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Jidori

So I went to my first ever izakaya and I'm a convert. What's an izakaya, I hear you cry? Well, it's basically the Japanese equivalent of a gastropub - though you won't be getting a roast with wasabi-spiked gravy or fish & chips in tempura batter here. Izakayas are all about providing helpful fuel on a boozy evening in the form of small plates such as yakitori, and though on this particular occasion Viv and I remained abstemious, the food at Jidori was so good it made us giddy.

Sandwiched between Dalston Kingsland and Shacklewell, Jidori offers the gutsy flavours of the izakaya in a pared-down Scandinavian setting, all Farrow & Ball tones offset by abstract collage pieces on the exposed brick walls. Naturally, the menu places a heavy focus on yakitori, though in the spirit of boozing, there's also a great sake selection and an incredibly tempting cocktail list featuring such exotic flavours such as yuzu, plum liqueur, shiso and ginger syrup (in my revision-befuddled state, I started thinking of an album entitled Oriental Ingredients' Greatest Hits. All in the mind. This is what happens when I force myself to stay sober). Next time I'll be getting at least one.

If you've been reading this blog a while you'll know that small plates are my Kryptonite. They're just the best thing. From tapas to cichetti, I'm a sucker for them - being able to conquer most of the menu appeals to the competitive beast in me, while the experience of tasting and offering opinions on a shared dish is, in my opinion, a great way to get to know your dining companions - even if you've been friends for years. And these particular bite-sized yakitori were exceptionally exciting. Skewered chicken hearts were meaty and flavourful. Aubergine and miso butter, creamy yet subtly smoky. And most exciting of all, the tsukune: piscine balls of chicken and pork given a theatrical DIY spin with a dipping sauce of sweet cured egg yolk and soy and mirin that you mix at the table yourself. Fun and downright delicious.

Gotta have that eggporn, am I right? Don't worry, I disgust myself too. Anyway. This was another special dish: chilled udon with onsen egg and togarashi. I'd been craving these fat noodles as a big udon fan (in fact, it's pretty much all I ate when I visited Japan: the ramen craze that hit our shores over the past few years was as novel to me as the rest of the population). This hit the spot, and the silky, quivering egg on top yielded to Viv's chopstick so easily it horrified me a tiny bit.

The famed katsu curry scotch eggs have done the rounds on social media and I'm not ashamed to admit that they were the major impetus driving me towards far-off East London. My thoughts? I was won over by the scent of the curry and the tantalising liquid gold of the egg yolks inside the scotch eggs but strangely they were the low point of the meal for me. (Though Viv and I still hoovered them up, of course). Perhaps it was because I felt the curry sauce was on the watery side, or because the pure form of the dish, panko-breadcrumbed meat smothered in thick curry sauce on a bed of sticky Japanese rice, is so perfect on its own. While this wasn't quite sensational, better things were on their way and I soon forgot about the scotch eggs. I'm getting hungry just thinking about what came next...

Ginger ice cream with miso caramel, sweet potato crisps and black sesame praline. The miso caramel sauce packed a surprising, satisfying umami punch, while the delightfully soft ginger ice cream provided an artful contrast to the crunchy, salty ribbons of sweet potato on top. This was a real rollercoaster ride for my deprived tastebuds (subjected to weeks of supermarket meal deals before and after) and perhaps it's a crowd-divider: Viv was very much not a fan. Which I wasn't going to contradict her on at all - it meant I had the whole bowl to myself (cue fiendish snickers from my side of the table). I had this meal back in March, and it's still the best sweet dish to have passed my lips so far in 2016. 

While I end on a note of excessive praise, I cannot overexaggerate my love for this refined little izakaya out East. I reckon it'd make for a memorable night out in a multitude of situations (whether you're on an intimate, informal date or a rambunctious catch-up with friends over cocktails), the prices are fairly reasonable and I just can't get away from the fact that the dessert blew my mind. Jidori, you'll be seeing me again soon. 

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Santorini ε: Fira, Oia, Megalochori

A final return to paradisiacal azure skies, gleaming white walls and tumbling bougainvillea after a months of travel silence! Today I'd like to share our last few days in Santorini: a return to some of our favourite places on the island as well as new experiences: tastes, smells and sights that are seared into my memory seven months later, indelible and wonderful.

