Even more Izakaya food

If you’re wondering about what snacks to serve with a martini, you will find endless inspiration in the world of Izakaya.


Izakaya can be roughly described as relaxed and usually low-cost Japanese gastro-pubs. I have written about them quite a bit before, mainly because of their warm atmosphere and inspiring array of tasty menu items that go very well with a martini.


Quite a lot of these dishes, such as this hot edamame with salt and soy sauce, were snapped in Yumi, Soho, one of a handful of Izakaya in London.


These olives and edamame I did at home though. They’re easy.


Here is some kimchi and cold broccoli with sesame sauce. Simple but effective. Also in Yumi.


Kimchi is a Korean dish consisting mostly of pickled cabbage with chillies.


Pungent and served cold, it can be an acquired taste to some in the West, but I love it. It has even been inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which is reason enough to give it a try at least.


This is some homemade lightly pickled mackerel (shime saba) with tsukemono pickles, spring onions, sesame seeds, cooked beetroot, soy sauce, grated ginger and lemon slices.


I think the strong taste of shime-saba pairs well with a bold martini.


It goes very well with a fiery ginger martini.


Here is some Yumi chicken yakitori with raw egg dipping sauce. Absolutely amazing.


Yakitori skewers are a common feature in Izakaya menus.


They’re a delicious and fairly substantial snack.


Inspired by the Yumi selection I made some grilled courgette skewers at home. They were dead easy. 


Rolling cut some courgettes into bite-sized chunks, grill them with some oil and soy sauce for about 20-30 mins, let them cool then thread them onto some skewers.

I put 9 pieces on each and fed them to some willing members of my family.


This is a Thai snack skewer, made of dried and seasoned fish. It has a sweet/umami/spicy taste and a texture like beef jerky.


More pre-packaged and possibly unhealthy snack food, but still tasty. Japanese peanuts coated in a squid-flavoured crunchy coating. It went well with a martini.


Here are some mussels in a garlic-cream sauce with chunky hunks of bread.


They can be slightly difficult to eat with a martini in one hand. It might be easier if you thread the mussels onto skewers first but that’s a bit of a faff.


It’s probably best to have a martini, eat the mussels, then have another martini.


You can see the recipe for these chilled scallops with paprika, seaweed-butter and lime canapés here.


You can probably guess that I love oysters.


I usually like them served as simple as they come.


Their rich oceanic flavour reminds me of being on the beach in the Hebrides when I was little. 


Living in central London it has to be a very evocative flavour to transport me over 500 miles and three decades in just one mouthful…


Anyway, back to Izakaya, sushi is also often served at these establishments. Here are some rough-hewn sushi rolls I put together.


This is a rather large uramaki (inside-out sushi roll) and not exactly the neatest you ever saw…


Loosely based on a California roll recipe, mine contained crab sticks, cucumber, avocado and wasabi.


(These aren’t mine)


I also spread some of my seemingly ubiquitous seaweed butter on the nori instead of using the more conventional mayonnaise.


I also made some smaller cucumber maki, also with seaweed butter.

Cucumber maki have a simple taste and a satisfying texture combining crisp nori, soft rice and the crunch of fresh cucumber.


They also go well with Hendricks gin, which is flavoured with cucumber and rose.


If you make your own rolls the ingredient variations are endless so try some out for yourself. 

Homemade sashimi is fairly easy to assemble.


Buy top grade fresh fish, gently but thoroughly rinse it in cold water. Pat dry then place in the freezer for about 45 minutes then slice into bite-size pieces and serve immediately with soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger.


Homemade sashimi might not resemble the expertly sliced morsels you’ll find in a proper sushi restaurant.


However, if the fish is good quality  it should stil be very tasty.


I served some tuna sashimi on sushi rice with omelette and pickles. Simplicity is the key. 

One of the nice aspects of Japanese Izakaya is the more relaxed, informal nature of the service and food.


Home-made style cooking is very popular at Izakaya, putting the emphasis on cosy comfort, relaxation and intimate care.


It’s more like being in someone’s warm, welcoming house rather than an intense fine dining experience, making it a very comfortable environment for a martini.


