When we first moved to Maida Vale some years ago, Monsieur and I missed having a sushi bar within easy reach of chez nous. To eat Japanese at the weekend, we’d have to travel. Not as far as Tokyo, of course, but across a postcode or two. Sometimes, that’s not what you need at the end of a long week, when the footstool beckons and the only exercise you feel like doing is punching numbers into the phone and asking someone else to do the cooking, so you can just about imagine our delight when a small Japanese eatery called Maguro opened within easy walking distance of home. It didn’t take us long to get down there to test their foreign fare.
The first couple of times we visited Maguro, it was to dine in the restaurant. The wood-panelled interior is so small that it must have been modelled on Japanese spaces – with only room enough for 20 or so covers. Having said that, over time we’ve noticed that during hours of service, Maguro rarely has room for more than a couple of walk-ins, if that. The staff battle for room to serve and clear and even enter the kitchen, which is miniature, and the conveniences hide away in authentic fashion behind a long Japanese curtain at the back of the long dining room. In spite of such restrictions on the possibility of some active cat-swinging, Maguro successfully produces faultless cuisine without interruption. This is proof that size really does not matter.
Unfortunately for lazybones us, Maguro doesn’t deliver (yet) so we dutifully call our order through in advance before setting off to collect our food. Monsieur and I toss a coin for the pleasure of stretching our legs, but invariably we are more motivated than usual to move ourselves, inspired by the pleasure potential of the meal ahead.
Here’s a sample of what we had for our eat-in Friday night ‘date’ last week:
Agedashi tofu. If I tell you that I could visit Maguro for their agedashi tofu alone, you might begin to understand just how good the Maguro version is. The tofu is always piping hot in a delicious gelatinous tempura sauce. I usually don’t do gelatinous unless it’s in a pudding, so take it from me: it’s gotta be good if I like it here.
From left to right: pork gyoza (they also come in prawn, chicken or vegetable. My favourite is the prawn but they’re all very good). Shumai - steamed dumplings filled with a blend of snow crab, salad onions and something called ‘tobiko’ – flying fish roe. Served warm, each shumai provides a perfect mouthful of the subtlest seafood sensation. Last, but not least, tori niku BBQ: barbecue chicken with onion and capsicum - ideal with plain rice. They don’t skimp on the sauce here - there’s always plenty to coat the tender bite-size strips of chicken. The after-burn is just hot enough to be interesting without necessitating a long squirt from the nearest fire extinguisher.
Maguro Tataki: a seared salmon sashimi with ponzu sauce. Each piece of sashimi rests on a bed of finely-grated white radish. A truly refreshing combination of taste and texture.
Maguro yukke – sashimi grade tuna, chopped and tossed in a sesame soy sauce with finely chopped salad onions and pine nuts. Stab at the raw quail’s egg to release the yolk and mix through before eating. A cool, fresh, tangy taste of Asia.
Kani kara age – soft shell crab. Maguro dips the crab pieces in tempura batter and lightly fries them – served with the sort of light horseradish sauce that should be bottled and sold in its own right.
Last, but not least, Maguro’s black cod. This version easily matches Nobu’s signature version. It flakes into morsels with the barest suggestion of a chopstick’s touch, not to mention that the miso paste marinade is one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Over time, Monsieur and I have tried a fair number of items on Maguro’s menu, including teriyaki salmon, the sashimi platter, salmon tartare which has a proper heat to it – most unusual, and the tuna tartare. Even the house salad is worthy of praise. It’s a great destination for anyone watching their weight and offers plenty of choice for vegetarian friends. The myriad menu options cater for all depths of pocket, from shallow to bottomless. The lunchtime Bento boxes are great value, and the set dinners are competitive, but if you want to push the boat out and order the likes of Kobe beef sashimi or foie gras and hotate (seared scallop) it’s definitely possible to rack up quite a bill here.
Drinks are as you’d expect – Japanese beer (Asahi), a selection of warm and cold sakes, plum wine and green tea, along with a small but carefully-chosen wine list and all the regular soft drinks (orange juice, diet soda, mineral water etc).
Sadly, Monsieur and I will be leaving W9 later on this year. We’re ready for a change of scene but we’d feel even better about our future postcode if we knew that Maguro was moving with us. As that’s unlikely, we’ll just have to trek back to the old ‘hood once in a while to ensure that standards aren’t slipping, but for now we’re determined to make the most of our current proximity to this gem of a restaurant, with the project of working our way through as much of the extensive menu before we move. In fact, on writing this, I’ve decided where we’ll have our last supper before the removal van arrives and this is one decision I won’t have to check with Monsieur. As long as the black cod’s still on Maguro’s menu, you can count him in.
