Located in Belgravia, UNI Restaurant is serving up Nikkei, a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine. With its beautiful white façade and large windows, passers-by wouldn’t normally see this as a sushi restaurant, until they are met with the gaze of a Japanese-inspired work of art peering at them through the large window. The restaurant is spread across three floors: the bar upstairs, a dining area on the floor below, and finally two cozy ‘underground’ alcoves for larger parties or private receptions. The decor, by Andrew Martin, is just as sophisticated as the food: modern and sleek with black accents and red mini-bottle Campari chandeliers.
The sushi masterclass offers ‘students’ the ability to learn the techniques and history of the trade with the help of witty chef Christian Stamaria, whose jokes might even make you forget that you will more than likely not have a career as a sushi chef. Nonetheless, apart from the initial shortcomings and failures of trying to make your sushi look edible, the class is incredibly fun. You’re actually encouraged to play with your food, rather than getting scolded for it. However, it is a serious and traditional practice. How serious? Training is extensive; chefs often begin by washing rice, then moulding wasabi, in order to train their hands for nearly three months just to be able to make nigiri.
Sushi originated around the second century A.D. in Southeast Asia, when there was a need to preserve fish without refrigeration, and spread to Japan around the 8th century. In the 1820s, chefs started using raw fish in their sushi, known as Edo-style sushi, which is the style you will find in most sushi restaurants today.
The word nigiri literally means grasped or squeezed. Nigiri is sometimes also called ‘hand sushi’ as it is easy to pick up and eat with your hands. During the class, the participants are taught how to mould and shape the rice and then how to properly place the fish on top. A traditional nigiri is meant to be made in three easy hand motions, so as not to overwork the fish and have the heat of the hand ‘cook’ it. Needless to say, this is not usually achieved by any of the participants. Once you have the ball of rice made, you’re supposed to place the fish on top, give the sides a quick squeeze to form it into a long bar; then, while holding the sides, you have to stroke the fish to form a mound and lay it over the sides, then finish off with one final squeeze as if you were rolling it toward your palm (but not actually letting it touch your palm). Nigiri-style became popular in the early 19th century in Japan, when street vendors were a big part of the food industry, creating an early concept of ‘fast food.’
The participants are also invited to make uramaki or the ‘inside-out roll,’ where the rice is on the outside and the nori (seaweed) on the inside, as well as hosomaki, where the rice is on the inside and the nori on the outside. For most, it was the uramaki that was surprisingly easier to make. The secret to these two rolls is the way the rice is prepared, washed several times before being cooked with some vinegar. This rice is SERIOUSLY sticky; if you don’t wet your hands in cold water before kneading, it it’s dreadful to get off your hands. By wetting and drastically cooling the temperature of your hands, you ensure that the sticky sushi rice will spread evenly and easily onto the nori, instead of sticking to you.
Fun fact: in making sashimi, you will never find a left-handed chef, because of the way sashimi has to be cut and prepared.
If you’re opting for just a quiet lunch or dinner, there are a lot of amazing dishes, not to mention cocktails on UNI’s menu. The salmon tacos, made with cucumber, tomato, masago and creamy miso, and the tuna tacos made with tuna tartare, kimchi, lettuce and guacamole are just some of the many fusion-friendly items to choose from. You can also opt for the tiradito butterfish, with just the right amount of acid flavour from the lime, with a nice kick from the jalapeño, coriander, and chili spices, or the tiradito yellowfish with a Peruvian-Japanese spice fusion of kizami wasabi, yuzu, and fresh mint. Finally, the wonderfully tangy sea bass ceviche made with tiger’s milk, ají amarillo (yellow chili pepper), choclo (corn), red onion and sweet potato.
If you’re more into sushi rolls, then try the dragon roll, made with prawn tempura, freshwater eel, and avocado. Otherwise, opt for the crazy roll made with crab, avocado, and cucumber, and topped with seared salmon. Both rolls are as beautiful as they are delicious. But before leaving, be sure to try the butterfish nigiri with truffle, appropriately named: the fish melts in your mouth like butter with a deliciously seared flavour and smoky aftertaste. One of their most popular drinks is the coconut-milk-based chili mojito. For those of you who like a little spice, be sure to try this surprise for the taste buds.
The dishes at UNI are succulent and melt-in-your-mouth delicious, made from incredibly fresh fish and presented on beautifully curated plates with vibrant colours. You’ll surely be back for seconds.
UNI Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday from 12 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. and for dinner on Saturdays and Sundays from 6 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. Enjoy!
UNI Restaurant, 18A Ebury Street, London, UK, +44 207 730 9267