My memory is a funny little thing. The other day, I recalled that my friend went into labour with her nearly 4-year-old on a Sunday, but ask me where I put my keys ten minutes ago and I am totally and utterly lost. So when I got told we were going to Ukai for lunch, I didn’t think I had been before. When I did chat with colleagues, I realised we had been before and I must say, it didn’t leave much of a good impression. We went in a really big, loud group the day of our Christmas party. Unfortunately, the small plates that were recommended to us didn’t go far at all, and everyone (aside from me) ended up just getting hammered. But I did have little flashes of some of the best Japanese food I have ever tasted.
To explain why I didn’t get along too well before with the food there, I have an admission to make: I don’t really like sushi. As a millennial working in a busy London advertising agency who writes a lifestyle blog, admitting to not liking sushi would be akin to admitting I do not own an air-fryer. Too ashamed to admit my fault, whenever we go out for Japanese I just paint a smile on and go for the veggie rolls.
But this time was different. The majority of my colleagues were not into fish that just swum up onto the plate either. We decide the game plan was to try ALL the meats and the veggie stuff. Portobello Road in London is one of those busy places you cannot ever imagine being quiet, but you can’t pinpoint why it is so busy. Stepping into Ukai from that particular street is like stepping into a cool, chilled-out Asian beach bar. The vibe is just so relaxed, and we’ll get to more on the owner later but the guy pretty much just wanders around making sure you are living your best life.
I’m not even sure if he is the owner, manager or just a member of staff that gets super-excited about Japanese food. To be honest, it doesn’t matter. When someone that passionate is suggesting dishes to you, you cannot help get a bit excited yourself. Last time we visited we got a bit too carried away with his suggestions so this time I was very firm in declaring I wanted some of the vegetable tempura and then we wanted a few meat dishes, as none of us was keen on fish.
If you are a regular reader, you’ll know how much I like frying things like sweet and sour chicken balls, so it’s no surprise I’m planning on making my sweet potato and courgette tempura after having these delicious dishes at Ukai. One thing I liked about the tempura at Ukai is that it didn’t taste TOO fried. The courgette and potato were sliced with an expert hand at a thickness that meant the batter was not overwhelming.
We had the Karaage Chicken, which was beautiful. This is what is so unique and interesting about Ukai. This isn’t on their online menu. We didn’t even look at a menu. But once we told the guy we wanted to try some meat dishes, he made every effort to find our group good ones. And the Karaage Chicken was GOOD. Rather than fried in big pieces, the chicken is fried in smaller sizes and just “pops” in your mouth. As I was sitting there chewing on my chicken, I thought how different this visit was to the last. I was thoroughly impressed. I’d even venture to say this is no one of my favourite places to eat in London. But it wasn’t the chicken that pulled it out of the bag…
Another thing you’ll know if you are a regular reader is how much I love steak. Because I am anaemic I’ll often use the phrase “I need the iron” to treat myself to expensive cuts at home and every time I go out to eat. But as much of a beef-lover as I am, I have never tried Wagyu beef. It’s always been something I have been vaguely aware of, but I will admit if you cannot buy it down the Asda then it is unlikely to hit my palette often. We called over the guy and explained we’d like to try it, and he said no problem, he would get the chef to make us some medium-rare Wagyu served with rice.
For someone who enjoys steak as much as I do, I’m not fussy about how it is cooked, and I like larger bits done quite well, but these little bite-sized pieces came out that looked like they would melt in your mouth. They did. I can’t say I have ever put anything that good in my mouth. We asked about what makes Wagyu special, and it is something to do with them using special cows, and believe me, they must be some special cows to make incredible steak. It wasn’t just the flavour. The texture was a huge part. No stringy, chewy stuff like when you get a Ribeye at the Harvester. Top quality stuff. I’ve been looking up how much Wagyu beef is to buy ever since and let’s just say I won’t be eating it much.
Ukai has turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises in my post-pandemic life. I would highly recommend it to anyone, as there is something for all tastes.
Love to know your thoughts guys?