Whenever London supper clubs are discussed among the food-enthusiastic someone always asks, in a reverential whispered tone: ‘Have you been to the London Foodie’s Japanese one yet?’ (It’s always ‘yet’, because you can’t be a London-based self-declared foodie and not heard of it and desperately want to go, if not actually been). And until last week I had to reply through gritted teeth, ‘no, not yet’. I hate being the one who hasn’t been to the thing everyone is talking about! But now I can finally say ‘Yes, isn’t it awesome?’ And awesome it really is. It was some of the best Japanese food, no scrap that, best food full stop, I have ever had in London.
The London Foodie is Luiz Hara, a food writer, blogger and chef who was born to Japanese-Italian parents in Sao Paulo in Brazil. In 2011 he left his career in investment banking and moved to Tokyo to study Japanese cuisine, and work in an Izakaya (a casual Japanese restaurant). He has since returned to the UK and completed his Grande Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu. He now runs his supper club three times a week, seating up to 30 people each time. With this many sittings, far more than any other supper club I have come across, you’d think getting a seat would be easy, but such is his word-of-mouth reputation you actually have to book fairly far in advance.
Luiz describes his food as ‘Japanese home cooking’, a phrase which to my mind doesn’t really do justice to the quality and finesse of his food. Yes, he serves dishes beyond the ubiquitous sushi and sashimi which his guests wouldn’t usually come across in Japanese restaurants, but he also pulls inspiration from his upbringing in Brazil, his Italian parent, and his classic French training. His menu on our visit was particularly inspired by his recent trip to Peru, and included some Nikkei elements, the name given to Brazilian or Peruvian-Japanese fusion, and the food served at Sushi Samba and Chotto Matte in London.
The supper club is held at Luiz’s gorgeous home in Islington, and his living room is full of artifacts from his extensive travels. It’s the sort of room you wish you could be left alone in for half an hour just to explore! I was the first to arrive and was greeted by a lovely, and very dapper, man in a tie who offered me a drink. After running through a list of much less appetising options (water, coke, rum and coke) I opted for a Kamm and Sons bitter lemon cocktail. It was the first time I’d had the spirit (although I’ve already knocked it back a couple of times since); it’s made in London, in a similar way to gin, but with 45 natural botanicals, including ginseng roots, freshly peeled grapefruit and Manuka honey. It’s bittersweet, with lovely herbal and honey flavours to it.
As everyone stood around chatting I did think that it wouldn’t be the best supper club to go solo to (Sabrina’s or Guan’s would be perfect though). 30 people in one room is quite intimidating, and more so than others I’ve been to, it was dominated by larger groups. Having said that it was very sociable and my friends and I quickly got chatting to another party. While doing so we tucked into leek and tofu gyozas with a home-made teriyaki sauce, and ridiculously moorish shichimi (Japanese seven spice) flavoured popcorn.
We were seated at the Chef’s Table, a large wooden worktop in front of the kitchen, one half of which was used to serve up the dishes. It was great being so close to the action and it was a lesson in organisation and precision; no sooner had our plates been cleared than they were stacked, washed and put away. There seemed to be about five or six people working in the kitchen, all under Luiz’s watchful eye.
A couple of days before our dinner, Luiz sent out an email which included a number of wine recommendations from his local wine shop, Le Vieux Comptoir. You could order these to be delivered to the venue, or pick up your own on the way. He also included a link to a piece he wrote for the London Wine Fair on matching Japanese food with wine (here).
We were served five starters (yes five), and one perfectly presented dish followed the other. The first up was a trio of ‘Nikkei surf and turf sushi’, the highlight of which for me was the blow-torched foie gras with garlic teriyaki sauce. Straight away Luiz was playing with our expectations of Japanese food, serving up the most well-known dish but using a classic French ingredient. The fatty meat melted away to coat the white rice in its richness; it was the most unusual sushi I have ever eaten! It was joined on the plate by salmon with aji amarillo, a creamy sauce made with the hot and quite fruity Peruvian yellow chilli, and scallop chirashi-zushi, a deconstructed sushi served in a shell.
