More friendly, and just as tasty

Sake No Hana
23 St James's St, SW1A 1HA
Tel: 020 7925 8988
Cost per person without wine: £45

SAKE No Hana, formerly the only Japanese restaurant in London to make Nobu seem cosy and inviting, has undergone three big changes. One: the downstairs sushi bar has gone upstairs, and the upstairs cocktail bar has gone downstairs. Two: Alan Yau, owner of Yauatcha and other super-glam Asian eateries, no longer owns it. And three: there’s a new chef called Daisuke Hayashi, who is a big cheese from Kyoto.

Something about these three changes has induced a sea change in the formerly forbidding restaurant. Whereas once the menu was as hard to love as the staff’s stony faces; the prices stratospheric and the crowd far too cool for school, now the cocktails and food look good, make sense and won’t (all) break the bank. Service is with a smile too. All this makes the glossy black escalators you must take up to the dining room seem less daunting.

Still, we put off the ascent to the restaurant with a couple of cocktails in the new downstairs bar – both were delicious, especially the plum wine bellini. When my friend knocked her drink all over the table, it was smilingly cleaned up and replaced – with not even the faintest eyeroll.

Upstairs in the dining room there was a relaxed thrum – in addition to the good looking couples on first, third and fifteenth dates, a young, well-heeled Japanese set were out in force sampling the delicacies and evidently enjoying what they found.

And to those of us who grew up on a diet of fish fingers and chips (ok, and a few vegetables), there was much to tempt and delight on the menu.

But some degree of restraint is required, since there are so many categories: cold and warm “appetizers”, sushi and sashimi, soups and salads, charcoal grill, and special dishes. Indeed, there is such thing as too much choice and – given that this is hardly a tapas restaurant – I’d say Sake No Hana’s menu falls into the category.

So, pressured by the menu as much as our natural greed, we ordered a lot. From the cold appetiser section, we found a plate of rib eye beef tataki with sesame dressing and marinated vegetables to be highly enjoyable and oozing thick soy-dominated flavour. It lacked refinement, though – the meat was a bit gooey and the sauce a bit viscous. Mind you, that’s not to say we didn’t enjoy it. Other temptations in this section include marinated salmon with tamarillo and walnuts and king crab salad with persimmon.

We moved on to a plate of rich, squelchy sesame aubergine that was delicious – if you don’t mind that uniquely pulpy texture of skinless grilled eggplant. The dish was £4.50, which seemed more than reasonable, especially when sharing a list with toban-seared scallops and white asparagus costing £18.

Our plate of sushi was a solid, pleasurable mixture of melting sashimi and action-packed rolls. It was good but not a standout, so we hurried back to the rest of the menu, and got serious with great pink claws of Alaskan crab with ponzu butter (brilliant) and a whole sea bream cooked in magnolia leaf – huge, meaty, aromatic and, despite costing just shy of £40, good value since you could easily share it.

Lest we miss out, we also had an iron pot of black cod rice – it was gooey, warm and subtly flavoured, with big jags of fish sitting in it. But it made me think of the cod pot at Roka, which has roe swirled through and is therefore superior.

You’d do well to miss dessert here and instead order another delight from the savoury menu – the sweets, as they often are in Japanese restaurants, are a little too different from the classic Anglo-French model we’ve come to associate with the decadent end of a meal. There are only four choices, two of which are fruit-based and thus for whimps. So we had a green tea chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream which was very earthy and oddly pleasing, and a horrible bowl of agar jelly and azuki bean compote.

I should mention the pleasurable drinks component – we had a very nice bottle of Viognier with dinner and tried some sake and plum wine too. Plenty on the list is affordable: sake – as well as wine – is often exorbitantly priced at posh Japanese restaurants, but one of the reinvented Sake No Hana’s masterstrokes is to provide something for everyone. And if you’re unsure, the staff should be able to help. After all, they’re all smiles these days.