From supplying books in his native language, Tokumine’s business – the Japan Centre – expanded to supply food, groceries and goods, and the entrepreneur now presides over a burgeoning empire that includes a number of food halls and restaurants. The overriding quality in each of his establishments is a commitment to delivering a truly authentic Japanese experience, ensuring guests leave a little better informed about Japanese culture.
This is certainly true of Sakagura, a restaurant that pulls you into a calming oasis of low lights, dark wood and fluttering noren (traditional fabric dividers) to deliver a spot of food theatre. Tucked away in Heddon Street, a buzzing enclave just off Regent Street that is fast becoming a foodie destination, Sakagura is managed by Tokumine’s niece, Mimi. She is one of only a handful of sake sommeliers in the UK and is instrumental in guiding the Chef’s Table experience, an elevated evening of fine dining without any hint of pretension. Indeed, a passion for Japanese cuisine, created from only the very best ingredients, is the guiding principle here and head chef Delroy Simpson and his team are dedicated to creating dishes that look like mini works of art.
Simpson’s skill is very much in evidence during the Sakagura’s Chef’s Table experience. Seated at a traditional wooden kappo counter that has room for just 11 guests, the experience is an intimate affair that takes place in Sakagura’s basement dining space. It has been designed to put the talents of the kitchen centre stage – with food prepared and cooked in front of you – where dishes from the 11-course menu are served with a degree of reverence by Simpson himself. Not only is each dish accompanied by an informative description – a little nugget about the ingredients used, for example – but Simpson then passes the carefully crafted morsels across the counter to each guest with a smile and a little bow of the head. It’s a personal touch and one that communicates how much respect the Jamaican-born head chef has for the food he cooks.
As is tradition in Japan, the evening beings with sashimi, where Simpson explains that this is to ensure that the delicate flavours of the fish can be appreciated by a palate that hasn’t been overloaded with the more powerful, salty flavours that follow. The slivers of fresh salmon from the Highlands of Scotland (chosen for the cleanliness of its water) and the yellowtail imported from Japan are served with edible flowers, and an aromatic shiso leaf that can be wrapped around the fish for added flavour should you desire.
The dining experience can be heightened by pairing dishes with a selection of sakes, each chosen and served by the highly knowledgeable Mimi. This is well worth doing, if only to enjoy the incredibly ebullient Gekkeikan Utakata sparkling sake. One sip and anyone who might have thought Japan’s national beverage was not for them is likely to be converted.
Slow-roasted Japanese aubergine (a far less bitter variant of its European counterpart and eaten with the skin on) is followed by some incredibly light and fluffy tempura, where each component – lotus root, Japanese sweet potato, shishito pepper and king prawn – is served individually for maximum crispness. The brown seaweed salt and matcha powder, served on the side for dipping the tempered vegetables, are a revelation, as are the pork gyoza, which are crafted from skins made using a bespoke recipe. They are as authentic as anything you might find on the streets of Tokyo.
The seaweed salad – a mix of kaisou seaweed and Asian salad leaves – makes for the perfect midway palate cleanser ahead of the succulent yakitori (served individually, straight from the robata grill) and the pillowy Agedashi tofu (lightly fried to perfection) that follow.
Of all the dishes that are served during the course of the evening, a highlight is the Wagyu carpaccio, accompanied by tales of massaged cows being fed beer. In the wrong hands, Wagyu can be stripped of its palate-coating richness if not treated with care, but here at Sakagura it is elegantly garnished with red amaranth leaves, red shiso and daikon (oriental radish) and drizzled with a delicate sauce made from Fuji apples, olive oil and mirin (rice wine) – it melts in the mouth. Special mention here for the Honjozo sake: dry and robust, it is the perfect accompaniment to the umami-rich flavour of the Wagyu.
Nigiri, with salmon, tuna and eel (some of the best we’ve tasted in London) and a warming miso soup round off the savoury dishes and set things up rather nicely for the refined finale.
A refreshing change from the matcha-based desserts that seem to conclude most Japanese meals here in the capital, Sakagura’s Raindrop Cake is light, delicate and beautifully presented. A dome of translucent agar jelly is topped with fruity umeshu liqueur and, for particularly lucky guests, a sliver of edible gold. The ceremony of choosing a cup from a box of kaleidoscopic glass vessels in which to hold the Junmai Daiginjo sake that is paired with the dessert, is what marks Sakagura’s Chef’s Table experience from the rest.
The Chef’s Table experience is available to book on selected Tuesday evenings until the end of November.
Sakagura, 8 Heddon Street, W1B 4BS. 020 3405 7230. sakaguralondon.com