By day six, we'd pretty much seen most of what Santorini had to offer and had reached that lovely point in the holiday where we had the luxury of revisiting places we really liked as well as having new experiences. A star of the trip was Lucky's Souvlaki in Fira - a stellar recommendation from Miho. It's practically a hole in the wall but it enjoys a roaring trade, pounding out some of the best gyros I've tried. Order taken, we'd perch up on the bar, fascinated by the speed of assembly, then sink our teeth into the steaming gyros straight away. Fantastic value for money, simple, and oh so tasty. I think we went three times over the course of the trip, which somehow wasn't enough.

Also of interest in Fira: the Museum of Prehistoric Thera. Here you can see treasures excavated from the dig site at Akrotiri - colourful mosaics lifted from the walls, pots with undulating curves and the highlight for me, this sweet little golden ibex.

Tourist trap cafes abound in Fira - you'll pay through the nose for a drink, but the sight of the volcano below, surrounded by the shimmering lagoon, more than makes up for it.

While in Fira I caught sight of a poster of Jurassic World (wouldn't be a self-respecting dinosaur geek otherwise...) and realised that it was advertising an open-air cinema on the south part of the island later that night. So, completely spontaneously, we jumped on a bus down to Kamari, the sun's languorous descent casting long shadows and golden light on to the rocky landscape. 

And the open-air cinema was even cooler than I'd hoped: complete with bar, excellent snacks and comfortable seats. There's something incredible about watching a film under the stars, sipping a cold beer, enjoying the warm night breeze ruffling through my hair. Especially when the film is about dinosaurs. (I mean, not as good as Jurassic Park, but when a movie features Chris Pratt on a motorcycle, I'm prepared to be forgiving.)

Day seven, lost in a haze of books and languid hours soaking up the sun, ended with a return to beautiful Oia, where we went for an evening promenade, taking in engagement shoots and just generally drinking in the scenery before dinner.

Melitini, specialising in 'Greek tapas', was a real hit. Casual dining up on a rooftop is always a good idea, especially when pretty much everything we ordered tasted fantastic - particularly the earthy, smoky pork belly.

Stomachs comfortably full, we wandered back down into the belly of my beloved Atlantis Books for inspiration up the Philosophy Tower and to pet the resident cat.

The disturbing moment when you unearth this on the erotic shelf.

Books have a habit of working up my appetite for sweeter things, so it was only right that we bade farewell to Oia with the most fantastic ice cream at Lolita's Gelato - mine, a devilish concoction of dark chocolate and rum, had me swooning.

Our last day on the island came too quickly for my liking. My early swim in the huge crescent-shaped pool at Amber Light Villas was followed by a morning whiled away on the black beach at Perissa, where I drank in more Steinbeck than juice and sun (seriously, East Of Eden: mandatory reading).

Next, a stroll through the winding streets of the less polished but charming village of Megalochori, where I had the best lunch of the trip at Marmita: caramelised octopus on a bed of the smoothest, most flavourful fava bean mash. Unforgettable. The perfect way to line the stomach for what came next: a tour around the nearby Venetsanos winery, perched high on a cliff overlooking the lagoon.

For someone who is frankly a novice where it comes to wine, this tour and tasting was somewhat of an eye-opener. It was also the moment where I realised my nascent love for dessert wine (and resulted in a later surfeit of sherry in the house at Christmas...) Props to George for leading such a great tour and taking us through the various wines on offer!

The sun set on our final day, and we had one last dinner in an old mill near our hotel in Firostefani.

To be honest, this was more of the wannabe Michelin-style fare that seems to be endemic to most of the restaurants on the island (with the exorbitant price tags to match), but it was fun to see the effort the restaurant had put into the food (such as the 'volcanic rock' potatoes, above) and we left feeling cheerful, suitably restored and ready for our return to the big smoke. 
 
I hope you've enjoyed my series on Santorini! I'm thinking of doing a highlights post for anyone thinking of making a trip to this most beautiful of islands at some point, so it won't be yia sas forever. Speaking of summer 2016, (which is approaching at lightning speed - help...) I've already planned most of mine. It appears that a little voyage round Europe is on the cards - potentially a few cities in northern Europe that I don't know well or haven't visited before, and a protracted sojourn in sunkissed Italy for a second year which my body, pale and hunched from a month in the library, is anticipating already. Plus, most excitingly of all, I've booked an adventure to a part of the world I've never been before with two of my best friends (there's a clue as to where somewhere in this post...) Honestly, I can hardly wait. Now it's your turn to spark crazy, spiralling wanderlust and envy in me: what are your plans for the summer?

If you've missed my earlier posts on Santorini, you can catch up here: 
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