Life & Style - Eat & Drink

Sushi survival

The Japanese speciality is served up in more modest premises at this revived Glasgow restaurant

The Meal

When both YoSushi! and the original OKO shut their doors a few years back, some predicted the death knell for sushi in Scotland. The pair were sprawling joints and probably evidence that the local market for cold cooked rice, seaweed and raw fish had been overestimated. But while they ceased operation, other smaller restaurants carried on, whether Edinburgh’s Shushiya on Dalry Road and Bonsai in the Southside or Ichiban and Miso in Glasgow’s City Centre and West End.

With the new OKO Express, restaurateur and chef Colin Barr (not to be confused with the one-time nightclub impresario and Republic Bier Halle founder of the same name) has a more bijou operation offering a variety of sushi as well as hot Japanese-styled and East Asian-inspired dishes. It is located in what was formerly Baloo, across the street from RG’s bar, and the interiors are bright red with yellow illumination. Fixed tables and benches for four are neatly arranged in the room, with a sushi-prep counter and semi-open kitchen to the rear. The signature of the old OKO, the conveyor belt with colour-coded plates of Japanese treats, is no more.

The menu states that ‘it’s company policy not to serve tap water’. Could this be to ensure a brisk sale of £1.50 servings of OKO water to all the late-night clubbers who take advantage of OKO’s 5am closing at the weekend? The menu at OKO Express offers more than just sushi. Char-grills, teriyaki and yakitori skewers (of meat and fish) are complemented by gyoza dumplings (steamed or deep-fried), noodle bowls (udon, soba or yaki) and Japanese hot pots.

While the sushi is not always made to order (and aesthetically speaking, the sight of pre-prepared rolls under a sheet of cling film in the cold counter is not ideal), it is still nevertheless fresh tasting. Rice grains are plump, slightly sticky with a hint of vinegar and sugar - and, importantly, not overly chilled. An inside out California roll (four pieces for £4/eight for £8) is coated in pinky-orange fish roe before being sliced and served, with chunky bits of cucumber, avocado and crab stick at its heart. It comes with a lump of spicy wasabi. The prawns, atop a pair of nigiri (rice blocks), are pretty slender, but the flavour is fine.

On the cooked side of the equation, the batter on the deep-fried tempura (with options from fish and chicken to vegetable and tofu) is disappointing. It is neither light nor crispy enough; a rather bland beige hue rather than golden brown. Full marks, however, for the breaded chicken katsu: crumbly breadcrumb crust flakes from moist white meat, served with a creamy nut dipping sauce. A simple dish and, in a similarly straightforward fashion, OKO Express may thrive where its glitzier predecessor didn’t.

Oko Express

78 Queen Street, Glasgow
0141 248 9666,
Open noon to 10pm Sunday to Thursday; noon to 5am Friday and Saturday
Six styles of sushi and a variety of hot East Asian dishes

A cocktail nation?

Barry Shelby mixes it up with a leading bartender in Holyrood hot spot Mai Thai

Debbie-Lee Young, manager of Mai Thai bar in Edinburgh, is hard at work, making notes for a new cocktail recipe she wants to introduce. Inspired by a recent trip to Scandinavia, Young begins rattling off the names of various Nordic berries and soft fruits. Buckthorn, gooseberry, cloudberry are just the ones I clock. Why does she look to our neighbours on the other side of the North Sea? Because, she says, the Scandinavians offer some fresh ideas. It is also about topping the competition locally: ‘I’m always looking to see what people are not doing so I can get there first.’

A cocktail revolution has been brewing in Edinburgh for a few years now. While miles behind London, the Scottish capital is nevertheless warming to the notion of the cocktail nation. Design-driven bars from Tonic to Dragonfly, have developed reputations for their mixed drinks: these are now drawing customers.

The style bar scene in Scotland was once centred on Glasgow, where the Ben Kelly-designed Bar 10 kicked things off in the early 90s. But since the turn of the Millennium, Edinburgh has stolen the march on its cross-country rival, combining décor-conscious aesthetics with some top-line ranges in drinks.

If there is a face of the future, it could well be Debbie-Lee Young. In addition to running the bar at Mai Tai, she does consultancy work, like drawing up a cocktail list for the City Café in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

She has been mixing drinks since her university days when she took part-time bar shifts to support herself financially through her studies (‘I had time to play about the bar and that’s when you come up with ideas’). Young has slung cocktails previously at Oxygen, Dragonfly, Le Monde and Cabaret Voltaire as well as making guest appearances in VIP green rooms at the MTV Awards and Live8.

The focus in the new cocktail movement is on quality ingredients: whether premium spirits, fresh juices and hand-mulled fruits. Rather than focusing on these basics, Young says that makers of many modern drinks are becoming too fussy and elaborate in their creations. Her Mai Tai [see recipe], for example, has been, as she says, ‘stripped down to the basics’.

Despite the renewed interest, cocktails remain a minority sport, says Roy Beers, a reporter for trade journals such as the Scottish Licensed Trade News and the insider web site A few places ‘make serious money out of cocktails,’ he says, ‘but they’re not generally huge as a percentage of overall sales. Cocktails aren’t on the same radar screen as wine, which is barely on the same screen as beer, either by value or volume.’

Young acknowledges as much, but says certain bars now draw particular cocktail admirers. If you want expertise, go to Bramble. For quirkier concoctions, try Dragonfly or Villager. Young concludes, ‘It’s always a challenge to get people to try different things. But we are succeeding.’

Mai Tai

50ml Mount Gay Eclipse rum
12.5ml lime juice
7ml gomme (sugar syrup)
12.5ml orgeat (almond syrup)
12.5ml Grand Marnier (orange liqueur)
Dash pineapple juice

Shake all ingredients in Boston shaker and strain into glass filled with crushed ice

Gin’s in

Barry Shelby visits the home of Hendricks, the small-batch gin brewed by a veteran whisky company

Is William Grant, who first made whisky in 1887, birling in his grave because the company he founded distils London dry gin today? Given that making gin is a much less expensive proposition than producing aged malt whisky, Grant would undoubtedly have approved of the profit margins. With Hendricks, a premium spirit distilled at the company’s Girvan facility, William Grant & Sons have nothing to be ashamed about. Although in production for less than a decade, Hendricks was elevated recently to a core company brand, joining the likes of the esteemed Balvenie and world-famous Glenfiddich.

Even the name has a family connection. Hendrick was apparently the gardener for Grant’s granddaughter who is over 100 years old and still a major stock holder in the company now run by her great nephew, Charles Gordon.

Hendricks is essentially a cocktail itself, made from mixing two distillates that trickle from a pair of pot-bellied copper stills in the Ayrshire hills. Both brews are infused, albeit in different manners, with 11 ‘botanicals’, ranging from dried camomile flower heads and orange peels to crushed caraway seeds and, of course, the essential juniper berry.

However, this gin gets one last twist before bottling when the essences of rose and cucumber are added. It is the last ingredient that’s become the signature of Hendricks. Bartenders have picked up on this, adding cucumber sticks to Martinis made from this unique Scottish product.

Will it overtake whisky in the hearts of the Grant dynasty? Not likely, as it will never be made in massive amounts equal to that of whisky in Dufftown, Speyside. Still, Hendricks’s production has doubled year on year, recently. So Highland economics may mean that it certainly subsidises investment in the single malt trade.