Saturday, April 11, 2009

On Wednesday, I went for a vegetarian Japanese dinner at The Secret Ingredient, an underground restaurant set in chef Horton Jupiter's home in Hackney. I've been to so-called hidden kitchens before, but this was definitely the first time I would be going to one in someone's home.

Horton and Rachel

I arrived five minutes early, having managed to find Horton's council flat without too many problems. Horton greeted me by name the moment I stepped through the door, much to my surprise (but I later realised that, being the only Oriental, it was actually pretty obvious which of the guests I had to be). He and waitress Rachel were a little harried as they were running behind on food preparation.

Horton in action

Being the first arrival, I lingered by the kitchen entrance and started asking Horton about how The Secret Ingredient started. The idea of this restaurant began as a result of Horton's having read Benvik's This Diary will Change your Life, a book which an old friend recommended a couple of years back as being a good laugh. The menu hadn't changed since he started at the beginning of the year; apparently, the menu's proven to be so popular that he hasn't been able to change it. Still, Horton felt that Japanese food was ideal for this kind of restaurant, as there are usually several courses, which enables him to make a presentation of it as well. Wasn't he worried about opening up his home to potential psychos? Horton just laughed and mentioned excitedly that this would be the second week that everyone who was coming to have dinner was a complete stranger to him.

I also asked another question I'd been dying to ask since I first came across his name, and, yes, Horton Jupiter is indeed his real name. (What? I did grow up reading Dr. Seuss, you know.)

The kitchen

Preparations for the evening clearly underway

I then made my way back to the dining room to take a few snaps before the other guests arrived. There were three tables made up: one set for five, one for four and one for two, all decorated with white-and-red Japanese-inspired tablemats, candles and a little dish of Japanese rice crackers. The exceptionally generous glass of wine Rachel poured out for me, and, indeed for every guest, can be seen in the bottom right photo.

Dining room

Serving commenced around 7.30 pm with a serving of raw onion salad, fish flakes and pickled umemoshi vinegarette.

Raw onion salad with fish flakes and pickled umemboshi (Japanese plum) vinegarette

Next up was a beautifully-presented platter of sushi, followed by a serving of potato and red pepper salad with seaweed.

Clockwise from top left: Sweet carrots and green beans wrapped in seaweed with teriyaki sauce, apple with wasabi dressing, radish with lemon dressing and chinese cabbage rolls, all served on a beautiful mirrored tile

Potato and red pepper salad with seaweed

The fourth course of seared broccoli, gamnodoki (fried tofu fritters) and braised shiitake mushrooms was the highlight of the meal for me. I loved the mushrooms, which strongly reminded me of my mother's cooking, and the gamnodoki was incredibly delicious.

Clockwise from top right: Seared broccoli, gammodoki (fried tofu fritters) and braised shiitake musrooms, and then repeated

The fifth course of rice, miso soup and pickles presented a few minor problems for Horton. It turned out he'd run out of rice, so one of the 11 guests would have to do without, although he did offer compensation in the way of potatoes. It didn't really matter as, by then, I suspect quite a few of us were feeling rather full. I did have a minor quibble with the pickles which came with the rice, as I thought they tasted more like kimchi, as opposed to Japanese pickles, but Horton did mention that he'd run out of time and had to make do with store-bought ones.

Clockwise from top left: Miso soup, pickles and boiled rice with seaweed

In between courses, I would make conversation with the other guests at the table. It's practically impossible with the restaurant set-up not to. A number of guests had read about this place in The Metro some time back, some in Le Cool, while another had heard about this when she attended The Underground Restaurant in Kilburn a few weeks ago. Just going by the guests at my table, what we all had in common was that we were all not from England, loved London, and were willing to try new experiences, as evidenced by the fact that we were here, and by the amount of travelling we'd done collectively.

Finally, it was time for dessert. The sweetness of the chocolate and the berries went well with the saltiness of the white miso dressing. Then, a cup or two of nice warm Hakutsuru sake to round off the meal.

Fruit and chocolate with white miso dressing, and a cup of warm sake

By the time we'd finished, it was 9.30 pm, time for the second sitting to begin. We decided not to delay them any further, and make our way home. As I left, Horton didn't look tired at all. He'd been a bundle of energy all night long, which was absolutely amazing given the amount of work and effort that must have gone into this. And he still had another two hours to go!

I suppose this goes hand-in-hand with the fact that Horton also plays in rock-and-roll band They Came from the Stars (I Saw Them). Is there anything he can't do?

All in all, it was a wonderful, relaxed meal in an informal environment with friendly diners. By the end of the night, I'd almost forgotten the meal had been entirely vegetarian. And coming from a natural-born carnivore like me, that's high praise indeed!

The Secret Ingredient runs every Wednesday and has two sittings, one from 7 pm to 9 pm, and another from 9.30 pm to 11.30 pm. More information can be found here. Minimum suggested donation of £15 at the time I went. BYOB.

They Came from the Stars (I Saw Them) will be performing at Bar Music Hall on April 17th, and Cargo on May 23rd.


Fat Les said...

Lovely post. I've been meaning to go; Weds is oft inconvenient. You went OYO?

Little Miss Random said...

Yep, I went by myself. I'd opted for the earlier sitting (which none of my friends would ever be able to make even if I'd asked them) as I wasn't too sure about the area and how long it would take for me to get home, so I can definitely see how both times wouldn't work for people working full-time.

Still, it was a good meal, and easier to get to than I thought, so I'd definitely recommend trying it out at least once. Besides, Horton's a hoot!

MsMarmitelover said...

Thanks for the mention LMR!
Horton's is always very enjoyable.