'Utterly moreish, we both agreed we could eat it for starter, main and dessert'

Ukai

Open Sunday-Thursday midday–midnight, Friday-Saturday midday-1am

The blurb

Ukai has been part of the Notting Hill food scene for a decade, serving ‘fresh and exciting contemporary Japanese cuisine in an irresistible setting’. It’s not simply simply another sushi bar, though; the chefs at Ukai add some Italian flair to create a harmonious fusion menu, and using ‘the sumptuous flavours of Italy to enhance beautifully simple Japanese dishes creates combinations you won’t find anywhere else.’

This menu is complemented by an extensive drinks list, which features handcrafted bitters, bespoke blends, and hundreds of spirits with which to craft their creative cocktails.

The style

Not what I expected! I had ordered from Ukai before—they do delivery in the area—and I think anticipated a clone of the usual nice-but-nothing-special type of small chains that often offer deliveries; white, clean, over-bright.

These assumptions were subverted as soon as I arrived outside. Ukai is in fact housed behind a beautiful old 19th-century pub facade, updated with some striking external artwork. Inside, it is initially bar-like, before you pass into the more formal restaurant section—all decorated beautifully in dark, natural tones. The lighting was a warm glow suitable for intimacy and relaxed enjoyment. It feels cosy—and expensive.

The whole vibe is more Charlotte Street than Just-Eat, but maintains a fun edginess that the old guard of Japanese restaurants in the city cannot.

The crowd

As you might expect from the area—it’s still Portobello Road, even if it is the ‘wrong’ end of it—and interiors, guests were well-heeled. Some of the groups in the bar area seemed very jolly, but in the restaurant section it was relatively quiet, and tables felt isolated enough that even with fellow diners next door a sense of privacy remained.

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The food

Head Chef Alessandro Verros cut his teeth at ROKA and Nobu, and it shows; the attention to detail is on another level, with plate after plate appearing at our table that was beautifully tuned not only in terms of flavour, but also in presentation and coherence alongside the rest of the menu—something fusion menus don’t always achieve.

Highlights for us, in an evening of delights, were the unexpectedly light squid rings and unusual black cod gyoza, the beautiful sea bass ceviche with citrus, and the little tower of tuna tartare with avocado—utterly moreish, we both agreed we could eat it for starter, main and dessert.

The crab maki was a little off-target, with such large slices that, for me at least, getting through them ended up feeling a bit chewy—though the taste and freshness couldn’t be faulted, and the dragon roll was excellent. We swiftly forgot about sushi, however, with the arrival of our next dish. The beef was meltingly good; softly tender with a toothsome surface crunch, and a chipotle-miso sauce so mesmerising we spent ten minutes trying to wheedle the recipe out of Alessandro at the end of the meal.

Looking back now at the dessert menu, I wish we had been able to do it more justice—I’m eyeing up black sesame pannacotta for my return—but we did dip into it with the perfectly oozing chocolate fondant, and I satisfied my lust for mochi with a selection of the doughy ice cream bites.

The drink

A big pull for the after-work crowd, I imagine. There’s a fairly spectacular variety of options available, and the cocktail menu has a charming Japanese twist, with creations that mix sake with pisco, soya syrup and yuzu with vodka, plum wine with gin and yuzu, as well as the classics.

There’s a wine list that offers plenty of options without being overwhelming, as well as a good selection of sakes and plum wines, for a more authentic East Asian experience. My guest enjoyed her white and I got stuck into the warm sake, but again, we plan to make up for our neglect of the cocktail menu on our next visit, perhaps on less working-week night…

In a nutshell

Mayfair quality without the price tag, and with a generous dose of relaxed charm and warmth.

Ukai, 240 Portobello Rd, London W11 1LL; 020 7792 2444; ukai.co.uk

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