got to condense that down to 1200 words for a feature. If that sounds like a very middle class moan, you've probably got a point: it is undoubtedly a wonderful dilemma to be facing.

So, while I beat myself up in a middle class fashion (a T M Lewin hair shirt, perhaps?), I reckon the place to start is not with one of the six kaiseki (multiple course) meals we (mostly) enjoyed or with the eye-popping sights and sounds of Tsukiji, Tokyo's remarkable fish market, but with the final - and simplest - meal of the trip. Our last night was spent wandering "Yakitori Alley", a hotchpotch of stalls and shops offering bowls of noodles, grilled meats and assorted odd things (well, by Western standards) on skewers. The place has remarkable energy, thanks to a mix  of tourists, locals and some remarkably drunk men, and the smells Oh, the smells! Smoke and steam billow from holes in the wall, hot coals glow, and the sweet, enticing aroma of hot fat teases and excites. 

For me, after one circuit, there was only one possible destination: the little corner stall, where a ridiculous 380 Yen (about £3.50) would get you a bowl of steaming broth, noodles, a tempura vegetable fritter and a soft-boiled egg. Staff fried, steamed, scooped and served with easy grace in the small space, customers went shoulder to shoulder on the tiny stools outside. It was food that takes a minute to prepare, five minutes to eat and a lifetime to forget. 

9 January 2012

And So...

There are a few more (read "a lot of") catch up posts still to come for 2011 but one is slightly more pressing than the others: a very enjoyable lunch at So

In this line of work - or "work" if you prefer / are one of my friends who ALWAYS does the air quotation mark thing when discussing my "job" (they do it on that too) - there are a few questions you ALWAYS get asked. One is 'how do I get your "job" you jammy bastard?'. The other is 'where should I take my husband / wife / boyfriend / girlfriend / colleague / mother / etc.?' 

The problem with the second question is I can never remember anywhere when put on the spot. I'm not one of these people who rushes off to every new opening (dear god, can you imagine my size if I did?), nor do I do a lot of repeat visits (unless we're talking lunch time sandwich and change from a tenner). In addition, work often dictates where I'm eating. If that sounds like a complaint, it's not meant to: rarely have the words "jammy" and "bastard" been so accurately applied. 

Being of sieve-like brain, I've put together a short mental list of those stalwart places you know you can confidently recommend to anyone. It's a mix of the expected and the local, the conventional and the eclectic, the expensive and the pocket-friendly and all points inbetween. So sits very neatly on that list and, remarkably for a sushi place, it also sits closer to the pocket-friendly side of the list. 


The smoked duck is a generous portion of delicious tenderness for a fiver. The same applies to the wings (same price) and the scallop and daikon salad (a quid more). You can eat very well for sensible figures here. You can also push the proverbial out for black cod in miso (a dish that's available in many places but not always to this standard) and 15 pieces of sashimi. They're £20 and £25 respectively: not cheap then, but not excessive either.Regardless, £30 a head will send you back onto the Soho streets feeling well-fed, refreshed and enjoying a bit of a protein rush. 

So why the pressing need to talk about So now? Because tomorrow - and you haters of smugness (you know who you are and hey, so do I) may need to look away now - I'm off to Tokyo with the owner, Tetsuro Hama, and his chef, Kaoru Yamamoto. Yeah. I know. Jammy bastard. On the assumption Tokyo has a bit of wifi (yeah, it does seem like a pretty safe assumption, doesn't it?), stand by for some serious Tweeted food porn and, hopefully, a bit of live(ish) blogging...

3 January 2012

The Lost Post

New Year, new resolve... The plan, as you've probably all guessed or, er, remember from previous years, is to blog more regularly. The reality will no doubt be that reality gets in the way. However, having seen the benefits of planning in 2011, I've managed to keep January mostly free in order to give 2012 some structure and catch up on some long outstanding posts from 2011. Part of the deal is also the chance to review what was probably my finest ever year of eating and, let's face it, it's had some serious competition. 

Even so, 2011 was a landmark year, from the joys of handheld snackage to a surprisingly large number of Michelin stars, via many memorable experiences, remarkable people and lots of travel. There were many unexpected pleasures in there (two of the year's finest meals occurred in Latvia and Estonia), and at least one of those happened in Dubai. 

I'd been to Dubai before and came away slightly bemused. The place is so gloriously odd and artificial that you can't help but wish they'd stop taking themselves so seriously and just admit that: a) they're not fooling anyone; and b) are effectively Vegas.  While I'd certainly recommend it for those of you who want a hotel break - you're guaranteed insane heat, great food and impeccable service - the official line of Dubai being full of culture seemed a slightly misguided claim. It wasn't therefore on my list of places I wanted to return to... and then the invite came through to spend a weekend at Atlantis The Palm

Like I say, Dubai is a brilliant place if you just want to stay on resort and revel in luxury. And there is nowhere more glorious to do that than at Atlantis. The Palm bit of the address refers to the man-made, reclaimed land that juts out into the Gulf in the shape of that tree. If you were trying to think of something that just shouted wondrous excess, you couldn't come up with anything better. The hotel occupies many acres - many, many, MANY acres - of the top bit of the palm, giving views, through the haze, of downtown Dubai and also out to sea.


Quite a lot of that footprint is taken up by the aquarium (and I apologise for the assorted "Ray!" injokes that pop up on Twitter quite a lot), the incredible rooms (I could have got my London flat into my suite at least twice) and multiple dining opportunities. My colleagues on the trip have already commented on some of the dining / experiences here, here and here (and the latter two with much better photography than I could muster) and, like Chris and Jeanne, I could wax lyrical on the joy of (snogging) playful dolphins and the incredible and incredibly delicious tuna collar, for hours (not to mention the sheer brilliance of the tahini fountain).

So I won't. Instead, I'm going to show the other side of Atlantis because, while it's possible to eat like a king (at least) three times a day, there's some much lighter-hearted dining available too. This includes an outpost of American chain Coldstone Creamery where you can choose for all sorts of sticky treats to be smooshed into scoops of rich ice cream and also enjoy the antics of the servers who'll flick your scoops around the room and slam dunk them into cups... with, admittedly, the occasional mishap. 



It also includes TBJ which stands for The Burger Joint. Yep, you guessed it, even Dubai is going through the burger craze. TBJ has a slight advantage over many downtown places in that the hotel's demand for the best ingredients means that, thanks to executive chef Mark Patten, they're breeding their own heavily marbled, Wagyu-like cattle in Australia. At any given moment, there's a shipment of beef headed their way and that boat journey is an incredibly effective way of ageing meat to  their requirements. The net effect is that the steaks in their dedicated beef restaurant Seafire are the best in the city and - surprisingly - the best value. The knock on effect is that the burgers served in TBJ are made with offcuts of this beef. 


Does it work? Oh dear God, yes. In a year of regular Goodman burgers and several meanders through the menu at Meateasy and Meatliquor, TBJ was a stand out experience, with intense beefiness (undoubtedly bolstered by the fact that, in a Moslem country, the "bacon" is also made out of cow), slices of the sort of cheese even Mr Pople would approve of, a good ratio of (slightly sweet brioche-like) bun to burger (and bread that held its shape as the burger gave up its juices) and just enough salad. Chips too were excellent, ditto the thick milkshakes and the surroundings: the chance to "graffiti" your name on the wall isn't the sort of behaviour you might associate with a famously strict country such as Dubai which probably makes it all the more satisfying.