Thursday 31 May 2012

Shinji by Kanesaka at Raffles Hotel, Singapore

Picture the scene: Japan, some 200 years ago; deep in a forest of hinoki (Japanese cypress) trees, a seed cone came to rest in lush, fertile soil. At the beginning of its life the young, slow-growing sapling would have had plenty of time to consider its destiny - with its beautiful rich, straight grain and soothing lemony fragrance maybe its future lay as a hinoki bathtub; a masu; a hangiri; the stage of a noh theatre or even be part of a palace, temple or shrine?

Like many of its kind would have hoped to grow big and tall - perhaps one day standing proudly with a trunk spanning one metre across and reaching a grand height of 35m. Little would the tree have known that one day an architect would receive a phone call prompting him to drive for four hours. An architect charged with finding the perfect piece of wood from which to carve a counter for two-Michelin-starred chef Shinji Kanesaka’s fine Edo-mae style restaurant in Singapore’s prestigious and historical Raffles Hotel.

Whilst it could be argued that the Raffles’ Long Bar (the home of the Singapore Sling) has become little more than a tacky thing to tick off on the typical tourist's list, other parts of the Raffles hotel maintain the standards and quality that established the name amongst the most famous hotels in the world - where more fitting then, for Shinji Kanesaka-san, as one of the most highly respected and decorated sushi masters to open his first and only restaurant outside of Japan?

Shinji by Kanesaka at Raffles Hotel is considered by many as one of the finest sushi restaurants outside of Japan; and having needed eighteen men to lift the fine hinoki wood counter into position, the exquisite tree now takes centre stage in a restaurant so authentic, the maitre'd likes to tell the story of how a Japanese expat once broke down in tears upon entering because it reminded him so much of home.

At the time of writing, Shinji Kanesaka’s empire oversees establishments with a total of seven Michelin stars between them. (Not including, the three-Michelin stars held by his former protégé Saito-san at Sushi Saito which rumour has it is also part owned by Kanesaka). A number of people in Singapore (who know better than me) told me that the Shinji branch in Singapore is equally as good as the Ginza original.

We opted for the nine piece ‘Hana’ Setsugetsuka Sushi Set Lunch. Used to describe something of serene beauty ‘setsugetsuka’ translates literally as ‘snow, moon and blossom’ and comes from a poem by Bai Juyi. Our meal certainly was beautiful – if ever there was an argument for quality over quantity, this could be it.

Although similar in décor, size and set up to Aoki (see here) the atmosphere is immediately very different. The chefs interact more with the customers and have fun whilst still managing to turn out piece after piece of perfectly precise sushi.

My stepson (who joined my wife and me) and had previously been for the full blown omakase menu (complete with ‘Fugu’ / Pufferfish) during which the chefs apparently all appreciated sharing a good few glasses of sake with the guests – although our lunch budget did not stretch to this on this occasion the chefs still seemed in a party mood: laughing heartily and posing for pictures.

The hana set started with a bowl of seaweed with shards of finely sliced ginger – wonderful clean fresh flavours. Seven nigiri followed – each was served individually (as opposed to on a platter).

The first piece featured a silky, smooth piece of Shimaji (Stripe Jack) – a subtle flavoured fish served over a slightly warm, perfectly seasoned block of sushi rice.

Up next was the Otoro (Full Fatty Tuna) – lightly brushed with Shinji’s soy sauce and spiced with freshly grated wasabi root. Quite simply the best, softest and creamiest piece of tuna I’ve ever tasted.

Whilst eating the otoro we watched the itamae-san cut the thinnest possible slither of Ika (Baby Squid)which he then shredded before twisting like spaghetti onto rice – it was firm and chewy and tasted divine.

Not to be confused with Saba (Mackerel), the next piece of nigiri was Aji (Horse Mackerel) with just a faint hint of skin left on, this was my favourite of the set.

Arriving next in all its glory was a sweet, succulent Kuruma Ebi (Japanese Imperial Prawn) – heavenly!

Having been seared around the edges, Katsuo (also known as Slipjack Tuna or Bonito) came next – what it lacked in texture and creamy, fattiness from the other tunas, it certainly made up for with its deepest flavour.

Next to be presented was the Anago (grilled Sea Eel or Conger) - with my cockney roots, eels have also been a favourite, whether jellied of served with sushi. This was a world away from the Unagi (Freshwater Eel) from packets that is more frequent in the UK – dressed lightly with a glaze of sweet soy, it was soft and yielding and seemingly melted on the tongue.

The final nigiri served featured a slither of deep ruby-red Akami (Yellowfin Tuna or Maguro) – lean with a pure clean finish.

