Sticks’n’sushi, London: a review

I believe Sticks’n’sushi is an unfortunate name. No? Just me?
Sticks and sushi. Sticks, sushi. You kind of expect it to be the sort of sushi restaurant you find in a shopping centre or by a petrol station. You know, the sort you wouldn’t actually eat in.

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Most sushi restaurants in London will use a sophisticated Japanese word. Sticks’n’sushi doesn’t need that. It’s so good that it can afford its refreshingly honest name: they specialise in yakitori (sticks) and sushi and that’s all its name will give away. For everything else, you’ll have to cross its unassuming door.

The restaurant is incredibly sleek, all black, with dainty little china plates and smooth round stones to hold your chopstick (which, however, are of the wooden sort you get with a takeaway). It’s the sort of place where a charming waiter will pour soy sauce from a miniature jug made of stone onto the smallest and cutest dipping plate and will keep topping up your water all night. The tables are lined with leather which I suppose is meant to be really cool but it reminds me of thecar seats and makes me a tiny bit motion sick (sorry).

The place is buzzing with couples and big groups sharing the biggest platters of sushi you will ever see. It’s intimate enough for a catch up and perfect for bigger celebrations. They also have a bar downstairs that serves food and good vibes.
The menu is spectacular, every picture styled and shot to perfection, very Scandinavian in its minimalist simplicity, as glossy as a food magazine, with cryptic captions between pages, it’ll have you salivating before you manage to order a drink.
The cocktail list looks very polished and pretty, with sake-based citrusy martinis and well-balance sweet cocktail. The first cocktail I went for, the Hanoko, sounded heavenly with tea and floral notes but ended up just tasting like honey. My second cocktail was lovely, a pear-based seasonal one that retained the sweetness and complexity of pear, and its grainy texture, with a subtle kick.

We decided to share a maki based menu -maki deluxe- and the Hotate Kataifi bites – scallops in kataifi with miso aïoli, trout roe & cress.

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Now, the scallops. The scallops. They were perfect bits of savouriness and umami. A perfect marriage between the soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture of the scallops and the crunchy kataifi, very thin middle Eastern noodles – think baklava, but savoury. These bites were one of the best things I had ever eaten and I feel like food will be a disappointment from now on. Forever. Until I go back and get some more.
The maki came of the prettiest plate, a very generous portion, and a very eclectic and decadent mix of flavours and textures that were incredibly satisfying.
The Hell’s Kitchen were pockets of crispy tempura prawn topped with the softest tuna and a smoky, spicy barbecue sauce. The shake aioli came with an enticing miso-aïoli and were topped with seared salmon and intensely salty trout roe. I especially loved the salmon ceviche roll, with its fresh, aromatic hints of coriander and lime which worked perfectly with buttery salmon.

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The menu of this Danish-born sushi place draws inspiration from cuisines all over the world and the result is a decadent mixture of intensely umami sauces, buttery fresh fish and simple sushi rice. I don’t normally go for dessert, as I have a habit of over-ordering and being full to the brim well before the end of a meal, but I was intrigued by the miniature desserts, and chose a set of four which are perfect if you have a sweet tooth.

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There was the most beautiful, charcoal-coloured black sesame ice cream, all shiny and glossy and nutty. And the bergamot crème Brule, the perfect crunchy crust to break into, gooey citrusy and floral custard to be spooned up, the sound of spoons clinking against a ramekin. The rest, well, was chocolate.

Sticks’n’sushi, various location in London. This review is for the one in Covent Garden:
11 Henrietta Street
London WC2E 8PY
Phone 020 3141 8810

Malaga, where to eat

IMG_1619Booking holidays is on my list of ‘most stressful things you could do with your weekend’. I know, I know. Should you really complain if you get to go on holiday? But it’s just stressful. Pages and pages of websites recommending opposite things, hundreds of airbnbs that sort of look the same, passwords long forgotten.

So we booked a flight to Malaga. I had always wanted to go to Spain and there was a direct flight from London – good enough for that Sunday spent re-typing my card details and cursing against the BA website and a patchy internet. And I loved it.

