What do you cherish the most about living in London? My thing is that you can eat anything you want, from anywhere in the world, at any time. It’s all within an area of 607 square miles connected by underground tunnels. You never need get on a plane if you fancy a New York bagel, Japanese sparkling saké or Ethiopian coffee at 3am. This is something I cherish like a pearl carried around in my pocket wrapped in a hanky; I take it out every now and again, admire it, polish it and put it back until next time. The other thing about this city is that it always manages to impress you, no matter how long you’ve lived here. For example, the best chefs in the world have their restaurants in London. We have so much choice that our greatest barrier, to overcome before dining, is wondering where to eat. As long as you’re willing to criss-cross the city you can pretty much eat whatever you desire.
Ukai, Notting Hill
So it’s on one such occasion that I braved our public transport system, during the now historic Heat Wave 2018, to leave the comfort of East London for the bohemian utopia of West London. I was reviewing Ukai in Notting Hill. The restaurant celebrates three years in Notting Hill this year.
Ukai serves Japanese food. You’ll get that vibe as soon as you walk in to the restaurant behind the bar. If I may digress for a moment, I like a good space. Where I eat is just as important as what I eat. When a restaurant, no matter if it’s high or low end, considers the whole experience of its patrons, for me at least, it translates to courtesy. I like a space that transports me elsewhere to make me forget everything that happened before I walked through its doors. So to return to West London – it’s the Japanese of your dreams. Beautiful Kimonos and paintings adorn walls and ceiling. Dark wood tables and low lighting conveys a dramatic, theatrical mood. My food was being prepared behind a glass and I could see it all happening. For a small space it was very clever and I loved it. All of the boxes above, ticked.
I rarely choose for myself when I write reviews (it’s becoming a concern and I’ve made a mental note to stop). Instead, I allow the chef or the kitchen to serenade me with food. I started with plum wine (one of my favourite things to drink) and we were off. White tuna tataki (£11.50) arrived first. It’s seared fish, yuzu and truffle. What I loved the most about this was that if the fish indeed was seared it had been done so delicately I couldn’t taste it. It was almost raw making it light and utterly magnificent. More plum wine. Out came a mixed seafood ceviche (£12). *How do I love thee? Let me count the ways; Tuna, butterfish, avocado and dragon fruit. Avocado and dragon fruit! Served on a banana leaf, no less. How did my life come to be without ever having tasted this flavour combination on a banana leaf? It was a triumph. It’s time to abandon the avocado on toast brigade and enjoy the fruit as it might be eaten where it grows.
Next to arrive was Lobster tail tempura which, at first, may sound like a waste of good lobster. However, this was light as a feather and full of flavour seafood. I say that as one who’s not a fan of fried food. Nothing of the lobster had been lost in the deep frying. I enjoyed it with a glass of Prosecco and savoured it until the next dish arrived.
Next up was the sizzling hot beef tenderloin toban yaki (£23). I watched the chef heat up the ceramic dish and lid on the open fire before placing the beef in it. Everything inside was still cooking while it travelled to my table. When it arrived the beef was rare, the shiitake mushrooms tender and the seasoned saké just heavenly. Such perfect timing. For me, this was the standout plate on Ukai’s menu. It was warm, delicate and wild all at the same time commanding my undivided attention.
The finale of the evening was the towering yuzu cheesecake (£7) served with raspberries and star fruit. It was a cheesecake like no other in both size and taste. Just as everything I had tasted that evening it was a fine balance of flavour, culinary skill and artistry with none of it over powering the other.
As you read this review you’d be forgiven for thinking this is just very good gastro-pub food. I beg to differ. This is serious gastronomy worth criss-crossing the city for.
*Browning, Elizabeth. Sonnet 43.
Ukai is located at: 240 Portobello Road Notting Hill, W11 1LL. For more information visit: www.Ukai.co.uk