So if you’re lucky enough to be in Japan or a city with Izakaya venues be sure to check them out.


Otherwise, if you’re having a martini at home and fancy trying some more unusual snacks and appetisers have a go at some of these.


Itadakimasu!

The Mermaid Inn, NYC 4.5/5

This is one of my favourite places in the world.

Oyster happy hour is a must! 

I’ve previously mentioned how well seafood goes with a martini, especially the simplistically delicate oyster, so a bar/restaurant that specialises in briny goodness was always going to get me excited.

 

However, I’ve got to focus on the martini and not get too ahead of myself.

Using my martini rating scale I award this bar and restaurant very high points: 4.5 out of 5.


I ordered a hot and dirty martini (vodka, olive brine, Tabasco sauce with a crunchy, fresh and bright red peppadew garnish). It was ice cold, salty and fiery – a perfect tongue-tantalising aperitif.


The service was fast, attentive and the staff were passionate about the food and drinks.

The setting was intimate, clean and unpretentious.


And finally, the food is fantastic with a wide variety of seasonal oysters as well as a range of sustainably sourced seafood. It’s ideal for a light bite or a more substantial meal.


The only thing I would recommend to the Mermaid Inn is that the management make more of their martinis on the menu. The restaurant does them so well I think they should promote them more prominently. I really can’t fault them in any other way.


Basically to sum up my experience, If I died suddenly and my life flashed before my eyes I hope I would linger here for just a little while en route to the next level. And I hope the next level has oyster happy hour too.

 

Don’t forget to download their useful app Oysterpedia

More martini snacks and canapes

I’m just going to leave this here…

  

What could be easier than olives and cheese-stuffed peppers that you picked up at the shops on the way home? I particularly like the colour contrast of these two. Oh and the taste.

You can’t go wrong with the lemony-buttery taste of Nocellara olive flesh, while the soft creamy cheese paired very indulgently with the sweet piccante crunch of the pepper.

  
This one was also a little bit last minute. I threw together some Bombay mix, prosciutto and olives when a friend popped round unexpectedly. The Bombay mix didn’t really go with the other two, but it’s definitely very nice on its own.

  

Here are some nuts, arranged mindlessly while I stared into space sipping my first drink of the night. Salted pistachio nuts are my favourite, although some nice big fat macadamia nuts would go well with a martini too.

  
Simple, easy, light, savoury, Twiglets are an underrated canapé snack. They are the flavour and texture opposite of the martini. Where a martini is cold, smooth, heady, citrusy and ever so slightly sweet, these are light, crunchy, salty and savoury. They don’t look particularly elegant but the flavour contrast really works. They’re a guaranteed winner for marmite fans.

  
This one is a bit more fancy. Asparagus skewers, blini with taramasalata, maki rolls, sigeumchi-namul, crisps, a martini and candles…

  
A simple but slightly more edgy snack, here are some wasabi peas with a simple classic.

  
Extremely simple, but very tasty, here is some lightly pickled baby beetroot. I’m sure we could create some kind of pink-coloured beetroot Gibson Martini, perhaps similar to the Beet Up Vesper Martini at the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town bar in central London. 


Sea Aster is a seasonal coastal plant that flowers in the summer but is edible in the spring. Wash and eat raw or lightly boil for a minute or two. I got mine at a fish monger’s in Borough Market.


Mum bought these langoustines from Tobermory Main Street while I picked up the samphire on Oban pier on a trip back from London.


There’s a whole world of tapas-style ingredients and food types you could use. Above you can see chorizo, cold roast pork slices, feta cheese, olives, bread, houmous, oil  and duqqah.


You can turn the nibbles into your whole meal and really take your time with the martini. Above you can see crab open sandwiches, nuts, wood ear mushrooms, Korean-style spinach, roasted vegetables, seaweed, manchego cheese, Bombay mix, olives, bread, oil and houmous all to be slowly munched while you sip your cold gin.


Houmous is a relaxed martini accompaniment to have at home with informal company over a drink.


Here it is served with sliced pitta bread and a variety of mostly Mediterranean snacks.


My kind neighbour made me some lovely Middle Eastern sweets which I included in the meal.

The Arabic element of the food was especially good at soaking up some of the alcohol!