Maguro - 5 Lanark Place, London W9 1BT, tel 020 7289 4353
LiKo (Little Korea Restaurant) 2-3 Lisle Street, London WC2H 7BG, Tel 020 7434 1601
In the darkest days of January, when we were still in the throes of post-Christmas empty pocket-dom, a pair of my colleagues and I conjured a carrot to dangle before our noses and lead us out of the gloom: we decided to put a date in the diary for a trip to LiKo, or Little Korea Restaurant, one of London Soho’s culinary gems with crunch-friendly prices.
The time eventually passed and the excitement among us was tangible. At long last we’d be eating the Korean-stroke-Japanese food I’d heard so much about. En route to the restaurant, it snowed, it sleeted and then it started to rain, so entering this initially uninspiring restaurant with dusty plastic sushi in its window and rows of oriental celebrity autographs in scribbled Korean or Japanese (who could tell which?) on one of its walls, was to be rescued from the forces of nature, at least for a couple of hours.
Following Little Miss Denmark, our designated leader for the evening as she knows LiKo well, Mr Positivity and I bypassed the ground floor in favour of the basement, a windowless room filled with non-descript furniture, an unmanned sushi bar at one end with stacks of bento boxes and aluminium take-away trays ready to be filled. Denmark and I were the only European faces in the room; everyone else was Korean or Japanese or Chinese. They obviously approved of this place and I was about to find out why.
We sipped on warm sake and icy Asahi beers as we chose our meal for the evening. Denmark grew up in Japan, so she knows her stuff in a place like this, as does Mr P, whose Chinese background and passion for oriental foods combined to make this an evening worth waiting for.
We started with a shared platter of sushi and several half-moon dumplings (or gyoza) filled with velvety pork and chives. They were delicious. I could probably have consumed three plates’ worth all by myself. Meanwhile, the sushi arrived on a rustic slab of wood with a small mound of ginger on one corner. The maki and California rolls were fresh and good and nothing spectacularly different from sushi elsewhere, but it was certainly an ideal selection for sharing. The conversation turned to ginger – do we like it? Don’t we? With sushi? In tea? To ease nausea? Until now, I never knew that ginger could incite so much passion in a trio of amateur foodies. Now we know.
Soon my attention was tempted away by the arrival of soft shell crab. Anyone who has read about my Malaysian adventures on this blog will already know about my obsession with soft shell crab. On a wet and freezing night in mid-winter London, to eat something so reminiscent of warm, seafood-friendly environments brought the sunniest of smiles to my face. “You can have the last bit,” offered Denmark. “Yes, absolutely,” seconded Mr P as he flashed his signature smile, so for once I didn’t argue and chomped on those last few crispy crab legs with one hundred per cent guilt-free relish.
Little Miss Denmark and Mr Positivity were now discussing the merits of deep-fried tofu. I’m not usually a tofu fan, but wherever I go I’m tempted to revisit such things just in case I got it wrong, or rather, just in case the chef got it wrong on my previous attempt. Boy, was this ever one of those times where that little rule worked beautifully. Denmark had ordered the deep-fried tofu that she’d been craving all week and when the little golden rectangles arrived, they were nice enough but not particularly thrilling. “Oh, no, that’s not what I meant,” she complained, “I thought we’d be getting the smoked tofu cubes in the plate of dipping sauce.” She was so disappointed that Mr P and I could only do the decent thing and insist that we ask for the exact tofu of her desire. This was an exercise in how two tofu dishes can be like chalk and cheese. The new arrival looked as golden-icious as the first, the cubes sitting in a light soy sauce with finely chopped salad onions floating about in it. On biting into them, they were just the right sort of hot, that is, not endangering the upper palate, and there was a delicate smokiness to each creamy bite. Oh yes, I am now a tofu fan; it just has to be this sort of tofu.
Whilst our tofu comparison exercise was gathering momentum, a waitress quietly moved a portable gas stove onto the end of the table. She placed a wok on top of it, already filled to the brim with seafood and vegetables and a lethal-looking red paste. Everything was arranged beautifully in layers and rows, with mussels in their shells fanned around the top. The gas was lit and after a while the sauce beneath began to bubble up around the contents. Mr P started to fill our bowls with ladles of broth and seafood, then adding soba noodles to the mix, just long enough to heat them through before dividing them amongst us. This was the Korean hot pot. More commonly eaten with beef, we’d chosen the equally enjoyable seafood version, although at this point I was finding that my ability to eat much more was fast diminishing. I slowed down, savouring each prawn and mussel and slice of sweet potato and mouthful of squid. In spite of the red paste that had earlier looked so likely to make you flap your hands and pant like a dog, once stirred into the broth it had merely provided a nicely warming zing, as opposed to searing the tongue.
