LONDON — Ichiro Kubota, the 30-year-old chef at Umu, which opens here next month, can’t wait to demonstrate that there’s more to Japanese food than sushi, sashimi, tempura and fusion cuisine à la Nobu.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there about Japanese food,” says Kubota, who grew up playing with the turtles and eels in the kitchen of his father’s restaurant in Kyoto, Japan.
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“Sushi and tempura are from Tokyo, and fusion cuisine is for a different world — it’s for a young generation. I’m cooking for people who like to eat and are interested in the food itself. I want to teach them about Kyoto cuisine,” he adds.
Kyoto was Japan’s capital until 1868. It is well known for its haute, very complicated cuisine, which stems from hundreds of years of feeding the Japanese imperial family. The complex dishes are packed with expensive, labor-intensive ingredients and a variety of fish and vegetables, many of which are impossible to find in the West.
Few restaurants outside Japan serve Kyoto cuisine, which is one reason why Kubota is proud to teach London all about it. Yet Kubota, who trained in Japan and France, and during his undergraduate university years was a frequent exchange student in the U.S., never thought he’d be working in London.
During a one-year stint at Hotel La Villa in Corsica, where he was learning the basics of French cooking, Kubota caught the eye of Marlon Abela, a Lebanese-German restaurateur and fan of Kyoto cuisine, whose family made its fortune in the catering business.
“I was traveling in Corsica when I had the opportunity to sample Ichiro’s food,” says Abela. “I was so intrigued by it that I invited him to London for a trial, and then I knew he was exactly what I was looking for as the executive chef at Umu. His style offers a fundamental insight into true Kyoto food, yet he also offers a great understanding of Western techniques and palates.”
Umu, which opens Sept. 1, was designed by the New York-based Tonychi Associates. The interior has a clean, minimal feel with silvered Murano glass rods along the ceiling, granite and wood floors and a lot of brown wood, including wenge and European walnut, and brown and red lacquer.
Late last year, Abela opened Gaia in Greenwich, Conn., and earlier this year he reopened Morton’s, London’s famed private club, and The Greenhouse, a Michelin-starred French restaurant. Abela’s three London restaurants are in and around Berkeley Square. Umu is located nearby on newly fashionable Bruton Place. Abela’s goal is to build a portfolio of up to 30 restaurants in Europe and the U.S. over the next five years.
Abela, a wine aficionado, has made sure that Umu’s cellar is stocked with more than 350 wines and 70 types of sake. The house cocktail, the saketo, is made from sake, Bacardi rum, Remy Martin, mint, sugar and ginger. Teetotalers can sip the Japanese mineral water Fuji.
The dishes are an explosion of flavor, and ultraexotic for the Western palate. There are sardines marinated in rice vinegar, sake, and white stem onion; salted, marinated liver of sweet trout; dried intestine of sea cucumber; paper-thin tofu skins filled with sesame paste and shredded carrots, leeks, ginger and shrimp, and sea bream served with pickled lotus root. For dessert, Kubota makes brown roasted tea ice cream and sake jelly with guava sauce.
Kubota admits his job won’t be easy. “A lot of chefs are forced to compromise,” he says. “But Mr. Abela is keen about sticking to Kyoto cuisine, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
— Samantha Conti