Malaga has a surprisingly pretty city centre, almost entirely pedestrianised, a relaxed pace, pretty little independent boutiquey shops and restaurants with wonky tables spilling onto the street, and all the fried fish. All of it.

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I ate my way through Malaga like a woman on a mission, ordering random dishes from poorly translated menus (luckily I’m fluent in pretend Spanish), dazed and confused by the difference between boquerones and anchoas, enjoying the smell of salt and sun and gardenias, and developing quite the taste for sherry. Oops.

Here are some of my favourite places:

Casa Vicente:

A rustic marisqueria, with Pepsi plastic tables and huge pictures of freshly caught prawns adorning the orange walls (yeah), this place had some of the best fried fish I had ever had. Nothing like the calamari you’re probably used to, rubbery and greasy; spanking fresh seafood with an airy batter which gave way to soft, buttery fresh fish. We especially loved the boquerones (I think they are sardines. I think.) and the small octopus, so perfectly crispy, salty and moreish, which will leave you sticky-fingered and very happy.

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El Pimpi

A Malaga institution, the restaurants has a few locations, but my favourite was the one on Calle Granada. Wooden barrels, corny pictures of celebrities signing said barrels, beautiful posters from the 30’s advertising fortified wine, and lovely, affordable food. The lemon boquerones, deboned and marinated in lemon before being fried until golden, had a subtle tartness which lifted the whole dish- so simple, so moreish. On a number of visits to El Pimpi, we shared a plate of delicious, melt-in-your-mouth jamon iberico, sturdy cheeses, marbled hams, mineral fresh oysters, reminiscent of sea water, juicy mussels with a vinegar kick, and a somewhat surprising dessert of orange ice cream with olive oil and vinegar, which stood out in a menu of classics, but had a certain depth that I found fascinating. The wine is solid, and cheap, and the small glasses of fortified wine at the end of the meal make for the perfect nightcap.

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Pedregalejo

Once a small fishing village, Pedregalejo is now, as well as a challenge to pronounce for most of us, a Malaga suburb. It has nice beaches, little bays with clear water and a view over villa-encrusted mountains. Its 60’s buildings reminded me of seaside cities around Rome (so not quite the Caribbeans). But once again, I loved it. I loved being in the water, the sea and its salty smell, its surface silky and glistening, the sky never-ending and unspoilt with no clouds to be seen, the dark vulcanic sand burning the soles of your feet.

I also loved the beachside bars and restaurants, which are famous for their espeto de sardinas, sardines grilled on a stick, cooked in boats on the sand, just opposite the bars and restaurants, and served with simple salads and garlicky tomatoes, their flavour sweet and intense, as is often the case with fruits and vegetables blessed by the relentless Spanish sunshine. The seafood is generally delicious – and affordable. Also, omega 3.

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La Esquinita del Chupa y Tira

Recommended in this Guardian article, this tiny deli with a few tables and barrels-turned-into-tables in the back is probably one of my favourite places to get tipsy in Malaga. It’s genuinely tiny, and you may have to stand, but there’s something so homely about it, an old man doing the crossword on his own with a glass of red, a group of lads with more empty beer bottles that I’d ever seen, a group of middle aged friends munching on ham and crackers.. The owner, a good-natured smile, an assertive spring in his step, asked us what we wanted. We said white wine, he didn’t ask any further. He came back and filled our glasses with an obscure (never got to see the name) and crisp white, and when I asked for something to eat, again he simply brought some thinly-sliced jamon and pink, marbled salami, followed by some bits of mature, robust cheese when we mentioned we were still hungry, on our third glass. Later on, he kept bringing little bites of free things; slices of loin, buttery and smoky; simple tartines with white cheese and aggressively salty anchovies, silky foie gras and caviar on white bread. There was a simplicity to it all, and as we stumbled out all tipsy and happy and grateful for that last free glass, I felt that homely feeling you sometimes get by being fed.

