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Ukko menu as yummy as the décor

Owner didn’t want to be too casual or very fine dining

Londiwe Dlomo Journalist
Decorated savoury platters served with wine.
Decorated savoury platters served with wine.
Image: Supplied

Johannesburg’s eating establishments have perfected that Instagram aesthetic that keeps the crowds coming. 

There is in fact a running joke on social media about how customers wished their food tasted as good as the décor looked. Luckily for me, where I ended up on a Wednesday afternoon matched the food that was on offer, it wasn’t all pretty façade and no taste.

I was invited to Ukko at the Nicolway Shopping Centre in Bryanston, where I was pleasantly surprised by the décor and the menu. The interior is indeed Instagrammable with a trendy bar and turquoise booths with knotted rope fixtures and large woven lampshades that instantly transport you to whatever coastal memories you might have. It’s like a little bit of the beach in Johannesburg.

You’ll be forgiven for thinking that the restaurant’s name is Asian. Although there are Asian dishes on the menu, and it has a sushi bar, the name is Finnish. Yes, Finnish.

Now, I curiously asked Mun Manal, the owner of the establishment, why Finnish? Well, it was just for the vibes and freshness essentially.   

“I didn’t want a common typical name for the restaurant... I wanted to just be a little bit different, to have a name and not have it relate to the food in any way.”

Mun Manal owns the vibrant and inviting Ukko restaurant in Bryanston.
Mun Manal owns the vibrant and inviting Ukko restaurant in Bryanston.
Image: Supplied

The eatery is named after a Finnish god, who according to lore is the god of thunder. In the establishment you will see an anchor on the wall near the bar, which is one of his tools and an impression of the god on the wall just before the bathroom. The god’s wife, Ether, and mistress, Akka, feature in the cocktails menu.

Manal has been in the restaurant business for 23 years, starting off in a partnership with the Plaka restaurant franchise. Plaka serves Greek cuisine. His partner passed on and he left the group that he was part of, and tried to retain the staff that used to work with him.

After seven months of leaving the restaurant group, Ukko was launched and he tried to get back some of his staff from the restaurants that had closed.

“At least 50% of them are from the previous [restaurant], some of them have been with me for like 13 years from other stores that I have opened. Others are new.”

Manal is no stranger to the Nicolway Shopping Centre; he’s been a tenant before for five years, operating Mezepoli — a meze and wine bar.

“I understand the area, the clientele. The Bryanston area lacks a little bit of smart casual dining. I didn’t want to be too casual or very fine dining. We wanted something in that category where people see us a few notches above the Tashas and that and a little bit below your Saint and Marble.

“There was a gap there... We don’t want to be perceived as being a very expensive restaurant. I’ve always said having good food and good service don’t always have to be associated with a very expensive price. ”

With a menu that consists of salads, tapas and a Mediterranean-Asian raw bar as well as large plates with whole fish served with a ribbon salad, 700g Tomahawk steak and 250g Waygu sirloin, you’ll be spoilt for choice and might indeed end up spending a pretty penny. The food is worth it, fresh, with balanced flavours. The time and care it takes to make is evident on your plate and in the taste.

I had the Wagyu sirloin, it is recommended that you have it medium rare, do it!

With the lockdowns that affected the restaurant industry, a lot of establishments had to close down. I asked if this didn’t make him rethink being in the industry.

“The lockdown came and wiped out all of these guys that didn’t manage their business properly, didn’t have enough cash flow, didn’t plan five years in advance.

“I've got a five-year lease, I can’t worry about the profit I make now. I mean if tomorrow there is a lockdown I need to make sure there is a cash flow. It’s a very demanding industry, the overheads are high,” Manal said.

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