An Evening Out

Happy valentine’s day, spice lovers!

This week I have something a little different for you in the form of a restaurant review, in case you still need to make any last minute plans.

Me, though, I did my meal out well in advance so that I’d have time to write about it. And so that nothing could keep me from a hot date with my PS3.

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I got together with a couple of old friends early last week and we all headed down to Little Tokyo, a decent sized japanese restaurant in the middle of Leeds.

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Together we crossed the small bridge over their koi pond, sat down and placed our order, initially using the time to catch up. It was not long, though, before our eyes fell upon the unusual condiments they offered.

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Two salt shakers filled with sesame.

One was simply the seeds in two colours, black and white, and was a little bland for my tastes. The other, however, was anything but.

It was a red chilli blend with a low two and a half heat but also a flavour unlike much else. The initial taste was the sesame and dried chilli but then there was a strong savoury taste that built in behind and quickly took over. Something not too dissimilar from the “flavour enhancer” MSG but also possessing a slight seaweed-like edge that suggests it may have been more natural.

It was pretty interesting but, in my opinion, simply too powerful to go on any of the food they gave us.

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For starters, we had tofu steak and dim sum sui mai.

The tofu was deep fried to perfection, crispy and golden on the outside, yet soft, squishy and even almost fluffy within. Its flavour was mild, as tofu tends to be, but their soy-ish sticky miso sauce, with all the consistency and rich, dark sweetness of something more barbecue style, more than made up for anything the tofu might be lacking.

And, similarly, the dim sum was on the oily side but not unpleasantly so. Its texture worked for it but it was all meat inside. Strongly so. To the point where the dumplings became a little cloying on their own.

Fortunately, they were served with a side of sweet chilli sauce that wasn’t actually nearly as sweet as most. It wasn’t savoury, by any means, but there was a sour fruit element present alongside the red pepper and mild chilli that kept the sweetness in check and helped balance out the overabundance of pork.

Neither sauce was particularly spicy, with both in the high one to low one and a half range but the ginger tea we had with them highlighted any spice left in the mouth or throat just enough to enhance the eating experience.

They knew what they were doing with their starters and their mains seemed promising as well:

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At this stage, the less adventurous of our group ordered a well done teriyaki sirloin steak, while the rest of us went for a veggie curry with “rare vegetables” and a bowl of chicken chilli ramen.

Now this one really shocked us. Everything else we’d had had been fairly mild, including what my friends had eaten here in the past. We were not expecting a three and a half heat on the ramen broth (the solids had a bit less), even if it was more of an afterburn than anything immediate.

It was a good tasting dish too, with much more depth to its flavour than just that of the chicken stock. The mushrooms, chilli and seaweed rounded it out excellently and the chicken pieces were bigger and much better quality than the word “shredded” in the description had implied.

And of course, most important of all, the ramen itself had picked up the flavour but also retained its texture, neither turning to mush nor going slimy like wet noodles often can.

Our sole nitpick with the dish was that perhaps the watercress from the non-chilli version might add just a touch more variety to the contents of the bowl. I do, however, quite appreciate that the two are not simply the same dish with or without chilli.

But, on the opposite side of the spectrum, our teriyaki steak had no heat at all. It was, quite simply, what it was meant to be: a well done piece of sirloin beef with the japanese equivalent of barbecue sauce. The kind of sauce that’s so at home you don’t even notice it until it’s gone.

It was, however, served with a delicious side of tempura vegetables, coated in that kind of light and crispy batter that simply falls apart on the first bite. Yet the veg inside retained a little chew.

My inadventurous friend found a new food he enjoyed that night.

The curry, on the other hand, was a little less ideal.

It’s sauce had a good thickness to it and was similar in flavour to many japanese katsu curries, though less heavy on the black pepper. It wasn’t bad but it certainly wasn’t special like the “rare vegetables had led me to believe.

The veg they included was primarily courgette and lotus root, with a little bit of tofu hidden underneath. None of these added much to the taste of the dish and, texture-wise, I wasn’t hugely impressed either.

I enjoyed the meal and its low medium, slow, two out of ten heat but it certainly wasn’t what I’d hoped for. Though it wasn’t nearly as much of a let down as my side salad.

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I ordered a green salad with deep fried vermecelli and a sweet ginger sauce. What I got was a reasonable lettuce base with crisply fried baby corn, a tiny bit of finely chopped sushi ginger in the middle and a fairly generic vinaigrette. Oh and some rock hard lotus root that turned horribly grainy once bitten into. It seems the vegetable is really quite unpleasant raw.

I knew the salad would be leafy but I thought it would have enough else going on to make it into a nice, light, gingery accompaniment to my main meal. I was wrong.

And, speaking of getting sushi ginger when you’re expecting something more, two of us ordered dessert.

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I loved the thick, creamy middle layer of my cheesecake and the slight saltiness of the biscuits in the base complimented its sweetness exquisitely but the topping was something I was less sure on.

The pickled flavour of the sushi ginger was far more at home alongside the sweet cheese than I’d expected and the reduced heat and sharpness that it resulted in made for a far nicer experience than eating ginger raw would have. My friend adored the semi-delicate balance of flavours it provided.

Personally, though, I simply couldn’t get past the fact that I’d been expecting something more similar to a ginger version of banoffee pie filling.

And then there was our ice cream. It looked delicious but I knew, from previous experience, that it also had a good twang of nasal heat to it.

Nothing crazy, of course, but I was very curious to see how my friend would handle wasabi ice cream for the first time.

Unfortunately, it was a lot milder than the ice cream I remember, not only lacking anything but a touch of perfume for heat but also barely showing its green, slightly earthy flavour at all. The ice cream itself was fabulously well made but the wasabi was almost non-existent.

In the end, I’d say it was a good night at a pleasantly calm and atmospheric restaurant that will have something for almost everyone but it did have its flaws and it certainly didn’t stand out like I’d hoped. The service we received was everything we wanted it to be but we never attempted to really put the staff’s hospitality to the test.

Would I recommend the place? Perhaps. What I definitely do recommend, though, should you choose to visit, is the chicken ramen, chilli orotherwise.

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