It’s the launch of the new summer menu at UNI Restaurant, and I’ve done my homework. I know what’s behind the restaurant’s name (it’s Japanese for sea urchin, which also features on the menu). I know the menu’s focus (Nikkei) and what that means (Japanese-Peruvian fusion) and why that exists (a Japanese diaspora in Peru with roots as far back as the late 1800s).
I know that the London restaurant scene is cresting a wave of Latino-Asian fusion (the recently opened Mommi, the recently relaunched Asia de Cuba, the perennially fashionable Nobu), and I also have an inkling as to why demand’s so high (imagine the heat of aji amarillo grappling with the umami of miso, all on a stage of King crab taco). Self-educated from Vice documentaries and Peruvian cookery blogs, I know a thing or two about Nikkei.
I don’t always research my dinner this thoroughly, but this time I’m taking my younger brother with me. That he’s an adult with an actual job, financial commitments and an opinion on wine, and as such is allowed to know some things about some things, I’ve begrudgingly come to terms with. But there are limits, and I arrive at UNI’s Belgravia home well-prepared to defend my corner.
And it is very, unmistakably Belgravia. From the outside it’s a careful harmony of black awnings, cream paintwork and a small, tasteful tree in one of the windows. Both the counter-dining upstairs and the tables on the restaurant’s lower level are scattered with discreetly expensive accents of marble, cream leather and stately porcelain. You could drop UNI into the Umbrian countryside or the Sea of Tranquillity and it still couldn’t be anywhere but Belgravia.
The cocktail list, though, is taking UNI’s Nikkei roots seriously. We start off with variations on a Pisco sour and a cucumber Martini, both of them clean, sweet and bitter. Impressive on their own, they come into force properly when the chef’s tasting menu starts to arrive – the Pisco-sourness cutting through the richness of the tuna and guacamole tartare, the chilled cucumber balancing out the punch of the chilli in the crab tacos. With that justification we stick with cocktails, despite UNI having a wine list of some renown even by exacting SW1 standards, to see us through the seabass ceviche and its leche de tigre marinade.
With the chef’s menu at the helm we manage a fairly wide span of UNI’s offerings, from the robata-grilled octopus and the seafood ceviches, through to the butterfish with jalapeno and the prawn tempura. And if nothing after the tuna tartare really matches up to that sushi-avocado alliance, that’s only because it raised the bar so high – our waiter, taking away the spotlessly clean plate that once held the tartare nods and says, very sincerely, ‘it’s my favourite’.
Our nikkei tour wraps up with mochi ice cream to share, small balls made of rice, hammered into paste and then caressed into shape. In Japan the making of mochi is serious and ceremonial; at UNI the mochi are so cold, delicate and sticky that our eating of them feels like a careful, reverential affair as well.
All this knowledge about our dessert is, irritatingly, courtesy of my brother, who’s been serving up well-meaning, unknowing oneupmanship in the form of martini, maki and mochi facts since the second we sat down. I’m torn between pride at what a debonair grown-up my little brother is, and annoyance. Mostly the latter. But if anything could reconcile me to not being a nikkei expert myself, it’s knowing I’ve spent the evening in the hands of UNI, who indisputably are.
And you don’t just have to take my word for that, not now such aspersions have been cast on what that’s worth.
My brother also thought it was splendid.
UNI Restaurant, 18a Ebury St, London SW1W 0LS. Website.