What’s a Japanese Gastropub you may ask? We’re not sure, but in terms of Ukai (est: 2006), we think it’s an amazing Japanese restaurant that has transplanted itself into the former shell of a pub on Portobello Market. Jason headed down with very little expectations and left with his mind blown. This is without a doubt some of the best Japanese food we’ve ever encountered…
People who *really* like Japanese food. Ukai have a mostly orthodox take on washoku, but bring lots of extremely creative (and well executed) twists on the familiar. Come and see what they’ve done to your ‘old favourites’ and try a few of their own creations, you will not be disappointed. Chef Alessandro Verros (who trained at ROKA amongst other places) is a truly gifted human being – and we shall certainly keep our hungry eyes on him and his culinary creations…
Anyone who wanted to have what is mostly a traditional English pub experience and then suddenly realise that they’re eating semi-experimental Japanese food. OK, it’s not quite like that, but atmospherically, Ukai is very different from your standard sushi, izakaya or ramen joint. It makes quite a change.
In a word
No Cormorants Required
For over 10 years now, UKAI has called itself home in Portobello, nested amongst the many yummy mummies, quaint antiques shops and the sprawling street market that most folks know the area for. The restaurant’s overall approach is inspired by a traditional Japanese method of river fishing (stretching back some 1,300 years or so) that involves the use of cormorants to catch fish.
This explains the large and beautiful mural of a cormorant by the entrance. And, if not for the red neon kanji above the door, you’d be hard pressed to guess the kind of food this place does. You may be forgiven, perhaps, for mistaking it for a ‘hip’ pub with an interior design budget – and you wouldn’t be too far off the mark…
Ukai calls itself a ‘Japanese Gastropub’ and one look at its interior gives you an idea of where they came up with the description. They clearly took the shell of a pub and installed their own take of Japanese ‘Gastro’ into it…
Speaking of pubs, the experience here is much closer to your local boozer than the occasionally/often overwhelming level of service you experience at a high end Japanese restaurant (think; endless bowing, stiff formalities, relentless smiling, all that great stuff…).
In fact, before we are seated for dinner we see a pair of old boys sipping pints and conversing in cockney tones about 6000 miles removed from Shinjuku. Unlike a British boozer, however, it’s eerily quiet in this brief pre-dinner interval around 6:45pm…
Japanese yuzu (…in everything!)
This ingredient gets its own section, for various reasons. As we know, the Japanese love their Yuzu, but Ukai seem extra obsessed with it. It appears in a number of ingenious ways, appearing Ukai’s dishes, either as ingredient or garnish – as a zest (outer rind), ponzu (sauce) or truffle. Its flavour is tart, closely resembling that of the grapefruit, with overtones of mandarin orange.
We try 3 varieties of sake (nuking a tiny bottle in the process – see above). Ask Ukai to pair your sake with food and exciting, expensive things will happen to your table. Sake pairing is an artform that is starting to be recognised in the west – and if you’ve not experienced it yet, this would be a good place to do so
As snack foods go, Edamame are polarising. I really like them, many don’t. These are smothered in a rich and oily, red sauce. As a consequence they are insanely moreish, so be sure to go easy on them if you want to get the most out of Ukai’s menu! You can overshoot the mark quite early and fill yourself up…
Pan fried scallops, with orange tobiko, yuzu ponzu
There is gorgeous texture & thickness to the scallops [Ed: how scallops should be, no?], plus a flavoursome kick of orange tobiko, which is then laced with that delicious yuzu sauce.
Tuna tartare, yuzu, raspberry sauce
I have never seen tuna this soft and creamy before – it is unreal. The tiny crab eggs supply a zesty explosion of contrast to the flat, rich tastes of the tuna and the bed of cubed avocado underneath. Prepare your palate for this one.
Beef tenderloin, with yuzu soy
Japan’s classy kebab [Ed: lol] – warm and tender chunks of beef with drizzles of yuzu soy. Simple, concentrated and delicious beef flavours – a great contrast to the first two dishes.
A Ukai stand out! I’ve never had anything like this – thin slices in a yuzu marinade. As foods in my life go, a totally unique experience. According to Ukai, there are only 3 other London based Japanese restaurants serving kampachi.
Butterfish nigiri (aka ‘super white tuna’)
This was another favourite of mine, an obscure variety of fish that is naturally buttery. Sashimi as it is meant to be served up, thin slices of raw near perfection…
Tuna tartare and prawn sushi
The legendary tuna tartare makes a return, with a little more variety in texture now that it sits on a cube of rice. The crunchy prawns provide a nice contrast.
Tenderloin beef teriyaki
So this was the ‘main’ (and it should be noted that we were not expecting this, so it made a pleasant surprise). This was amongst my top 3 dishes, the ingredients miss me, but there was some wizardry occurring in this beef like I’d never tasted before.
Despite being crushed from what appears to be more Japanese food than I’ve ever consumed in a single sitting, there was still room for delicious desert. Raspberry sorbet wrapped in cream cheesecake, with sliced strawberry and cherries. Excellent…
So in case I hadn’t made it obvious, this is the best Japanese food I’ve ever had
As far as Japanese Restaurants go, I can’t think of anywhere in Portobello Market that even comes close. Don’t be fooled by their clumsy flash website (they sell themselves short here) – this is the real deal. The staff are friendly, super helpful and really know their stuff. To a lover of Japanese cuisine, or anyone curious to explore it further, I couldn’t recommend Ukai enough.
…and I look forward to coming back here!
[Ed: …would also very much like to come here for a pint or two in the bar area and see if ‘Ukai bar snacks’ were a feasible option…]
240 Portobello Rd, London W11 1LL
020 7792 2444