The cliché about Portobello is that it’s a melting pot and, whilst there are few observations more trite than observing the truth in said cliché, it’s true. There’s a melange of cuisines on offer along the brightly painted street and competition to stand out is understandably fierce. At first glance Ukai seems to do the opposite, the frontage looks more like an Asian-accented gastropub than it does a restaurant and indeed inside the door is a bar pitched somewhere between swank cocktail club and 90s Notting Hill cool. Around the side of the bar is the restaurant side of the equation and if it doesn’t stand up and shout its presence to the rooftops, that’s only because it’s confident that it’s food will do the talking for it.
Being no stranger to both cocktails and the politics of the radical left, I settled in with a Russian Spring Punch: a sweet concoction which hid a deceptively sharp alcoholic after-shock to balance it out. The fusion of vodka, crème de cassis, raspberry, champagne and lemon came in a tall glass which gleamed as red as Bolshevism. Perfect for a hot summer day, it was refreshing along with the kind of hefty kick that leads to best kind of bad decisions. We started with the Ukai Salad, a vegetarian’s paradise of rocket, lettuce, soy beans and seaweed; all garnished with sesame dressing. Delightfully zesty with a satisfying crunch, the salad still came out as the least impressive course of the meal, which is more a comment on the general standard than the salad. Each course is easily large enough to be shared by two people, though thankfully the pricing does not reflect this. The salad came in a very reasonable 6.60, which split between my guest and I is pretty good value for money, especially in Portobello.
As a further appetizer we tried the Salmon Tataki: seared salmon in spicy citrus sauce [10.00], much like the salmon it was ideal for grazing, with the soft flesh of the salmon tastefully enlivened by the wicked sharpness of the spicy citrus; a mysterious, yet playful little dish. However, the lion’s share of the praise has to be saved for our main course of the Seabass tirade Ukai style [9.00]. Restaurants often promote certain dishes being cooked in their style which can be very difficult to decipher when you haven’t been there before, so let me translate: Ukai style means very nice indeed. More tender than the finale of Toy Story 3 the fish was also dowsed in that same spicy citrus that made the Salmon Tataki so compulsive. The portion was gigantic and disappeared from the plate in what felt like minutes. We were so stuffed that we had to be cajoled into desert which turned out to be a selection of mochi [7.00]. My only prior experience with mochi was a particularly aggressive dog of that name that traumatised me as a child so I was fairly relieved that instead of a psychotic Pomeranian the plate contained sweet rice cakes filled with ice-cream in all kinds of unusual flavours. Bizarrely textured yet oddly satisfying each went down a treat, with the exception of the green tea flavoured option, a bridge too far as it turned out. It’s rare to find such a well-priced, yet high quality restaurant hidden away in Portobello in 2018, highly recommended.