Japanese and Peruvian? UNI’s fusion feast raises eyebrows

Japanese and Peruvian? UNI’s fusion feast raises eyebrows – words Chris Zacharia

At first glance, some combinations don’t make sense

UNI, a restaurant in London’s Victoria, serve a Japanese and Peruvian fusion cuisine, known as ‘Nikkei’. With a large Japanese community, and a similar proclivity for seafood, Peru is a much more natural partner to Japan than you might think.

 

UNI, a restaurant in Victoria, serve a Japanese and Peruvian food, known as ‘Nikkei’. With a large Japanese community, and a similar proclivity for seafood, Peru is a much more natural partner to Japan than you’d think.

If the menu is a straightforward fusion, the inviting decor owes its style to many more sources. Action figures, children’s toys and obscure posters frame our dining booth. A techno remix of Blondie’s Heart of Glass reminds us to keep vigilant; there are cool people in the building.

These playful touches are smoothly united to a more restrained tastefulness: sleek black ceramic crockery, black leather, long dining benches which you want to kick back on. And the service is excellent.

But back to that menu. Composed by an ex-Nobu chef, it’s thrillingly iconoclastic: edamame beans are listed as tapas, tacos rub shoulders with tofu, ceviche with California rolls. Choosing what to eat is pleasingly tricky, your appetite lured this way and that by divergent flavours.

By the time our waitress, Lettie, swings by to check how we’re finding our starters, our scepticism is vanishing fast. I’ve always been agnostic about gyoza, but the class here are exemplary. A bubbly, crunchy exterior suggests these have been fried rather than steamed, and they’re all the better for it. Within, the prawn still has that bite to it.

Tacos are the next intriguing arrival. Arriving bearing salmon (£2.90 pp), king crab (£4.30 pp) and tuna (£3.90 pp), each is flavoured with a different blend of spices and sauces. They’re crunchy enough, but also mercifully thin – the shells are almost like rice-paper.

Although salmon seems better served by rice, it’s a good bunch, led by the excellent tuna tacos. Marinated in anticucho sauce, a mongrel blend of ají pepper, garlic and cumin, the rosy tuna chunks are the perfect medium for the spicy flavours.

Grilled Alaskan crab (£19) arrives in its own boat, as though it set sail from America itself. A spicy, smoky taste brings out the most of their subtle texture. Sweet shrimp and sea urchin ceviche (£14.50) is one of those half-fascinating, half-baffling dishes that provoke sustained debate. Served in a tiger milk and chili sauce with red peppers, there’s a lilting, syrupy sweetness here not usually partnered with ceviche. Sharp citrus scythes its way through. Almost dessert-sweet, the shrimp are delicious, a good foil to the fibrous urchin. We’re not convinced that the flavours match, but the plate returns to the kitchen completely cleaned, nonetheless.

Tiraditos, a Peruvian twist on Japanese sashimi, are a more harmonious blend of the two cultures. Ibodai (butterfish, £14), sliced as thin as a stick of chewing gum, arrives beneath a heap of rejuvenating chilli, jalapeno and coriander, a squeeze of lime adding bursts of citrus. Yellowtail (£15.50), partnered with chopped wasabi, yuzu and fresh mint, is even better. The mild, endearing flavour of the fish is aided rather than abolished by its neighbours.

‘Dragon’ maki rolls (£11) are absolutely fantastic, uniting UNI’s playful arrangements with their moreish fresh fish to produce something excellent both to look at and to eat. Coiled in the shape of a serpent, the individual maki rolls each form a segment of the dragon, topped with buttery freshwater eel. Sticky, glutinous rice holds the ensemble together, with a crunchy core of tempura prawn. One by one they disappear, soundtracked by groans of pleasure, until the dragon disappears back into the realm of legend where it belongs.

From the mouthwatering ‘Grilled & Seared’ section of the menu, we choose the miso black cod (£22.50), and we’re glad that we do. Tug at the edges of dark crust and watch as a chunk of cod slides off the rump into the salsa, like an iceberg slipping into the ocean. That beguiling anticucho sauce is as successful here with the cod as it was earlier with the tuna, allowing the delicate taste of the fish space to shine.

Dessert isn’t on the same level. A chocolate fondant tastes fine, but whether it has been made on-site is doubtful. Similarly, mochi offer a wonderful textural contrast but are hardly a demonstration of a kitchen’s prowess in sweet courses. Still, if UNI can bring the inventiveness of their main menu to their desserts, they’ll be laughing.

Nonetheless, here’s an excellent selection digestif and dessert wines available, even if there’s not much in the way of desserts to enjoy them with. Umeshu plum wine represents Japan, while Don Julio 1942 tequila is South America’s contribution to the table. My partner isn’t too happy about the appellation: “1942” he sighs after a sip; “We’re fighting Nazis, and Don Julio’s off making tequila”.

Like the rest of our meal, it feels right. The muscular, spicy concoctions of South America are not just compatible with the delicate, refined flavours of Japan: they positively thrive together. Even it it doesn’t quite make sense at first sight.

Japanese and Peruvian? UNI’s fusion feast raises eyebrows – words Chris Zacharia

UNI Japanese Peruvian food
18a Ebury St
London SW1W 0LS

Tel: 020 7730 9267

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