Now contentedly full, I had to decline all else but a tiny spoonful of Mr P’s green tea ice cream. As it was, when we left amidst cheery farewells from the staff, we were satisfied but not stuffed to the point of immovable. Nor had our slowly recovering bank balances been badly dented by the feast. As promised by Denmark, this was affordable, fresh and tasty fare and three happy little foodies were we. At long last we had visited Little Korea and it was transporting, right down to the foreignness of the loos with their dank basement smell and strange-smelling fuchsia pump soap. The people, the food, the unpretentious decor and those dusty plastic pieces of sushi in the window – all made this culinary exercise feel more like a weekend away than an evening spent in London. My only regret? We forgot to try the kimchi so I guess we’ll have to go back and this time, smoked tofu will be top of my list.
Valentine’s Day is one of those occasions that has the potential to fail miserably. If you’re single, it can make you feel very alone. If you’re part of a couple, apart from being the romantic zenith of the calendar ,it can be very expensive, tacky, and can have the opposite of its intended effect by making you realise that no, you’re not the only person in the entire universe that loves someone. Then again, there’s also that breed of folk who deliberately ignore Valentine’s in the hope that it’ll go away, only to incur the wrath of their poor, high-maintenance (I mean neglected) partner. But mostly it’s just another excuse to spend way too much on cards and flowers in the name of commerce.
Many years ago, before my rose-tinted glasses cracked somewhat irreparably, I was invited to a Valentine’s dinner by a young man on whom I had a humongous crush. In preparation, I blow-dried my hair straight and left it long for full flirting flickability. We spent the evening at a Very Cool Jazz Bar where everything was dimly lit and the music so loud that I spent a lot of time leaning across the table, trying to hear what my date was saying. Then, a strange odour wafted up my nose.
“It smells like something’s burning,” I said, trying to locate the source of the stench in the club’s gloom.
“It’s your hair,” replied my date.
As I’d leaned across the table, my hair had dangled straight into the Valentine’s red candle and now a whole, thick strand had burned, had water thrown at it, sizzled, and disintegrated in a mere few seconds. The smell of burnt hair did not leave me for weeks, no matter how often I washed it. As for the budding romance, I think it’s fair to say that this one fizzled out.
Last year, Monsieur and I decided we should make a bit of an effort, rather than hiding ourselves away from the red rose salesmen, heart-shaped chocolate boxesand shop windows full of all things pink or red. Monsieur was decided. He wanted to go to a restaurant; I, on the other hand, wanted very much NOT to go to a restaurant. In the end, being the selfless love goddess that I am, I relented, on the proviso that I choose the venue. In fact, I cheated a bit because I already had an idea of where to book and it certainly wasn’t a place where we’d be an island in a sea of couples, all crooning sweet nothings to each other as they tried to dodge the little men with the buckets full of roses, swaying along to Frank Sinatra singing about flying to the moon. Those are the couples who don’t actually mind that their food is not much quality for a rather expensive quantity, or that champagne costs double the usual or that they’ve had to book weeks in advance to experience nothing short of mediocre. Well, Monsieur and I certainly do not fall into that category of couple-dom. We went to Benihana.
The reasoning behind this was that I hadn’t been to a teppanyaki place for ages and I quite enjoy them. Granted, it’s not the best Japanese that you’re ever going to taste, but flicking knives and flying devilled prawns should ensure that no rose salesmen would get anywhere near us. In case you haven’t yet experienced a Benihana (and admittedly there are quite a few people who don’t like them very much), patrons are seated on high stools surrounding the hot plate, in groups or blended with total strangers. This would surely be the perfect environment for practicing our Valentine’s Avoidance Techniques.
I managed to reserve a special Valentine’s dinner, which just happened to be the only dinner available and which was really just the usual fare teamed with a couple of glasses of fizz. The restaurant was packed and (cringe) there were quite a few couples there, but to dilute the atmosphere of lurve there were also groups of besuited businessmen and several families whose kids were thoroughly enjoying all the samurai knife action. Was it an Anti- Valentine’s success? I’d have to say, yes.
