Peter Morrell and his wife were enchanted by the tastes, flavours and textures of the food and the friendly service in this cosy West London restaurant
Japanese food is still quite a mystery to me so I am always excited about eating in one as I know that there will always be some very pleasant culinary surprises in store. With is in mind I recently went to Ukai (pronounced oo-kaaee, it means cormorant fishing) in London’s Portobello Road.
The restaurant is on a corner site and the building used to be a pub. Efforts have been made to retain the external character of the building and the original glazed tiles are still there. Inside the restaurant has a cosy feel rather like a friendly local and the diners were a mix of regulars and customers from further afield.
We were soon settled in choosing an aperitif, there were some very interesting cocktails on the list made with a range of Japan’s favourite drinks – sake, plum wine and Yamazaki whisky. We chose the more sedate Prosecco and draught Ashai Japanese beer which has got a good astringent crispness to it.
Although I eat out about 150 times a year I still find a Japanese menu difficult to navigate so we were grateful for the very helpful staff who gave us lots of good advice. The menu at Ukai is categorised, there’s Japas, a cute play on the work Tapas, their signature dishes, steamed buns, tempura (food with a light, crisp batter), Robata from the grill, stir fried, Japanese curry, a range of sushi, soups, salads and desserts.
Although not necessary we did divide the meal up into the more the familiar, starters, mains and dessert. We were recommended three starters, white tuna tataki with a yuzu and truffle dressing, Gyoza pot sticker dumplings and the mixed ceviche citrus cured fish.
The ceviche, a mix of tuna and avocado with a spicy citrus notes was very fresh and uplifting and the Gyoza dumplings served with a dip were delightful crisp parcels with the most delicious stuffing. The star of the starter show was the tuna. Tataki is a method of cooking where meat or fish is very briefly sealed over hot flame in a pan. It’s then thinly sliced and dressed, in our case with yuzu and truffle. Yuzu is a citrus fruit with a unique flavour, somewhere between grapefruit and lime. It was while eating a dish like this you get to appreciate why Japanese food is such an adventure, it was a brand new taste sensation.
For our ‘main’ we had chosen two dishes from the Robata grill, chicken yakatori and pork belly together with squid tempura and a seaweed salad. The Yakatori were skewers of tender chicken and spring onion in a most delightful marinade which gave it great depth. The pork belly was juicy and enhanced by the spicy miso sauce which delivered that elusive moreish umami flavour in spaded. The crispy chilli squid with a jalapeno mayo dip although light delicate had the taste buds singing. The big surprise in this course was the seaweed salad featuring wakami and nori with edamame beans, cucumber and a ponzu sauce which is made with yuzu, bonito flakes, soy sauce and a range of other ingredients. The tastes and textures of this dish cured my life long aversion to any green food and was very good.
My wife matched the Viña Leyda Chilean sauvignon blanc white with her meal, this wine had fresh gooseberry, apple and citrus notes. My pairing was a more robust red, the Argentinian estate malbec made by Humberto Canale in Patagonia. This had good red berry, spice and vanilla aromas with well structured tannins which made it very smooth.
For dessert we shared coconut and green tea ice cream garnished with star fruit, this refreshing finish was just enough to complete a most satisfying culinary exploration. One final note about the meal, the Japanese make eating an aesthetic experience and this extends to both the presentation of the food and the plates and dishes which were all textured and stylishly decorated.
The charming staff, buzzy atmosphere and inventive food are all enticing us to return and discovery even more culinary delights from the menu.
240 Portobello Road
London W11 1LL
020 7792 2444