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Sake No Hana

23 St James Street, London, England, SW1A 1HA, United Kingdom

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In Japan the entrances to restaurants are usually very discreet. This certainly applies to Alan Yau’s Sake No Hana, since I couldn’t even see a sign with the restaurant name. It is in the premises that used to house the ill-fated Shumi, and before that Che, but the building has been completely gutted and redesigned. You enter at ground floor level and go up an escalator to the dining room, which features black lacquer and lots of wood. Even the ceiling has an elaborate wooden design. Most tables, including the one we were shown to, is kotatsu style eating i.e. you have to take you shoes off, and then lever yourself into a table sunken into a pit in the floor, each table having a little heater under the seats. This is certainly a style of dining common enough in Japan, but the design here is rather peculiar. Instead of being able to slide into your seat from the side you have to clamber over a wooden bench and drop your feet into the sunken area. This is all very well for the young and trendy celebrities that no doubt Sake No Hana wants to attract, but would be entirely impractical for anyone remotely elderly. Moreover the heaters under the seats are too effective, and as the evening wore on the temperature became uncomfortable, yet the air conditioning seemed unable to be adjusted. Perhaps this will be fixed in time. However when booking there is no warning of the style of seating, so if you want to try the place then you may wish to ask for a regular table if one of your party is are less than limber. One other bold touch is that there is no wine list. In Japan you usually drink beer or sake, and indeed there is beer (at £9 for a 500 ml bottle of Suntory) and a sake list complete with Australian sommelier. I know very little about sake, but he guided us to a very enjoyable bottle at around £60.

So to the menu. A key to the success of Hakkassan was the accessibility of the menu: no chicken’s feet and the like, just appealing dishes well executed. This does not seem to the aim here, with the menu set out in sections that will be entirely unfamiliar to anyone who has not eaten Japanese food and to many who have e.g. “Tsuki dashi” are tiny snacks (in fact more usually a move in sumo wrestling, but given the context here tiny snacks, but described by the waitress as “salads”). Agemono means “meat on sticks” but there is no translation of these terms. Why not spell out the terms in English? Menu selection is further complicated because, as was explained to us “the dishes are of very different sizes, some tiny some large”. So, no clues there then.

King crab and cucumber salad was a very small bowl of crab meat with a little sliced cucumber, and was pleasant enough (13/20). Yamaino somen was mountain yam, sliced finely rather like noodles, with a little parcel of salmon roe and a tiny piece of wasabi root and a dipping sauce of dashi (the universal stock in Japan, made from kelp and dried bonito). The wasabi here seemed genuine, which is unusual (the version we usually see is really horseradish coloured green) but when we asked for a little more we were brought the usual horseradish version (real wasabi is somewhat expensive, but this seemed an odd thing to do; the point was that we each wanted to try the real wasabi). One oddity on the menu was Chilean seabass with miso, which given all the other efforts at authenticity seemed peculiar (Chilean seabass is neither Chilean nor sea bass, being the re-marketed Patagonoian toothfish, and is in my view a rather dull tasting fish, but more to the point is hardly traditional Japanese). Soft shell crab was served with shimeji mushroom and mizuna (a green leafy vegetable with a mild mustard taste). The crab itself was mostly reasonable, but one piece was a little soggy (12/20). 

Better was ebi, deep fried shrimp which was tasty, crispy and nicely cooked (15/20). The tempura were fair but not of dazzling quality, and were tiny (though to be fair they are just £2.20 per piece). Various vegetables as well as prawns can be tried; I did not think the tempura was anywhere near the gossamer lightness that I had experienced at good restaurants in Japan (perhaps 13/20 or so). 

We then moved on to the Takiawese (simmered dishes) which were a mixed bag. A small sliver of wagyu beef with carrot and potato (this was £6.50, but another wagyu dish was £70) was very disappointing, the sliver of beef boiled far too long, resulting in a grey, chewy mess, a tragic waste of good beef (10/20). Yet pork rib was extremely tender, the meat almost falling off the rib, served with sugar snaps, carrots and pepper (16/20). Langoustine arrived as just that, a single langoustine and another tail, just cooked though without anything to go with it; fine but frankly in terms of flavour this was a less good langoustine than ones I cooked at the weekend (12/20). Mackerel sushi was pleasant but no more than that; again it did not have particularly good flavour, which rather surprises me as I would imagine they would have tried quite hard to source good fish (12/20).

You may be wondering what happened to the sushi. Despite there being a sushi bar downstairs this was closed, apparently due to staff shortages. Initially we were told that there was no sushi or sashimi available. Yet during the meal popped up a plate of very good sashimi (tuna, toro una, salmon, yellowtail, turbot) which was all very nice (15/20) and at the end of the meal a plate of sushi appeared (eel, salmon, tuna etc) – again very good (14/20). We finished the meal with a rice dish, eel rice which I enjoyed very much – the rice cooked in stock, the eel cooked well, and black cod rice, also very good (15/20). 

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  • Andrew Kojima

    I think agemono means "fried things"

  • Douglas Keel

    Lunch in Feb 2013.Great space, excellent service (except for a lot of distracting fast walking – almost running - by some waiters), some interesting dishes. Unfortunately, all-important basics were mediocre.

  • Joshua

    Some changes around the edges, but the fundamentals remain the same - and a tad disappointing. Presumably in response to nearly universal critical befuddlement, the menu has been simplified and clarified - indeed, so much that it appears almost sterile now. Sushi is emphasized, and rolls such as crab and avocado as well as spicy tuna were tasty, if short of sublime. Ribeye beef-laden sticky rice was the meal's greatest success, and iced wine jelly with crab meat below and roe on top was the most interesting dish. But shrimp and pumpkin tempura dishes were merely good, not great; and soft-shell crab was difficult to eat and, for that matter, difficult to coax much taste from. Wines are now available, and a shochu-based cocktail with grapes was tasty. While perhaps a more comfortable dining experience with recent alterations to food and drink offerings, Sake No Hana remains noticeably below Yauatcha, for example, in the success of its dishes - and noticeably above it in its prices.

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