UKAI Japanese Gastropub in Notting Hill:
Walking from Notting Hill Gate to the wrong end of the Portobello Road is something of a lesson in sociology. While The Gate itself is a little scruffy, just a few minutes away, the swanky stucco fronted buildings of the area around Pembridge Crescent and Kensington Park Road are the stuff that dreams are made of and bank balances (at least mine) will never stretch to. But the lure of a new Japanese Gastropub – UKAI – was worth the shoe leather.
Head towards Ladbroke Grove Station and the world changes. Pass the fashion boutiques, expensive restaurants and chic designer furniture shops. Gradually, as if in a dream, you awake to what for most people the normality of urban London – Poundland and Tesco Metro bring you back to reality with a bump. But, it’s up here that you’ll find some fabulous and affordable places to eat. Caractère and Rum Kitchen are just around the corner. UKAI, Japanese restaurant, gastropub and izakaya shines like a beacon, with the praying woman in the stunning mural created by Irish street artist Fin Dac looking down on you.
Inside, UKAI is cosy and warm. There’s a bar to the front and a restaurant with an open kitchen to the back. Think Japanese design with Italian flair and some quirky British pub features and you’ll get some idea of the interior.
It has a slightly edgy feel, just the way I remember the whole of Notting Hill some years ago. For me, the area around Ladbroke Grove is the only ‘real’ bit left. Is it an izakaya? There are certainly plenty of tapas style Japanese dishes on offer and it has the feeling of a pub more than a restaurant. But, I suspect this is somewhere that can be what you want it to be – and a lot will depend on what you order.
As for the food, we spent some time pondering the menu and talking to Irene Rizzo, our knowledgeable server. In the end, though, we were happy to indulge in the recommendations of Head Chef Alessandro Verros, starting with cocktails and edamame as suggested by Irene. Neither of us particularly like sweet cocktails and the G & L Collins made with Jinzu gin, homemade ginger and lime syrup, lime and prosecco was a good start for me. Jinzu gin is a Scottish made, Japan-inspired gin, finished with sake that was created for Diageo’s ‘Show your Spirit’ competition by Dee Davies. I’m curious and want to taste it neat now – I love the idea on paper of blending a gin with a base of Japanese botanicals with sake…but in a cocktail, all I knew was that it worked very well. Meanwhile, my companion was sipping on pisco punch made with La Diablada Pisco, homemade pineapple syrup and lime
By the time our pan-fried scallops with orange tobiko and yuzu ponzu arrived, we had moved on to sake, paired for us by Irene. A stunning dish, we fought over the last scallop – tender, perfectly cooked and nicely piquant from the yuzu.
Our sake pairing was kubota senja, a gentle yet elegant ginjo nose with hints of spices and a delicate flavoured palate with a clean finish.
Then, a pretty Sashimi platter with a mix of salmon, tuna, sea bass and cobia. Yes, we had to ask too – I thought the cobia was a particularly delicate kind of swordfish. Also known as black kingfish, it’s firm and sweet – a lovely addition to a sashimi platter. I was impressed by the freshness of all the fish and asked Alex where it came from – apparently he uses the same suppliers as Roka – and it shows.
The homemade black cod gyoza was delicious, with whole pieces of fish in a fine gyoza wrapper with a dipping sauce of light soy.
Beef tenderloin toban yaki was a sizzling platter dish – perfect for those Instagram shots. That said, if you do order it, you’ll want to dive in quickly because it keeps cooking in the pan and while it arrives perfectly rare, you definitely don’t want to spoil it by letting it overcook. I particularly enjoyed the rich sweet/sour sauce.
And, the whole steamed seabass with shiso (a Japanese herb from the mint family which somehow manages to taste of coriander, mint and basil) olive oil dressing was another showstopper, a perfectly cooked fish which we both somehow managed to devour. Crisp, beautifully seasoned skin opened to reveal fresh, flaky and tender fish.
In some kind of attempt to balance our meal and add one or two of our five a day we had ordered nasu dengaku baked aubergine with sesame seeds and miso. It’s probably the only dish I will be trying to make at home – I loved the sweet miso glaze and tender eggplant – a heavenly match.
Dessert, unnecessary but clearly desirable, for me was a chocolate fondant. Alex told us that it owed much more to his hometown of Turin than to Japan. Perfectly oozy dark chocolate fondant surrounded by a soft sponge with a crisp shell, all topped with ice-cream. Delicious.
Meanwhile, my companion was indulging in a pretty passionfruit creme brulee which was unexpected in that the passionfruit was mixed into the cream and complemented by fresh passionfruit garnish. It did pass his quality test – but given the quality of the rest of the meal, that’s hardly surprising.
Finishing with an espresso, Italian style, seemed truly appropriate. We staggered out, wondering how we could find an excuse to go back soon!
I loved the food, the drinks and the decor, but more than all of that I was impressed by the enthusiasm and charm of Alessandro, Irene and bar manager Panos Klatzidis. Definitely worth a walk on the wild side – if such a thing exists in Notting Hill these days!
240 Portobello Road,
London W11 1LL
020 7792 2444
Disclosure – we dined as guests of UKAI, Notting Hill. All content and images are my own.