Dim sum was a surprisingly good – if slightly unconventional accompaniment.


Oysters are my favourite.


I also love creamy manchego cheese.


Finally though, the most classical martini snack will always remain the pitted green olive. If it’s all you have, you’ll be fine. And you won’t spoil your appetite for dinner.

The Popup Martini Bar


Several months ago, my auntie suggested that we hold a popup martini bar in our family restaurant. The venue is the Gallery, on the Main Street of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull (a beautiful and friendly Hebridean Island in Argyll, western Scotland).


We thought about the idea for a while but it remained firmly in the land of fantasy for quite some time. Then, last month, my Mum decided that we should just go ahead and do it. If it doesn’t work, we will learn some lessons, and if it does work, well, it will be a fantasy fulfilled – for me at least, and we might be able to organise some more.


Given that martinis aren’t exactly common tipples at the drinking establishments on the island, we thought it would be fun to do something new and different, particularly for the locals, although it was peak tourist season so we thought there would be several visitors around as well. Ultimately though, I think I just wanted to try my hand at finally being a martini barman.


So, we bought plenty of martini glasses, a shed load of gin, commandeered a freezer to get it all in, planned the processes and the structure of the evening, and put out some adverts and social media posts about it. With some extremely useful guidance from the restaurant staff and the creative talents of my mother, we came up with a plan, who would serve what, which food items we would include on the menu, the types of martini we would serve and even a playlist.


The Gallery is very conducive to a martini atmosphere. The building is a beautiful old church, the tallest structure on the island, lovingly restored (a work still in progress) by members of the family (such as my gravity-defying brother in the above image) and some skilled friends on the island.


It has great acoustics and a good sound system. In addition, because it is already a restaurant we have an alcohol license in place, tables, chairs, equipment and staff members, which made it a lot easier for us to prepare.


On the day of the event, we were exceptionally lucky with the weather. The sun was out and it was positively hot.


Given that our restaurant has an outdoor courtyard, sociably adjacent to Tobermory Main Street (it’s good for people watching and catching up with passers-by) it’s the perfect setting for sitting out and enjoying a coffee or drink whilst overlooking the harbour.


Word of advice: if you’re going to do this sort of thing, try to practise the entire process in advance. That includes testing all your equipment! I stupidly didn’t check our sound system entirely and at the last minute discovered that my phone (with my pre-made playlist) wasn’t compatible with the sound system. Thank god for local saint Wiksey who turned up and fixed it all in the space of about 5 minutes. Thank you, you technical genius!


Otherwise the freezers were good and the gin and glasses were suitably chilled. I also took my own special martini knife, peeler and chopping board. I’m really fussy about my martini kit which can come across as *slightly* obsessive but if something is out of place it will annoy me no-end and distract me from my goal of getting everyone tipsy.

We were almost ready.


On the day of the event I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. What if we ran out of glasses? What if it didn’t work? What if there was an alcohol related crime? What if we ran out of gin (itself an alcohol related crime…)?

It didn’t help that while I was walking along the Main Street in the afternoon, nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned the event. I was starting to worry that we would be overwhelmed.

I put together a menu, outlining the martinis we would offer:

  • The simple classic martini (please specify if you would like it sweet, dry or made with vodka) with a twist of lemon (or olive if preferred)
  • A dirty martini (with an olive and 3-6 tsp brine according to preference)
  • A hot martini (with 2-5 drops of Tabasco sauce according to preference)
  • A hot ‘n’ dirty martini (combining the above two)
  • A Gibson martini (with a pickled onion)
  • A Paisley martini (with 2 tsp whisky)

We also served a selection of additional drinks like beer, wine, pimms and prosecco.


Mum and I went over the best layout for the drinks. We would serve the martinis at the bar on a plate with a small dish of olives and some miniature pretzels on the side. Additional food was also available on the menu. 


The lovely Turnbull family supplied us with some fat, juicy oysters (my favourite food and an amazing martini accompaniment) while the beautiful Sally Swinbanks of the Tobermory Fish Company supplied us with additional seafood bites which again go fantastically with a martini.


