When people ask me what I miss most from Wellington, I dutifully rattle off a list which ranges from the sentimental to the purely practical. This includes: my family, seeing the sea on a regular basis, walking from my central city apartment to my office in under thirty minutes, being on the waterfront with a drink in hand on one of those notoriously good Wellington days, and a hot chocolate from Mojo. All fairly simple and probably in common with other Wellingtonians who have left our windy city… but recently, I realised there was one more thing I would add to that list – the upstairs yakitori bar on Courtenay Place. Your eyes do not deceive you, yakitori in Wellington, even I surprise myself sometimes.
It is a wild card but I often find myself reminiscing about those umami-rich skewers; tended to lovingly by the chefs and devoured hungrily by the diners in that hazy den of a restaurant. It was one of our favourite haunts, the place we went when we wanted some soothing for the soul. I thought it was good back then, but it feels even better now that every attempt to find something to fill this yakitori-sized hole in my life has so far been a flop. However, being a glass-half-full sort, I picked myself up from the last disappointment and dragged us to Sakagura, a stylish izakaya tucked in that unassuming lane behind Regent Street which happens to be laden with eateries.
Whilst the familiar welcome call of ‘irasshaimase’ rang in my ears as we entered, I was more focused on the pleasing smells of smoke and soy mingling in the background. A good sign, or so I thought. We had other dishes but the yakitori were the point of our visit; Sakagura’s selection was succinct but seemed to be a class above the usual chicken and spring onion fodder. The plan was to start with the kamo teriyaki, a barbary duck breast, and the butabara, a Berkshire black pork belly, then order the others because we all know that two is never enough. No matter how jumbo Sakagura claim their skewers are.
I would have liked to try their negima, the classic chicken and spring onion combination, and the beef short rib, but the first two yakitori were so lacklustre, we could not bring ourselves to take another punt. The duck was tough and leathery, and shamefully stripped of all its succulent appeal. I mourned for the pork belly even more. How they managed to take away the devilish joy that comes from eating a cut of meat as unctuous and pleasurable as this, I’ll never know. What I do know is that at £3-4 per stick, it felt like a blatant robbery.
The small consolation was that the snacks and tempura we started with were quite good (though perhaps I curse them for raising my hopes even more for the yakitori to follow). We both agreed that the ika sashimi, a fresh squid sashimi with spicy cod roe, was one of our best choices. Each slither of squid sprung back ever so slightly, tantalising those tastebuds before yielding to my bite. The bursts of spiciness at the end of each mouthful were surprisingly good. A silken tofu crowned with bonito flakes, spring onions, and grated ginger, was served cool with a side of kimchi. They say the latter is optional but we would make it mandatory; it brings a mellow warmth which livens up the sterile purity of the tofu.
We could take or leave the takoso, a Spanish octopus sashimi dressed with bonito tosazu vinegar and yuzu miso; a quibble was made about the chewiness of the octopus, but overall it was inoffensive. Though, that’s probably just as damning a statement when it comes to food. There is no fun in inoffensive food. Sakagura were far more triumphant with their tempura, a dish which I have really come to enjoy in recent years. At first glance the batter seemed borderline anaemic, but let’s just blame it on the lighting because it really was excellent – thick enough to protect the delicate seabass and soft shell crab, yet ethereal enough to melt away without any unpleasant lingering grease.
Regular readers or listeners of my food-related prattles will not be surprised to know that we were still hungry after these six minuscule plates of food. We arrived quite famished, and left only mildly so. We contemplated ordering more, but in the end the disappointment of the yakitori was too great to stomach. Sakagura has the potential to be a fantastic upmarket izakaya – they’ve clearly splashed some cash on building the right tone and atmosphere, our service was fine though I’ve read that others have struggled, and they have reason to pride themselves on their impressive sake list. However, this is a restaurant and while the atmosphere and service are key components to any dining experience, they are fairly useless to me when it comes to quelling my hunger. Or hanger. And so my search for the perfect yakitori bar in London, and my perpetual pining for our beloved Wellington spot, continues.
Have you got a favourite yakitori bar in London?
Or Japan… all recommendations welcomed for my upcoming trip next year!
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