After watching a masterclass of maki preparation, the Tekka Maki (Tuna) – whilst fancy uramakis, California rolls and other creative preparations have their place – a good tekka maki with top quality rice and fish is hard to beat - sometimes the simplest things are the best.

The final savoury course to arrive consisted of two blocks of sweet, custardy Tamago (Egg) – the technique demonstrated for this dish was exceptional. Unquestionably the best I have seen or tasted. 

The meal ended with a wonderfully sweet Warabimochi – the perfect ending to the nest sushi lunch of my life… so far. 

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Hand and Flowers, Marlow

The Hand and Flowers – Tom Kerridge from Great British Menu’s quintessentially British gastropub in Marlow stands out for two reasons:

Firstly, it could well be Britain’s Campest Named Pub.

Secondly, as the only 'pub' in the world to ever be awarded two Michelin stars, it could justifiably be claimed to serve Britain’s Best Pub Grub.

I went, hoping for the latter.

Having this accolade may be considered a double-edged sword - almost every review and blog post I've read about the Hand and Flowers seems to be comparing them to other two-starred restaurants and justifying (or not) Michelin's assertion that the Hand & Flowers is 'worth a detour' (it was) - this, I expect, must annoy the hell out of Tom and his team.

On the other hand though, the increased personal satisfaction and not to mention business that such status generates has to be worth its weight in gold.

It was a gloriously warm summer’s day when I arrived for lunch. I was offered the chance to eat outside.  After eating at The Ledbury last year (another two-star eatery) I enjoyed the food wholeheartedly but regretted agreeing to sit outside, feeling that we didn't get to taste the full 'restaurant experience' - I therefore chose to stay inside.

I selected the exceptional value set lunch deal, although I did supplement it with an additional starter (I had planned to have a second dessert as well but they were too generous with their breads).  

Featuring white and brown full flavoured sourdoughs, the breads were served with good quality butter and replenished when I had greedily worked my way through the first batch.

An amuse bouche set on a bespoke H&F block containing a newspaper cone of Crispy Whitebait with a delicious homemade Marie Rose Sauce arrived next. I love whitebait and these were the best I’ve had – plump, crispy, not at all greasy and seasoned well.

The day’s set lunch starter featured a piping hot Cauliflower Soup with Potato Pakora and Curry Oil – as it was placed in front of me the spices wafted up and smelt delicious. The heavenly scent was backed up by amazing flavours – an excellent dish.

Before the main, I chose Salt Cod Scotch Egg with Chorizo and Red Pepper Sauce – the sauce was vibrant and well flavoured. The breadcrumbs were golden and crispy; the chorizo perfect; the salt fish generous and the potato ‘fishcake’ element seasoned perfectly. The only minor negative was the quail egg, which for me could’ve done with thirty seconds or so less resulting in a runnier yolk.

The set lunch main was, Belly of Wiltshire Pork, Spring Turnip Purée with Marmalade and Italian Leaves. The pork had great flavour – obviously a well-reared piggy. On paper I was concerned about the ‘marmalade’ but it worked well and did not overpower. I found the turnip purée a little runny but the remaining elements were all cooked well.

As a side, I couldn’t resist the Salt Baked Potatoes with Garlic and Parsley Butter that I remember seeing Tom create on the Great British Menu – good potatoes, good butter made great through theatre.

To take advantage of the sunshine, I opted to take my dessert and coffee in the 'garden' (sectioned off graveled area, adjacent to the car park). Whilst it was pleasant enough being outside, this was more to do with the weather than the enjoyment of the space.

Eating in pub gardens is often enhanced by such features as a bubbling brook or watching squirrels scampering up trees - sadly The Hand & Flowers has neither. Not their fault, I know... but when reading about an experience some may expect these things... I know I did - the curse of the 2-stars, unfairly building an expectation of the ‘perfect pub’ beyond perfect food?

Dessert was a Rhubarb Fool with Pistachio Ice Cream and Ginger Meringue – the ginger meringue with its honeycomb-like appearance was the real surprise element of what was otherwise a fairly ordinary yet pleasingly summery dessert.

I wish I had room for an additional dessert as the Passion Fruit Soufflé with Kaffir Lime Ice Cream and Warm Toffee had caught my eye but I had stopped for lunch as Michelin had advised as part of a detour on my way back from London to Manchester – that extra dessert would’ve made for an uncomfortable drive up the M40.

Instead I ended with a freshly squeezed juice and a cappuccino – I’ll be making that ‘detour’ again. I may even make a ‘special journey’ and take my wife down to stay the night in their The Charolais Suite (complete with ‘jacuzzi terrace’).

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