Apparently there are 60 different varieties of rice used to make sake, and none of them are used for eating. Sake is the Japanese alcoholic drink, often known as rice wine but also compared to the likes of vodka and sherry. Although there is a lot of sake on the drinks menu at this restaurant, Saki (recently named in Time Out’s Top 10 vegetarian restaurants in London), means “happiness” in Japanese. Could this be because there’s so much sake to be had?
We were at Saki to sample their vegetarian tasting menu: shojin kaiseki. Given Saki’s concurrent plaudits for sushi I was rather hoping to sneak some fish onto the menu too, but alas, our host insisted both my date and I stick to the vegetarian options. I was to have the shojin kaiseki (pure vegan) and they chose substitutes for my dinner date from the vegetarian a la carte menu. This culinary strictness was down to the fact that the stronger flavours of meat and fish would have apparently overshadowed the more delicately flavoured vegetarian dishes.
After my sake education I thought it best to begin with a sake cocktail. My chosen drink, Honoka (meaning subtle), was a refreshing mix of mint, melon, guava juice, lime and passion fruit. The intention of this cocktail was that you should only just be able to identify the sake (the giveaway being the way it warms your throat!).
Once at the table the first order of the meal was to drink more sake: a small glass served cold. This was better than I anticipated, like a blend of vodka and white wine. Time then for the first course: creamy sesame tofu inside a bean curd skin. The no-fish rule make perfect sense here as the dish’s delicate flavour that would have been completely lost amidst any carnivorous bites.
The ingredients in this and our five courses to follow read like a botany magazine: bamboo, tonburi, ume plum, wild garlic leaves, enoki and an edible flower (which came chopped as a salsa, battered as tempura and as a fish replacement in nigiri-sushi) – how versatile! Our charming Italian waiter had great fun making us guess the ingredients in our dishes, and we disappointed him by guessing a handful and shrugging our shoulders when it came to the rest.
Highlights were the perfectly cooked tempura, the almost meaty slow-roasted aubergine with a rich and indulgent red miso sauce, the veggie version of barbequed eel, and the sushi plate. The ume plum and shiso roll in particular, with its inclusion of the sour plum, shone out above the other dishes. Our frustration with the meal was the lag between courses - vegan Japanese food is more like a series of amuse bouche than hearty fare, so we eagerly anticipated each dish. Two additional cups of sake helped to pass the time somewhat, with one made from brown rice. This brown rice based sake had apparently been an experiment back in the day, which initially was thought to have failed. However, on sampling the batch of sake a year later, the brewers discovered it was actually quite good, delivering a sweet and full-bodied wine.
For once we had room for dessert, so my date had the infamous, and delicious green tea tiramisu and I had the lighter vegan option of the plain and strange green tea jelly with aduki beans and “ice-cream”. The delicacy in the flavours of each dish won’t appeal to the hardened carnivore but it’s wonderful to see vegetarians given the same care. If dinner was an example of what they can do with the humble vegetable, it’s worth returning for their full range of sushi…and to have another sake cocktail!
Saki: 4 West Smithfield, London EC1A 9JX. Tel: 020 7489 7033
Reviewer: Jennifer Earle