The restaurant: Ukai, 240 Portobello Rd, London W11 1LL
If you can’t decide between a pub, restaurant or music venue, Ukai is the hybrid place offering you a bit of all three. In Japan, it would be known as an izakaya, an informal pub with a good mix of drinking and dining, grazing or going all-out. We visited Portobello Road’s ten-year-old Ukai on a sun-streaked Sunday afternoon. A door on the corner welcomes you into a gastropub setting: families, dogs, pints and cocktails. The bar, along with its punters, make it feel like a typical London pub, except everyone is dipping into plates of sushi along with their tipple. It’s initially unclear whether you’re supposed to order up at the bar. The other side of the venue caters more seriously to the dining side of things: it’s quieter, more intimate and clearer that table service will happen. Dividing these two areas is a huge drum kit that, shortly after we arrived, was taken over by a soul-singing duo.
Ukai specialises in the robata cooking, a Japanese method of cooking foods at varying speeds over charcoal, similar to barbecuing. Chef Alessandro Verros, who honed his culinary skills at Nobu and Roka, brings contemporary, authentic Japanese cooking to Ukai. For snacking, you can choose ‘japas’, the Japanese spin on tapas, including spicy edamame, oriental broccoli and fried chicken. Steamed buns, tempura, robata dishes, soups and salads, and a great list of raw fish plates also make the menu.
For starters, we chose dumplings: the crisp gyoza coating combined with a smooth, generously-packed black cod filling was rich and delicious. Pork belly buns, topped with crispy cabbage and a dab of spicy mayonnaise, were a meaty and indulgent favourite, served in a light, thin bun. Ukai has a good variety of fish platters to choose from with the Ukai Deluxe — a platter of volcano, salmon, lobster, prawn and butterfish — giving the best introduction into Japanese cuisine. Volcano is salmon hosomaki coated in tempura and doused in spicy sauces and roe. It looks everything like an erupting volcano with crunch and softness textures and sweet and salty flavours.
The drinks menu draws on European flavours and styles, as well as traditional Japanese sakes and whiskies, with over 200 different spirits and vermouth. Signature cocktails include a Kyoto Style Mojito, a mango-infused rum with ginger and lime, Fire Blossom, a mix of pisco, sake and chilli, and Origami Nest, a house blend of Caribbean rums. We chose several of Ukai’s Spritz, an unforgettably refreshing twist on an Aperol Spritz with melon-infused gin and home-made grapefruit soda — an absolute delight!
With stellar sushi and a superb cocktail menu to choose from, Ukai delivered a positive and soulful atmosphere to our sunny Sunday afternoon – but we’re sure they could provide that rain or shine.
To book, visit Ukai.co.uk or call 020 7792 2444.
For more date night options, click here.