A luxury Japanese Omakase Dining Experience at RAI in Bloomsbury

Last week, on Valentine’s Day, Ellie & I were treated to a lavish Japanese omakase dining experience at RAI restaurant in London’s Bloomsbury neighbourhood. Omakase means “Chef’s Choice” and refers to a Japanese style of dining, where the patrons leave it to the chef to choose what ends up on their table. It’s usually a lavish, lengthy tasting menu with plenty of interaction between the chef (or kitchen staff) and the diners.

Due to the effort it takes for the chef and kitchen to make it all happen, omakase dining usually doesn’t involve large groups of people. At RAI there are only six tables for a maximum of 10 people. There is also a bar area, which, however, is not used for omakase dinners.


The standard “tasting menu” costs £145 per person and includes, depending on how you count, roughly ten courses plus appetisers & petit fours. We were upgraded to the official “omakase menu” (£195 per person), which includes more interaction with the chef and two additional sushi courses. The good people of RAI also added drinks pairing, which would normally set you back another £100 or so per person.

Luckily, there are also options available for those who might not want to splash out big time on the occasion. Tasting menus start from £59 and there are lunch deals available.

Chef Padam Raj Rai, who also runs & co-owns Hot Stone in Angel, and Kibako in next-door Fitzrovia, focuses his time and attention on RAI. The maestro was born in Nepal and spent the first part of his career there. Some 20 years ago, he became head chef at Kathmandu’s premier Japanese restaurant.

After a stint in Osaka he relocated to London, 15 years ago. There he worked at many of the best-known addresses. Such as Nobu, Tsukiji Sushi at the Westbury Hotel, and Sake No Hana.

When we arrived at the venue, under ten minutes’ walk from Tottenham Court Road Station, the friendly staff immediately made us feel welcome. And that’s despite the fact that I rocked up with a huge backpack full of heavy climbing gear. By way of background, Ellie & I don’t make a big fuss about Valentine’s Day, because each month we celebrate the 12th. It’s the day of the month on which we first met, 15 years ago.


So until, two days before Valentine’s Day, we received the kind invite from RAI, there were no plans for a fancy dinner. I had my weekly indoor lead climbing session booked, which I couldn’t really cancel or move on such short notice. I did, of course, have a shower after the climbing, placed my sports gear safely in sealed dry bags, and changed into fresh, smart casual wear.

Once the staff had found a space where to place my giant rucksack, we were led to our table. Two flutes of champagne and two Maldon rock oysters with tosazu (rice vinegar) appeared at our table shortly afterwards. The latter were garnished with razor-thin slices of cucumber, some seaweed, and leaves of cress.


They had been placed on large pieces of pumice, which must have been beaten into their beautiful shapes by a myriad of waves on an ocean beach somewhere. Without doubt the finest oysters we’ve had in years. Moritsuke, the Japanese art of food plating, is quite something.

Before we had time to suck down our oysters, more culinary goodies made their appearance. The Scottish salmon sandwich worked a treat, with its crispy, thin, nori-dusted ebi senbei (shrimp-flavoured crackers), garnished with edible viola. However, our winner was the oba tempura with akami tartare (the lean, reddish flesh from along the spine of the tuna). The wagyu espuma, which came with huge sheets of wavers, was a delight, too.


Once the plates had been removed, our waiter returned and grated some fresh wasabi at our table. We learned that the plant took three years to grow. He placed the spicy substance on a tiny glass dish in the shape of a slice of baby radish, bent upwards on the outside. Then he poured some soy sauce into two bowls.


It was at this point that we made first contact with the gracious, hilarious, very approachable, shockingly modest, and supremely skilled MC, the head chef, Padam. Together with the waiter he delivered two pieces of faux driftwood, on which there were placed, in halved sea urchin shells, lean and fatty tuna, as well as salmon sashimi. A feast, not only for the taste buds, but also for the eyes. The chef asked how we had enjoyed the meal so far and engaged in a bit of banter, before making his way back to the kitchen for the time being.


Next, two beautifully decorated boxes arrived with scallop shells. One of the two shells contained two raw Orkney scallops, cut into six slices, and covered in plum sauce. The other had been filled with some shredded seaweed and two slices of blood orange. A great mix of ingredients.

While we were waiting for the next course, a bowl with brioche-like Japanese bread buns arrived, accompanied by an unagi (eel)-flavoured, nori-dusted butter, that had a pool of smoked kombu oil in it. This was the only part of the meal that didn’t impress us. Nothing wrong with it, but equally nothing memorable.