Minutes to go, the music was playing and we stood in expectation. I was very tempted to pour then down a martini to relax but I resisted and my colleague Catriona kindly made me an espresso instead which worked. Then, the doors opened at 5 o’clock and we were ready to go.


My first order came in almost immediately for four martinis and I got to work, assembling them as fast as I could. No sooner had I served them had two more orders come in. I continued at the same pace. I didn’t stop or slow down again until 8 o’clock when we closed. At one or two points a queue had formed. What a rush. I was worried that we might end up making over 100 martinis, and would then run out of things. In the end we only ran out of the miniature pretzels and I served 250 martinis. A personal record! I was over the moon. I was also absolutely thrilled with my colleagues who seemed to effortlessly keep a lid on the proceedings, serving, cleaning and arranging everything with good humour.


Unfortunately because I was so busy I had barely lifted my gaze up from the bar for the whole time so I hadn’t had a chance to see how everything was progressing, but I was told that people were having a good time. Some of the guests kindly shared their photographs with me and allowed me to use them on the blog.


As it went so well I look forward to doing it again in the future. I would also be interested to see how it works out if the weather isn’t as good. If everyone is inside the view wouldn’t be as romantic but the atmosphere could be brilliant.


At some point in the future I would like to co-operate with my talented cousin Cat Loud and do a joint martini-cabaret evening. You can see her perform this month at the Edinburgh Fringe.

I also want to hold a martini night on a Friday so that more people are able to join us (our first one was on a Tuesday). I’d also like to do it in the winter when locals have more time on their hands for a good party.

Watch this space and thank you everyone who helped and those who came on the night!

A Martini with Crushed Oyster Shell


I drifted into borough market the other day and found myself standing in front of a fishmonger’s counter staring at all the produce. I couldn’t leave empty handed and suddenly felt a craving for salty, briny oysters so I bought a handful.I’ve made a martini with oysters before (you can see the blog post here).

This time, though, I was inspired by a story I’d heard about a martini made with gin shaken up with crushed oyster shells.


There’s something anciently pleasing about oyster shells. We always have a pile of discarded ones in the garden by our kitchen door. It’s like a primordial mark of civility, like our Roman and prehistoric Hebridean forebears.

From a taste perspective, I like the ground, salty and metallic/chalky flavour.


So I got to work. I opened the oysters and ground one of the flat, detached shells with a pestle and mortar.

I poured some chilled gin into a jug with the pulverised shell and stirred I vigorously for about 30 seconds.


I then strained the gin and added it to vermouth in a glass to make a martini.

As with a classic martini, I had rubbed some lemon peel into the glass first as this little citrus touch goes nicely with the oyster flavour.


I then served the martini with the opened oysters on the side.

I liked the sharp, metallic taste that the process gave the martini, although I was really craving something saltier and ended up pouring some of the brine in as well.

In sum total, I would say that crushing the oyster shell was a bit of a faff and ultimately the best part of the flavour simply came from the oyster brine I added at the end.


So I concluded that’s unless you have a lot of time, I would keep it simple. If you’re craving an oyster-themed martini simply serve them on the side of a simple classic martini and pour in some of the brine to taste. You could even tip the whole body of one in for a striking (and tasty) aperitif.

A Martini with Hayman’s Gin

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while.

  
A very good friend and reader of this blog presented me with a bottle of this gin from Haymans. I instantly loved the branding and packaging. The colours, dark blue and gold, were positively regal.

So I put the bottle in the freezer and awaiting a visit from my friend so we could have a martini (or three… oops).

  

This is the Family Reserve edition, where the gin has been stored in Scotch whisky barrels for three weeks prior to bottling. This mellows the drink and apparently conforms to a traditional method popular in the nineteenth century. Bottles from this limited batch are individually numbered, adding to the exclusive feel of the brand.

  
I loved the detail on the neck of the bottle in particular; a little flourish of olde worlde meets sharp brand new, reminiscent of the barrel and bottling process perhaps.

  
The gin has a distinctive taste of liquorice. Not usually my favourite botanical (I’m a citrus and juniper traditionalist), it was very smooth and rich and I definitely enjoyed it. 