Ronda

Not technically Malaga, Ronda is only (!) a pain-stakingly slow two-hour train journey away. A white washed town with a panorama so dramatic and romantic it just felt like we were in a different world, an enormous bridge built over a gorge, the stark profile of the mountains and the softer, greener lines of never-ending valleys. Bar Mestro is quite a historic little tapas place (Hemingway used to come here) even though it just looks like any other tourist-filled tapas bar. I was blown away by the albondigas, little balls of creaminess and savouriness in an indulgent sauce to be mopped up with bread, and feasted on oozy, cheesy croquetas, a crisp shell which gave way to gooey melted cheese.

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Meson de Cervantes

The most restaurant-y place we went to (but they also have a tapas bar), this place still managed to retain that laid-back, casual atmosphere while serving some of the best and least pretentious food I have ever had. The starter of blood sausage was probably the best thing we tried. I know blood sausage sounds scary, but these were just bites of porky, savoury silkiness, beautifully tender, served on sweet potato with fried quail eggs for extra yolk indulgence and a bright, tart tomato salsa on top.

I also immensely enjoyed the monkfish, wrapped in aubergine and served with a pumpkin mousse, and the red tuna, cooked to absolute perfection, soft and melt in your mouth without being too meaty.

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Kiraku, Ealing: a review and a love story.

We fell in love when I was sixteen. I say we because, although many people would argue that sushi doesn’t really have feelings -it being food and all that- I like to believe that the feeling was mutual.

Before then I was a little scared and sceptical. First of all, raw fish. That just didn’t sound appealing. My mum would also love to tell me horror story whenever she read from a dubious source that this and that person had died from eating raw fish. Even though this came from my mother, a woman who had eaten her way through many barely cooked steak hachés and tartares and admitted to often eating raw sausage when she was young, those cautionary tales just put me off the whole thing.

My more adventurous friends would often try to convince me to go out and try it. ‘I don’t like it‘ – I would lie – ‘I don’t like the texture‘, I would add without ever having encountered the mysterious rolls.

And then I caved in. I still remember the place, I even remember the dish: tempura prawn uramaki. It was love at first bite. Those little pockets of savouriness, the crispiness of the tempura batter and the sesame, the mellow simplicity of the white sticky rice, the intense savouriness of thick, black soy sauce. Suddenly, I was on a mission to eat it all.

We’ve been together ten years, sushi and I. We’ve been through a lot. Or maybe I have been through a lot (of sushi). But you know what I mean. I’ve seen it all. Bad supermarket sushi, dry and bitter, filled with unlikely ingredients they clearly had a surplus of (red pepper?). I’ve been through the bland and chewy, though the nausea-inducing over-filled rolls containing tubs of mayo, through the unnecessarily expensive sushi with foie grois and caviar and gold leaves and the likes that lands you a diet of instant ramen and mash for the following weeks..

The concept of having a local sushi restaurant, though, still escaped me. I had never been to a sushi place you wouldn’t have to dress up for, somewhere where you could lazily leaf through a paper menu, have a cup of green tea on the house, and hurry home, giddy with excitement, a paper bag in your hand.

Then I moved to Ealing and stumbled upon Kiraku.

Kiraku

Kiraku is a tiny, unassuming place – from the outside, it looks like any other takeaway, its door covered in menus and special offers, wind chimes tinkling every time the door opens, smiley waitresses bringing you a mug of green tea, an incredibly skilled sushi chef who cuts fish and rolls it in rice which such mesmerising fluidity that I can’t help but watch every move.

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Kiraku makes great sushi. Simple, great sushi. Their fatty tuna makis are made with buttery tuna and bright chives. The donburi is probably my favourite: a bowl of perfectly cooked sticky rice with generous slices of jewel-hued, marbled salmon and ikura, little dots of intense saltiness. Pickles and wasabi are there to break the pattern, lift the softness, give it all balance.

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Oh, and crispy salmon skin maki, did I mention? Crispy salmon skin maki.

You can also eat in and it’s equally lovely, with its small wooden tables, a laid-back atmosphere, and free mugs of green tea to warm your hands on. The takoyakis are unmissable: crispy balls of octopus-based batter with the softest, almost creamy centre. You can even wash it down with a huge 4-liter jug of beer.

Kiraku Takoyaki Uramaki

So yeah, ten years, and going strong.

Kiraku, Ealing.