Fusion dining is one of those weird buzzwords that’s been so overused that cronuts and ramen noodle burger now fall under the category. Before it was employed for every marketing campaign from here to all Gregg’s bakeries in the land, the trend was a little more high end, something that Ukai in Notting Hill is doing its best to uphold. Mixing Italian and Japanese cooking techniques, the restaurant is changing the way you eat sushi - and there’s not a sashimi pizza in sight.
Venue and Atmosphere
Notting Hill: the land of designer dogs, beautiful people and houses that were basically designed for this era of Instagram. Ukai is on one of its most famous stretches of tarmac, Portobello Road, in a building that was clearly once an old British boozer. The front of the venue has been turned into a drinking space, with a huge metal bar occupying the centre and little booths for punters. Edge round the bar and a Japanese dining room meets country pub makes up the eating space.
It’s 7pm and I’m the only one in the restaurant - not even my date has arrived. I tuck myself into a corner next to a huge marble fireplace and opposite the open kitchen and grill, above which is perhaps the most interesting design feature; a giant, very tattooed homage to Amy Winehouse. Kimonos decorate corniced walls and wooden tables - not unlike those found in sushi joints - line the space. As is so often the case, I’m the one who got it wrong - within two hours the restaurant has gone from empty to completely full with couples grabbing something after work. Staff are also lovely, with Alessandro and waiting staff greeting everyone like old friends; clearly Ukai is favourite with West London residents.
Food and Drink
Having previously worked across London with some of the city’s best talents, head chef Alessandro found a passion for Japanese cooking, which he decided to combine with skills and flavours learnt in his native Italy. The result is a menu that at first glance looks very stereotypically Japanese but on further inspection, sneaks European ingredients in delicately. From the ‘Japas’ menu (a combination of 'Japanese' and 'tapas'), tuna tataki (£10) was a contradiction of flavours as wisps of seared tuna were muddled with truffle pieces creating a big punch for a usually light choice.
Ceviche (£9) was similarly as delicious, though a lot heartier, as we clashed chopsticks to scoop up the spiced chunks of soft seabass, avocado and dragon fruit. I usually take issue with gyoza after a food poisoning incident, but Ukai’s steak parcels were dreamy little packages stuffed full of warming beef and gravy-like juices. Lighter and more traditional options included tuna nigiri (£6), with the the normal rolled rice, seaweed and tuna tartare but with added bite from the spicy mayo decorating the top.
Drinks are just as considered, with head bartender Patnos having manned the cast-iron bar since Ukai’s latest inception. I first opted for Ukai's signature spritz - a summery, light long drink with melon-infused gin, Aperol, and homemade grapefruit soda, which could have done with a little more grapefruit ting. The Origami Nest and G&L Collins were brought out next by Patnos, and both were eye-widening, raised-eyebrows kinda good. Topped with a little wooden boat constructed from palm leaves, The Origami Nest was an ice-cold, blackcurrant, jam-like drink, which avoided any sickly sweetness with Patnos' secret, herby formula.
Perhaps due to too many £1.95 Tesco rice rolls or perhaps due to my love of burgers, I’d never really given sushi a chance before. Ukai has added it to my dining out repertoire with serious style; next time you're in Notting Hill, pop in for a crafted cocktail, a sushi plate (or 7, in the case of my visit), and some sexy decor.