I made the martinis using my usual method – keep the gin in the freezer and mix with vermouth to taste as follows:

  • between 2tsp to 30ml vermouth
  • around 80-130ml gin

  

I served the martini with lemon peel garnish rather than olives as I wasn’t sure the latter pairing would work, although olives were served on the side and went very well. Black olives in particular could compliment the liquorice flavour of the gin.

  
Other nibble dishes that could go well with this martini include asparagus, cheeses of all shapes and sizes, seafood (including the classic martini accompaniment oysters) and strongly seasoned meat, cured, fried or grilled, particularly if it incorporates liquorice or anise-type botanicals.

Because of its distinctive flavour a martini made wth this gin works well as an aperitif to build ones appetite (especially if you are a liquorice fan) but could also break martini tradition and be served as a digestif as well.

Just don’t overdo it! The rule exists for a reason, it doesn’t matter how nice the gin is.

And nice it is. You can see the full range from the traditional family distillers here.

A Timeless Martini Accompaniment

In my opinion, one of the nicest, most simplistic nibbles to accompany a martini is… 

  
the humble oyster.

This mollusc has been consumed for millennia. Sometimes seen as a food for the poor, its reduction in availability over recent decades has led to its rise as a more exclusive culinary luxury. Nonetheless, whatever it’s historically fleeting association with status, I see it as a timeless and simplistic treat, emblematic of the sea and evocative of coastal living. 

Of course, oysters might not be to everyone’s taste, so I’m willing to concede that other nibbles might be preferable to some members of the public. Indeed, I think they go nicely with plain salted crisps to provide a crunchy carbohydrate counter-balance to their silken briny protein. However, the rest of this post is for the oyster lovers of the world.

 
I am currently in the Hebrides. We may not have the best weather, but we do have amazing seafood.

  
My parents returned from a trip to the hugely underrated town of Oban, one of the principle ports on the mainland for taking a ferry to the islands. A Victorian seaside destination, the place has developed a reputation for being a little bit rough over recent decades. Nonetheless, having worked in a bank branch in the town for several months I had the opportunity to meet lots of locals and I found that there is a strong community feeling and lots of interesting places to eat and drink.

  
There are some beautiful buildings on the waterfront and a striking folly on the hilltop. The town is also sublimely situated.

  
Facing westwards out towards the Hebridean islands with a beautiful bay, Oban has absolutely stunning sunsets. It is the perfect location for a martini bar. I might very well set up my own one here some day…

  
Anyway I digress. My parents brought back a bag of oysters from Watts – a family run fishmongers located in a very small building just off the main Caledonian MacBrayne pier. I always buy fish from here when I’m heading back to the islands. We thought the oysters would make a perfect accompaniment to a martini.

 
Get yourself a shucking knife (above), a tea-towel and a solid surface to work on. Have a plate nearby to place the opened oysters onto as well.

  
Wrap the towel around the oyster to hold it still. Have the flat side of the oyster shell facing upwards. Use the shucking knife in the other hand and insert it into a gap between the two shells near the hinge of the oyster. Press it in carefully but firmly until you feel the faint ‘pop’ of the hinge tendon being severed.

Slowly prize open the shell and use the knife to cut and scrape the oyster flesh away from the top, flat shell, allowing it to collect with the brine in the cup-shaped lower shell. Remove the flat shell completely and discard.

  
Arrange the oysters on a plate. If you have crushed ice to hand you could put this on the plate and place the oysters on top to keep them cool.

You could also add garnishes and sauces. However, my family are purists and we like oysters because they taste of the sea. If pushed, I might be tempted to squeeze a wedge of lemon over one or two oysters but otherwise I prefer the simple flavour of the brine.

  
The saltiness goes very well with a martini, especially a classic martini with a generous squeeze of lemon oil in the glass (see here for further lemony detail).

  
A raw oyster even makes an interesting garnish. Not for the squeamish, it created a briny alternative variation on the dirty martini recipe. 

As an additional note, it has been argued that eating raw oysters is not cruel because they do not have a central nervous system and are not subjected to any pain in the process, so you can enjoy this ancient luxury guilt free. Phew!

And you too could find yourself with a significantly reduced central nervous system if you drink enough martinis. Enjoy!