UNI is a restaurant of bewildering contradictions. First impressions on walking in let off a signal flare of naffsville with an extra side order of naff — white fake leatherette seating, a round table set into a window, and a cocktail parading itself as a 'caviar martini'. Supping the first Sapporo beer finds me inwardly spluttering 'who do you think you are?', kicking off an interminable loop of the Spice Girls in my head. Geri Haliwell is whining away as an ear worm as I chow on avocado maki; not a song and food match I'd recommend.
The owners Bursha Holdings are loaded. Founded in 1979, they have bought and operated London clubs and restaurants, expanding into real estate and hotels, and now enjoy a pretty penny from their £60 million portfolio. In these straitened times if you have the fortune to be wallowing in a lake of cash, London restaurants are a popular choice to plow the money into. Outposts of their Japanese concept Namazake are hot property in Marbella and Marrakech, with this their first foray into the UK. They recently had the misfortune of one of their prestige sites, luxury ski resort The El Lodge hotel in the Sierra Nevada mountains, burning to the ground; they should have more than enough in the coffers to cover it.
Head Chef Rolando Ongcoy was previously Senior Sushi Chef at Nobu in Park Lane for six years, with previous stints at St Martin's Hotel and some time spent in Scandinavia. Born in the Philippines, he is bringing something a little left field to this Japanese/Peruvian influenced menu. There are tataki and tiraditos. There's a bewildering array of inventive, mental sounding maki rolls. You can order 50g of caviar for £170. You can Wagyu and black cod yourself until it's oozing out of your gills. It's a difficult menu to put a finger on. What is going on here?
The question pops up: what kind of a restaurant, with these kind of property wheeler dealers, lives in a house like this? (The spirit and voice of Loyd Grossman circa 1988).
SALMON TACOS (£6) — Texture contrast of silky raw salmon and crisp crunch of bite sized taco is a thrill. Creamy mix of masago and miso, the briny kick and pop of salmon roe (masago) in the mix, a creamy/crunchy textural fun bomb. Not really 'tacos', more 'Old El Paso', but hey. A bar snack wonder. Order two rounds. A third may follow. Four would be silly. But then again, no...
UNI MAKI (£12) — Coming here and not having uni would be....silly. These little swines bring uni, rice and seaweed into a one bite morsel that will please fans of this faintly bizarre, spiky shelled sea creature. Twang of iodine, floral notes that remind me of lavender, a slap in the face of ocean — sea urchin tastes like nothing else, a unique flavour profile. I like it.
UNI (£9)— For the purists, who don't want to faff about with that rice nonsense. Shell, uni, end of. Scoop it out, yeah scoop it. Gone in a flash...
PRAWN TEMPURA (£12) — Crisp and airy carapace, bouncy sweet prawn within. Good tempura, order two portions: when tempura is good, one wave never seems to be enough.
NEGUI TORO (£16) - Not the finest, most flavoursome toro. Sweet onion and miso sauce not doing much for it. Go to Sushi Tetsu in Farringdon for your toro needs. If you can get in. Seven bloody seats...
WAGYU TATAKI (£23) — Wagyu, the most overpriced, overrated meat ever? Possibly. It still insists on featuring prominently on menus of distinction from Nobu to the great steak restaurants of the world. Here it nestles alongside the Miso Black Cod: show off partners in crime. Go on, spaff £23 on this if you want. Seared thin slices. Oooh flourish of truffle oil. Tick, tick, tick, this will reel in the posers. You'll have done far better exploring the rest of the menu.
DRAGON ROLL (£13) — Yay, yay, and thrice yay. Mama Mia, Lordy Lordy, other effusive nonsense, yes. Take prawn tempura, slam in freshwater eel, wrap it all in a maki with perfect temperature rice, top with avocado. Looks beautiful, eats great
CRAZY ROLL (£13) — Lots going on. Crab, avocado, cucumber and seared salmon. A little hudldle of caviar on some of the pieces. Again, looks gorgeous. It sure is purrrrrty.
TURBOT (£11) — Ah no, this will not do. Flash Harry fish. Ponzu, minced ginger, radish, but I'm yawning. This hurts the pocket for a few meagre morsels and tastes of nowt. It's not why I come here.
DUCK TATAKI (£11.50) — Gorgeously fatty slices, coriander and wasabi dressing, flourish of soy. Very good.
MISO BLACK COD (£22) — Almost a naff cliché in itself to order black cod anywhere, since it has been Nobu-fied to buggery, and chowed to oblivion by the A listers in Park Lane and Berkeley Square, by Posh and Becks, by TOWIE and friends, and probably the knee jerk choice of every Russian oligarch looking to impress his stick insect of a hooker. Ordering black cod is lame. But then, but then, this puppy has beautiful charred skin that demands hoovering up, a wicked savoury/sweet miso slick on that fatty skin, with crunch and chew, pearly flakes of juicy flesh beneath. So go on, order black cod. Dine like a cliché. In more low key surroundings. So that will make you cool after all. Hoorah...
CAVIAR MARTINI (£10.50) — The scoop of the menu at that price, a bucket of vodka, caviar dust (!), and a compressed cube of caviar on a stick. Somehow, it works. Bling, bling, bling...
Almost hilariously short list. It is hilarious. A fantastic barrel fermented Verdejo (Carrasviñas from Rueda, Bodegas Felix Lorenzo), a charming rosé from Rioja Big Dogs, Muga (excellent with the tuna dishes), and, joy of joys, a dry German Riesling from Keller, a former Boy Wonder winemaker who has done much to reclaim the reputation of Rheinhessen (home to the former pap of Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch), making precise, focused dry Rieslings of distinction. Riesling and sushi, a holy marriage. Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne winks at me each time, another sharp choice for the cuisine — I may snap soon and order one.
There's a comical vertiginous leap from the £55 Viña Ardanza from La Rioja Alta to the £290 Chambertin Clos de Beze from Bruno Clair...which only gets funnier with the next leap to £540 Vega Sicilia Unico. £26 to £540 in eight easy moves. Why mess about trawling though pages to get to the 'money shot' wines when you can catch a posh boy's eye first page? Need to show off and drop 500 notes in front of your lover/boss/business target within 2.5 seconds of glancing at the list? There it is. It's how the jet-set elite roll. So I'm told...
A cute, short, fascist wine list that is a personal selection from bar manager Rafael, not trying to cover bases or categories, just listing wines he likes. Just the way I like 'em...
Sake the swine. The expensive swine. I'd love to drink more of you, I really would, but with that decent wine list, it's not going to get a regular look-in from me. The sparkling sake is bloody good, the sparkling sake is bloody expensive. Pass the Verdejo, vicar...
So here's a thing....this place is rather good. A surprise, a contradiction (bling, yet with some real standout dishes) with enough highlights to draw me back. Salmon tacos, UNI maki, tempura, Dragon roll, Verdejo...
Let's consider the evidence....
1) The bling upstairs
2) The Marbella/Marrakech loaded hotel owners
3) The genius 'tacos'
4) The 'dick swinging' wagyu items
5) The sharp, taut, well chosen wine list
6) The caviar martini
7) The compulsory black cod entry
8) The option to translate the website into Russian
9) The effervescent bar manager, Rafael Sánchez Sánchez,
so good they named him twice.
Yes, it feels a bit Euro Chic ('Smooth Operator' chimes away), yes it's a bit Miami Vice upstairs (roll up those sleeves), but somehow I'm charmed and keep returning. Those salmon tacos...
What kind of a restaurant concept lives in a house like this? David, it's over to you.....
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