I don’t know about you, but one cuisine that really hits the spot for me is Nikkei. A fusion of Japanese and Peruvian flavours, ingredients and techniques, it’s honestly a match made in heaven. And as I’m always on the lookout for restaurants to satisfy my seemingly unquenchable appetite, it wasn’t long before my eyes laid on Ayllu in Paddington.
Though I struggled to find the venue at first (Google Maps was not my friend that day), when I eventually stumbled upon it, I marvelled at its pretty canal-side location. But I became stumped again when I opened the doors and met Smith's Bar & Grill - was I in the right place? Thankfully, the hostess quickly ran to my aid, directing me down a flight of stairs to the slinky dining den that is Ayllu. It was undeniably intimate; the small restaurant featured luscious green walls, from which lotus flowers and lily pads appeared to be growing, as well as plush leather booths and low lighting.
After settling into our cosy corner at the back, we kicked off our date night by ordering a couple of cocktails. As it was made up of white rum, sake, lime sherbet, sugar, bitters and malbec, I imagined that the Sakura No Hana (£13) would be a lovely, unique drink. But in actuality, it felt like a no-frills, simple tipple with no garnish that tasted a little bit like calimocho to be honest. My partner requested the Cubano (£13), a blend of rum lengthened using fresh lime, pineapple, passionfruit syrup and basil. Though refreshing, it again didn't feel like anything special.
But, where the cocktails lacked, the food more than made up for it. As we sipped away, the Nikkei ceviche (£14.50) arrived. The tuna was obviously of a high-quality, thick and meaty yet somehow delicate, elevated by a moreish crunch from the crispy seaweed, sesame seeds and onions. My only issue was that it didn't taste like the usual ceviche I expected - there was none of the delightful, tangy citrus flavour you often get, it was more similar to a sticky teriyaki sauce - but nevertheless, it was delicious and we gobbled it down quickly.
Then, suddenly, the lights were dramatically dimmed and the music turned up, all before a flamboyant dancer, kitted out in full carnival gear, strutted out as if from thin air. The samba performance was a lovely little touch that added to the authenticity of the dining experience - plus it was fun to watch other diners get up and join her (although I wouldn't dare).
After the show finished, our three varieties of nigiri as chosen by the chef (£18) were dished up. A medley of salmon, tuna and seabass topped with roe, which added an umami and textural edge, it was honestly scrumptious. Despite being so simple, it had bags of flavour and really championed the fresh, premium-quality slices of fish. And then came my absolute favourite – the Vinicunca rolls (£16.50). You can see why these were named after the famous Rainbow Mountain in Peru; the uramaki-style bites had an eye-catching, colourful exterior, with ribbons of tuna, salmon and avocado twisting around them. And they weren't just pretty either - now, I know this is a big statement, but I think it's the best sushi I've ever had.
We then dived into the puerco asado con calabaza y queso (£16). The slow-roasted pork belly, which had been marinated with spicy aji panca, was delightfully seasoned and paired well with the sweetness of the butternut squash purrée. But the halloumi cheese felt a little out of place - I don't think it really belonged on the plate. However, the black cod (£32) was a winning dish. It had been soaked in miso for 48 hours, served with bok choi and ginger, and was totally melt-in-the-mouth. On the side of these two, we also chomped on the grilled aubergine (£5.50) drizzled in miso and topped with chives, but it was a little dry for our liking.
The DesignMyNight Digest
Though the cocktails didn't particularly impress me, there was still a lot to love about Ayllu. The interiors were gorgeous, our waiter was helpful and friendly, plus the food, for the most part, was spot on. And with its intimate vibe that extended from the decor through to the music, it's perfect for anyone seeking out a swish a date night restaurant to impress their other half.
💰 The damage: Around £130, plus service charge.
📍 The location: 25 Sheldon Square, London, W2 6EY.
👌 Perfect for: Slinky date nights.
⭐ Need to know: They host samba shows every weekend.