It’s fair to say that the Japanese are known for perfection in almost everything. Maybe the one thing they are not known for, is bread. Also, we were lucky to have had so many chances of sampling truly extraordinary bread & butter over the past few years, we didn’t think the ones at hand were that special. Less unagi and more seaweed probably would have worked better for us, with regards to the butter.

What came next, was a truly delightful, flame-grilled scallop sitting on pesto, half-covered in shitake-foam, and topped with caviar. The Gavi di Gavi wine, which was poured into our glasses at the same time, was very pleasant, too. Not hard to guess why this type of white wine was the first Italian white wine to reach top marks on an international stage. It originates from the Piedmont region and is exclusively made of the Cortese grape.


Another highlight found its way to our table only minutes later: Ikejime seabass, two ways. Ikejime refers to the method the fish was killed with, which includes draining the fish and destroying its spine before cooling it. It is generally acknowledged to be the best way to preserve the quality of the meat, and is now being used outside of Japan, too.

The steamed and very briefly seared version tasted very different from the battered and deep-fried version, but both were delicious and went extremely well with the yuzu beurre blanc, ikura, citrus oil, kombu oil, and kizami wasabi. Regular visitors to this blog might know that seabass is Ellie’s favourite fish. So I had one very happy Valentine’s girl.


I very much enjoyed the next two ‘courses’, which were served on the same wooden tray: fatty tuna, truffle & caviar nigiri, as well as unagi and ethical foie gras maki. The latter contained the exquisite sanpuku nori and Koshihikari rice. Sometimes fatty tuna can be a bit too much for me, too oily, but this one was pretty much as good as tuna gets. It went very well with the extremely mild truffle and the salty caviar flavours.

Unagi and foie gras seems like a kind of crazy pairing, considering that both are very fatty and you usually combine fatty ingredients with ones that offset and counter the fattiness. I guess you had the vinegared rice and the seaweed here. Either way, it worked a treat. The sake that accompanied this part of the meal, was very mild but surprisingly multi-dimensional in terms of flavour.

That’s when the highlight of this exciting evening started. Padam entered the stage next to our table again. This time he brought with him a trolly with a work surface, various tools, rice, seafood, and, of course, a flame thrower (well, more something like a blow torch).

It’s a real thrill to watch the maestro cut intricate patterns into the pieces of raw fish. Then he kneads some rice into nigiri shaped balls. In a next step he ignites the open flame and flame-sears the pieces slightly. Furthermore, he puts some soy sauce and wasabi in his palms and rubs the pieces of sashimi with it, before placing them onto the rice balls. Finally, he puts some caviar on top of the salmon, but leaves the tuna as it is.


One thing that has fascinated me about Padam ever since I started reading up on him, is that he manages to significantly impact the flavour of a piece of seafood by the way he cuts it. Now, I can see how the way you cut it clearly influences the texture. But I would not have expected the cutting pattern to have such a recognisable influence on the taste. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m talking about sashimi. I do expect carpaccio to taste different from tartare, tartare to taste different from uncut pieces, etc. It was at this part of the meal that we were served a lovely Bordeaux.


Ellie, who’s really into gyoza and tofu, had a party with the next dish, tofu gyoza with dashi, shitake, enoki and citrus oil. I guess I’m much less of a gyoza or tofu person, but I could appreciate the delicate flavour combination.


Surely a highlight to many, perhaps most patrons: several slices of medium grilled A5 wagyu arrived on two plates. The slices were covered with bits of shitake and watercress, and sitting in a meat jus. What can I say, you can’t really go wrong with expertly-prepared, top-quality wagyu beef. Even Ellie, who is not much of a beef eater, had to admit, that this was some tasty, juicy explosion of meaty flavours on our tongues, right there.


Our masterful host arrived back at our table with an ice-cream making machine. The compressed watermelon, sudachi, orange kakigori (‘shaved ice’) was a joy to look at as well as to gobble down.

Perhaps even more impressive was the fuji apple tart with miso caramel walnut praline and miso ice-cream. The ice-cream was not so different in taste from the ever so popular salted caramel ice-cream, but with mild, yet noticeable, additional umami flavours.

To top this truly amazing Valentine’s dinner off, the cheerful host himself arrived at the table one last time. He carried a box wrapped in fine cloth, unwrapped it in front of us, took off the lid, and voila: 4 different types of petit fours. Yamazaki whisky jelly, a sesame dark chocolate bonbon, a melon meringue, and some candy floss. With it came yet another sake.

We thanked Padam for his invitation, the beautiful meal, and an exciting evening. Then I picked up my backpack and we made our way to the tube, to get back home. We’ll definitely be back for more. 4.5 out of 5 in our book.

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