240 Portobello Rd, London W11 1LL ukai.co.uk
Nick finds that the Portobello Road still pulls him back, especially when there is food like this on the menu
Back in my wasted youth the pub that is now Ukai was somewhere I always walked past rather quickly. The young chaps selling their wares -‘ash?’ they would enquire from the sides of their mouth – on the pavements all around, got their supplies from the people sitting inside and they got a bit nervy if you got too close.
A friend who did once venture through the pub door told me he’d seen, through clouds of aromatic smoke, a man using a giant carving knife to cut a massive block of gear on the bar, and had reversed out of the place fast.
Well of course it’s all very different now, the houses are now mostly grand houses again, not the poky bedsits of old, and you’re more likely to bump into cheerful, ever-smiling, local’sleb Stella McCartney than you are a teenager offering a £10 deal.
That’s because Ukai, which rather to my surprise has actually been located here since 2006, offers some seriously good deals of its own. The kitchen headed up by Alessandro Verros, who trained at ROKA, sends out great plates of relaxed Japanese food to a room that still has a pub layout, albeit with a robata grill where the pork scratchings used to sit.
We downed some rather impressive cocktails, made with Japanese ingredients and thus refreshingly different, and then got heads down on some salmon tataki.
Simple stuff this, but tricky to get right; salmon overcooked by even a tiny amount becomes no better than tinned salmon, but chef has the magic touch. Seared to a millimetre and no more to have that all important textural contrast and breath of smokiness, the salmon was perfect and the sauce pleasingly citric. Each slippery mouthful was a delight.
I love gyoza, but I am easily disappointed. I never actually want to say I am fussy about anything; whenever I hear someone say’I am fussy about…’ I know that they are just showing off their’superior taste’ without any evidence for it, but I do know what I like.
These have it; nicely browned from the pan, slightly sticky, a translucent skin and well-stuffed with, somewhat unusually, black cod. It’s a good variation, one I think I last had at ROKA, as it happens.
We love the way the peanuts contrast with that texture. A big bowl of tempura squid, tentacles included I’m pleased to see, is delicate and perfectly crispy. The batter light and airy, not clogging up the taste arteries, and the jalapeno mayo just powerful enough.
It’s important not to overdo chilli – I’ve heard people say that they can’t taste their food unless it has lots of chilli, but what they are actually saying is that their food has no taste of its own, and neither do they. This is why Sriracha sauce is so popular in some places.
Mix seafood ceviche was a pretty plateful, the cubes of dragonfruit making it look like someone had been playing craps and rolled the dice the wrong way. Tuna, avocado, butterfish and that fruit, all on a banana leaf and all very Instagram-worthy. Far more importantly, it worked on the palate, too. A feast of smooth textures.
Dragon rolls, that classic of shrimp and cucumber inside and thinly sliced avocado outside, was equally pleasing, a good tangle of pickled ginger came with it and of course some wasabi – a reasonably powerful wasabi, not a nose blower. Ratio of rice to filling was right, some places will try and stuff you out with the cheapest ingredient, but not here.
Al I can say is that it had the required creaminess and the sugar top was a’three-smack’ to break job; normally I think two should be enough, while if you need four, then you probably need to swap your spoon for a toffee hammer.
I liked Ukai, lots of flavours, pretty presentations and cheerful staff.
It made me think how much London has changed and how postcodes rise and fall.
If I’d stuck with my flat, and the presence of the £10 dealers, I’d be sitting very pretty right now and probably having this meal with Hugh Grant.