Next up was chicken nanban: marinated deep-fried chicken in a spicy, sweet and sour dressing. This is apparently a classic dish from Kagoshima, Japan’s southermost island, and whose cuisine is influenced by its strong trade relations with Korea and China.The chicken was, in Luiz’s own words, of a ‘challenging’ texture. It was served cold so the skin was no longer crisp, and in a cold dressing so it was also rather wet (I’m not really selling this to you am I?!), but it was very juicy, and the dressing was great: gusty, with plenty of vinegar and it left your lips tingling.
Our third starter was my favourite savoury dish of the night: chilled green tea somen noodles with fried aubergines in a cold dashi broth. The noodles had been refreshed in cold water so they still had a slight bite, and the aubergines fried to softness, but it was this broth that I really adored: flavoured with sake and ginger, it was fragrant and perfectly balanced. I finished my bowl. Then Sean’s. And was then even tempted to mop up some one else’s I didn’t even know (I didn’t, but I was tempted).
Fourth up was tuna takai: seared tuna with a ponzu-sesame dressing, which was served with a small glass of Fruitesse Liefmans beer. It was a combination Luiz had tried at another event, and was so impressed by that he asked the company to provide the drink for his supper club, which they kindly did. The red-berry flavour of the beer was indeed a lovely accompaniment to the barely-seared tuna and its punchy, citrusy dressing.
Our final starter was a gorgeous china bowl-in-a-basket of tempura vegetables. It included Luiz’s take on an Italian classic: stuffed courgette flowers. His version was filled with a silken tofu, scallop and lemon mousse, and covered in an air-light batter and fried until crisp.
After five courses, we finally moved on to our main: pan-fried beef and vegetable maki rolls in a soy, mirin and sake sauce served with shiitake gohan: rice cooked in mushroom dashi with fresh and dried shiitake mushrooms. Rather than wrap the vegetables in rice as you would a traditional maki, Luiz used very thin slivers of beef to hold the vegetables together. The sauce was fantastic, rich and sweet. Yet it is the only dish all evening I was critical of. I think often supper club hosts feel like they have to provide a ‘proper’ main course, when it is actually the smaller dishes that allow guests to try lots of different flavours that I think they really love. After the light, fresh, vigorously flavoured food of the first five courses this felt a bit too heavy, and too similar to meat-and-two-veg to feel exciting. It was, however, served with a lovely crab, avocado and chervil salad on a bed of silken tofu with a yuzu-pon dressing. Such a good combination of flavours!
You know how I said the green tea noodles and dashi broth was my favourite savoury dish? That’s because dessert was overall my favourite one of the night (surprise surprise!). I was initially slightly disappointed that the flourless chocolate torte I had heard so much about wasn’t going to make an appearance. However I quickly forgot about this when a glass dish of madeleines was put on the table. Chocolate what? They were lemon-scented, lightness itself, and served alongside two ice-creams: green tea and black sesame caramel, which was nutty and not too sweet. Finally we were poured a glass of a cold Korean cinnamon and dried-persimmon tea. Separately the three components were nice, but together they were exceptional. It’s a testament to Luiz’s skill that he can pull together so many disparate flavours and somehow make them work in harmony.
Luiz changes the menu every six weeks or so, so you can attend regularly and have different dishes each time. It costs £40 plus service. In a restaurant that amount and quality of food would be a least twice that, if not more. I thought it was exceptionally good value.
As you’ve probably worked out, I loved this supper club. As I said at the beginning it was some of the best food I’ve eaten in London, and I’ve been telling everyone I’ve met since just how good it was! If there was ever a supper club to hold up as an example of just how good they really can be, this is it. So go. Don’t be the person who has to shuffle their feet when it is mentioned. Join in talking about just how fantastic it is. I can’t wait to go back. See you there?