Now it’s that time of year again, when hearts and flowers and greetings cards are everywhere you look. So what do we have in mind for our special day? Well, for once it’s a weekend so domesticity reigns. The aerial guy is coming to fix our TV connection, and we’re (hopefully) going to have a peaceful day at home with some Epic cooking and a DVD or two. No hefty bills and no red rose salesmen in sight. Having said that, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll get any mail tomorrow, and we’re not talking the sort of mail that comes in a brown, window envelope.
*You might want to look up Benihana on You Tube. There are lots of films of Benihana samurai chefs flicking their implements around the place.
Image above borrowed from here: DiscoverNikkei
I love having Bento for lunch. It’s a great way to eat Japanese – a partitioned lunchbox contains a balanced offering of salad, tempura and/or some sort of meat or fish, rice and some palate-cleansing fruit to finish. I used to work near a place where you could have a Bento lunch box for £5.00. Apparently those prices are long gone, because when I decided to find the nearest Japanese offering Bento recently, I had to fork out a tenner. That’s justifiable in that I don’t do things like that every day, and it was also really, really good, with perfect fish and vegetable tempura, which I enjoy. Had it not been a work day, I may have grabbed a bottle of Asahi from the drinks fridge, but it was, so I didn’t. Such a nerd.
Here’s what Yoshi Sushi gave me in the Bento:
London is full of wonderful places to eat, both with or without Michelin stars, but as most Londoners will attest, some of the best eateries are local secrets. Street Hawker is one of ours. Located so close to Maida Vale tube stop that it might as well be part of the station, Street Hawker is tiny, with only a handful of wipe-down laminated tables and its faithful following jostling for elbow room. Take away patrons sit by the door, flicking through copies of Hello or OK! Magazine, or drag on a fag outside. Everyone is patient. There are no reservations. No one complains. The food here is simply worth any wait and inconvenience.
Street Hawker’s menu is crammed full of favourite dishes from the Far East. If you’re hungry enough, you can make a culinary tour of the whole region, starting with Vietnamese Spring Rolls, moving on to a steaming hot Laksa, following that up with Singapore Mee Goreng, a plate of hot Thai Gaeng Keo Wan with Monk’s vegetables and finish it all off with Teriyaki prawns. Then again, the portions are generous, so you probably wouldn’t make it through more than two or three countries’ worth of deliciousness.
Monsieur and I have both eaten in and taken away and we’re fans of both. In spite of the lack of space, there’s a wonderful atmosphere at Street Hawker. In its absolutely no-frills appearance, with a glass of cool Singaporean lager in hand and aromas of coriander, lemongrass and coconut milk wafting past our twitching noses, it’s possible to imagine oneself seated at a hawker stall in a land far, far away. It’s also worth the trek to collect a take away, but don’t be late because the manager will tell you off and if your deepest craving is for one of the soups, you’ll see a warning on the menu: “NOT AVAILABLE FOR TAKE-AWAY”. In reality, if you take along a big enough tupperware container and ask nicely, you will be allowed to take home one of their divine laksas or a kau chi dumpling noodle soup. Once again, the effort will be worthwhile.
Monsieur and I will gladly recommend the crispy chicken moneybags - small and crunchy mouthfuls of chicken minced with vegetables, shitake mushrooms and spring onions, perfect for dipping into the accompanying chilli dipping sauce which is so intensely fire-engine red that it almost glows in the dark and will keep your taste buds tingling for some time. We almost always choose some pancake duck wrappers, based on your typical Peking duck experience, served with salad garnish, hoisin and chilli sauce. There’s the option to pay for extra pancakes so make sure you do because the first lot will disappear all too quickly. The Street Hawker version of Phad Thai is the best I’ve ever eaten and has become a top-rated comfort food, but it’s a good idea to semi-starve yourself before eating this one; it’s BIG. Meanwhile, Monsieur’s current favourite is chargrilled Blackened Chilli Pork, marinated in dark soy, palm sugar, ginger, garlic and chilli, but don’t forget the rice, as I did on one occasion. While this absent-mindedness delayed the start of chow down as I quickly cooked up some Uncle Ben’s Boil in the Bag to go with the pork, the scents of all the delightful spices and blends almost killed me. It was a very uncomfortable 15 minutes.
Street Hawker’s prices are more than reasonable for food of such freshness and quality in almost-Central London: a typical main will set you back between £5 and £8. The portions are generous and the flavours authentic. According to Monsieur and me, a pair of enthusiastic foodies, this particular local secret is definitely worth a visit, although it may not stay quiet for much longer. As I sign off, my stomach is grumbling and my mind is on chicken in a nyonya bean sauce with cashews… Monsieur, you’d better cancel all plans for Friday night! We’re off to Street Hawker.