Thursday 25 September 2008

Happy Birthday To Me

It was my birthday on Monday. I wanted to do something fairly low-key and I succeeded. I went to the local cider pub with friends and drank all the cider last Friday. The weekend proved to be the last gasp of summer with blue skies and actual, proper sunshine; it was like a birthday present just for me.

I've also been doing some serious eating. I went for a barbeque at my parents' place for lunch and then also had dinner, a mere 4 hours later. On my actual birthday, Monday, I went to Mirch Masala in Whitechapel with 7 friends. Much curry and cake was consumed.

Last night was the final outing. I was treated to dinner at Umu by my wonderful boyfriend and it was definitely that. On approach down a back alley in Mayfair, the facade of the restaurant isn't particularly imposing. I liked the panel which said 'Touch Here' - by placing your hand on it, the entrance door slides open. A bit cool.

On first impressions, the restaurant was very sleek indeed. Dark wooden tables lined the windows and there was a central bar style of seating, with a chef concentrating hard on slicing some fish.

We were talked through the menu by our charming waiter, and a rather hefty menu at that. There was normal a la carte, and then a sashimi and sushi menu, and lastly the Kaiseki menus. Kaiseki is a speciality of Kyoto and is a banquet style of meal. It is said to be an art form that balances the taste, texture, and appearance of food.

After a glass of pink champagne to mull it over, we decided it would have to be a Kaiseki menu, with one of us choosing the 'Special Sushi' menu so that we could sample it all.

We started off with duck cooked pink, sliced very thinly and served with "some sort of potato thing". I had nipped to the ladies' when they had served this first course. It was served cold, and the duck was melt-in-the-mouth tender. So far so good .

The next dish (left) certainly was impressive. In the glass dish was finely chopped octopus with lychee, topped with salmon eggs and fried shallots. After the first bite I was a bit taken aback by the sweet/savoury; and then I couldn't stop eating it. I even put the glass to my lips to get the remaining juice. Terribly uncouth. The next little morsel was slow-cooked eel.

Once again, on first bite it was mind boggling. The boggle soon melted away to "more! more!". You see, the eel was wrapped in very fine, marinated slices of ginger.

Next to this, a prawn-topped rice ball and lastly winter melon stuffed with smoked salmon. A cracking start to the meal.

So there were the 'seasonal appetisers' of the meal. Next came the sashimi. We had some sort of yellowtail, fatty tuna, and sesame-crusted mackerel. Our server told us that the tiny sprig of flowers resting atop the tuna should be dunked in the soy sauce, but didn't tell us why.

All amazingly fresh, and the first time I've had fatty tuna. At first I wondered what the fuss was all about; when the fat started melting I then knew. It was gorgeous. My stomach rumbles thinking back to it. Our server also told us that the Japanese like to leave one piece of fish until last, and then wrap it up in the leaf provided with a little grated daikon, dunk into the soy sauce and eat. This we did.

Once again, we were served our dishes while I had popped to the bathroom (I have a small bladder, alright?). On first glace it looked a little like Agedashi Tofu, but was actually egg stuffed with minced prawn, in a broth and topped with shreds of ginger and daikon.

The consistency of the egg was fabulous, a lot like that of silken tofu. It gave a good wobble in the broth and the prawn stuffing was very flavoursome. The occasional kick of the ginger was surprising. Even the egg-hating boyfriend thought it delicous.

Here is where our set meals branched off to involve the 'sushi' aspect. Boyfriend got 3 kinds of nigiri; back tuna, fatty tuna and some sort of seared white fish which we didn't catch the name of. Each was topped with a little minced radish. The back tuna was definitely the star.

The dish I got is pretty indecipherable from the photo, but was basically simmered red pepper, turnip, okra, aubergine and octopus in a bonito jelly. It was all served cold and was my least favourite dish of the meal. All very clean and fresh flavours, but it really was just that. The colours of the vegetables were really beautifully presented though.

It was after this that the heavy weights came out. A box containing a large tea light arrived with a wire mesh basket holding a paper cone. Inside it, a steaming clear broth. This, of course, was the Shabu Shabu. With this, came a wooden basket containing chopped chives and a little grated radish mixed with chilli. Dishes of ponzu and sesame were offered as dips.

We were told to add all the veg into the stock before the fish, which needed just a mere 10 seconds as it was so thinly sliced and fresh. This was quite entertaining, experimenting with the different dips and fishing things out yourself. For the vegetables, as you can see we were given a fresh shiitake mushroom, leeks, and Chinese cabbage. Also included was a 'wheat slice', a grey tofu-esque slab. When it was cooked, it didn't taste like much at all but the texture was exactly like the black sesame-filled glutinous rice balls you eat as a dessert in Chinese cuisine. Very strange indeed.

By now, we were nearing the end of our gastronomic shin-dig. Once again, our menus split off and I was given Shimeji mushroom rice, with pickles. Pickles! I love pickles. Sometimes I will eat pickles straight from the jar, I love them so. This was served with a red miso soup, something I haven't had before. The balance was just right; the blandness of the rice was great with the pickle, and the red miso was intensely savoury, bringing it all together perfectly.

To follow this, 'modern sushi' was brought out. They were nigiri, topped with cooked fish and a parsley and garlic sauce. The garlic was a rather severe shock to what was otherwise a meal of very clean flavours. After this, we were starting to feel the burn. Dessert was brought to us with a green tea. We were told that the jelly in the cup should be all mixed together; the seeds were plum seeds in a clear jelly and below it a milky jelly - perhaps pandanus? This was really refreshing and delicious, the consistency being very soft and almost custard-like. A great end to the meal.

...There was one last treat. These little caramel-filled wafer cups, dusted with green tea powder. They were tooth-achingly sweet and delicious. The boyfriend exclaimed that it may have been his favourite part of the meal.

We finished on a happy note. The waiting staff were charming and inobtrusive, especially when I asked to be moved shortly after we sat down due to a bellowing Australian suit. A raise of the eyebrow and "you are not the first to request this..." was the answer and we were relocated. My only gripe would be that they served three different courses while I wasn't at the table, and so missed out on their descriptions. Definitely worth going back, but quite certainly a 'special occasion' kind of place.
Umu on Urbanspoon


Jules said...

Happy Birthday! Your meal at Umu looks wonderful.

Anonymous said...

My goodness, what a meal that must have been! Have been looking forward to seeing the photos, as I've only heard descriptions of the food before. I think I would have loved it. Not good to have been served food while you were away from the table though (you have an even smaller bladder than me!). Happy birthday again, you lucky lucky person!

Anonymous said...

Blimey - it was epic! It sounds amazing though. I've never had fatty tuna either and have also wondered what all the fuss was about but now I am dying to try it. I think I would have been to the loo at least 4 times throughout the meal though, having the most sparrow-like bladder ever - as you may have noticed last night!

Andrew said...

Happy Birthday to you!

Sounds wonderful, a real treat, interesting too

Anonymous said...

Jealous, jealous so very jealous.

You are getting old schmoof ;-)

Anonymous said...

That sounds absolutely fantastic Lizzie! What a great birthday treat.

Anonymous said...

Happy belated birthday, sounds like you had a brilliant time. And well done for taking pictures in a restaurant, I really have to start doing that.

Chris Pople said...

How was Mirch Masala by the way?

Anonymous said...

Looks fantastic! Happy belated birthday!

Hollow Legs said...

Thanks everyone!

Chris - Mirch Masala was great. We were sat downstairs as there was quite a few of us, so it did have the feel of a canteen but it was also good to have some space, of which Tayabbs doesn't have. The food was great, so much choice and the veggie of the group was happy.

I would definitely say Tayabbs' lamb chops are better though.

Jessica said...

This looks fantastic! I've been trying to think of somewhere to take my own wonderful boyfriend for his birthday, and this may indeed be the one. Thanks for providing such a great review.