Muddy reviews: Yoku & No.131
Strap on the stilettos, a decadent dining experience like no other has arrived in Cheltenham. YOKU at No.131 is billed as the most 'coveted seat in town', so does it live up to the hype? Muddy tossed on the glad rags, booked in and headed over to find out.
Just a matter of months ago No. 131 rocket-launched its new restaurant, YOKU, onto the Cheltenham scene. This lavish restaurant brings with it something missing until now from the Regency town’s plentiful offering – Japanese fine-dining with an extra-large side order of swank. Located in the heart of hip Montpellier, along with the Bar Tokyo cocktail bar, it has been on my hotlist to visit since it swung open its glamorously lacquered doors in March.
After two years of takeaways and going nowhere we’re all up for splashing out a bit on a special occasion and YOKU feeds into this zeitgeist. Belonging to the Lucky Onion stable of trendy hotels and restaurants, No.131 and YOKU are owned by Superdry founder and CEO Julian Dunkerton and his fashion designer wife, Jade Holland-Cooper, so it comes with some cool credentials. The hotel itself is spread across a trio of gorgeous wedding-cake style townhouses, and comprises the Gin & Juice Bar and The Terrace restaurant, already big crowd pleasers with the Cheltenham conoscenti, but there’s clearly no resting on laurels for The Lucky Onion group with the new launch.
First impressions? Incredibly sexy. This place is a head-turner. A riot of moody black wood panelling, ceilings dripping with gold gilt, sumptuous red velvet seats with trendy rattan accents, a neverending shiny bar with mustard velvet stools and gorgeous Geisha-inspired artwork. An array of huge vases and a glittering crystal chandelier crown it all off. Both the cuisine and the interiors were inspired by the team’s travels to Asia and it shows, you feel like you’ve stepped into an upmarket district of Tokyo it’s so fabulous. Billed on the website as ‘the most coveted seat in town’, the bar is set high, but initial impressions certainly have max wow-factor.
I’ll admit Japanese fine-dining is new territory for me, it’s something I normally associate with the dine-out-erati of an upmarket enclave of London. So it did feel thrilling to be eating out somewhere so dramatically different from the usual Cotswold suspects. The restaurant itself is tucked away in the middle of the No.131 hotel, you sort of have to edge past the reception to find it, but once you’re there the setting is stunning.
The restaurant was around two quarters full by the end of the night which is pretty good for a high end eatery, the crowd made up mainly of small groups of friends out for a special occasion, and lots of couples (it’s such a sexy setting if you’re feeling romantic).
Staff were really attentive but not over the top, from the friendly maitre de to our waiter, George, who went out of his way to explain what the menu actually meant – with the patience of a saint to be honest – which helped defuse the stuffiness that can often creep into a fine-dining experience. Whatever you do, don’t be rocking up in your Air Jordans and Bermuda shorts though, note that you will be turned away, the website is very clear upfront that the dress code at YOKU is strictly ‘smart and chic’.
SCOFF & QUAFF
The menu is, in a word, extraordinary. A mouth-watering array of the most exotic sushi and Asian cuisine you could dream up. It’s all about the traditions of Shun and Omakase here, according to the blurb, which to you and I means bloomin amazing presentation and flavours.
We were greeted by the chef behind the counter in Japanese when we arrived which was a lovely touch, before being led to an intimate corner table. I won’t lie, at first glance the menu was mind-boggling, being a relative Japanese fine-dining noob (as my 13-year-old son would gracefully put it).
But you can go one of two ways; either choose from the main menu or go for the Tasting Menu. The former features incredible-sounding dishes such as the Underwater Kingdom section (tuna sashimi, hokkaido scallops, Unagi Mai and so on), Temani (hand rolls), warm dishes such as Miso black cod, Miso lamb cutlets , Yakitori kushiyaki, Gyoza, Ramen and steaming bowls of Donburi rice.
However if pick and mixing is a bit overwhelming for you (it was for me) I recommend the Tasting Menu. At £110 per person I can hear people visibly wincing, yes, it may be pricey but trust me, you will be dreaming of these dishes for months to come, and you get 10 courses which when you break it down is actually good value.
Ready for the roll call of dishes? Deep breath now, we had; Salmon Tacos (Diced Salmon, Ponzu Jelly, Mango, Tobiko & Crispy Nori); Sashimi Omakase, (Chef’s Choice of Assorted Sashimi, Nama Wasabi & Shoyu), Unagi Temaki, (Eel, Cucumber, Sesame Seeds & Unagi Sauce); Ponzo Hamachi Carpaccio, (sliced Hamachi & Truffle Ponzu); Wagyu Tataki, (Konro Flash Grilled Kagoshima A5 Wagyu); Momiji Oroshi, (Lotus Crips & Truffle Wafu Dressing); Ebi Ten, (Tempura Shrimp, Asparagus, Avocado & Tobiko); Seafood Harumaki, (King Prawn & Cornish Crab Spring Roll, Shiso,Mayonnaise & Pickle); Miso Black Cod, (Miso Marinated Black Cod, Lotus Crisps & Togarashi) and Kimchi Yakimeshi, (Kimchi Egg Fried Rice, Garlic, Green Onion, Edamame & Baby Corn)
Still with me?! We grazed on these exquisite dishes with a pair of beautiful chopsticks (so much attention to detail here) for nearly three hours, the dishes brought out with the pomp and ceremony they deserved, one after another, and every single one was an gallery-level work of art, if you like your food pretty and Michelin-level flavours, you’ll love it here.
The dishes didn’t come out exactly in the order of the menu, which I’ll admit did confuse me a little, but then the chef just sends them out when they are ready for absolute freshness, so it really didn’t matter.
The main highlights were the incredible Miso Black Cod, sweet, fluffy and light, it literally made me want to weep it was so delicious. The sashimi was perfection with wasabi, caviar and toffee surprises woven in, the Seafood Harumaki was top drawer with Cornish crab and king prawn. I loved every single mouthful bar the eel sushi but that’s just personal preference, Mr Muddy loved it. But the absolute show-stopper was the spectacular Sashimi Omakase (above). I mean, the thing came with dry ice pouring out of it, perched on a beautiful real giant clam shell, shell. I challenge any restaurant around the world to top that! I’ve genuinely never had such a beautiful meal in my life (and there have been a few).
The wine list was tight and well curated, we went for the Yamanashi Koshu Sur Lie – a Japanese wine – which was light, fruity and delicious, as well as starting off with fantastic house cocktails made with Japanese Yuzu fruit.
The dessert menu is (mercifully) small and perfectly formed with four choices, I went for the Chocolate Orange with White Chocolate and Orange Mousse and Mr T went for the Yuzu Creme Brulee with a Zesty Lemon Custard and Yuzu Caviar. Both were absolutely delicious and such works of art that we had to stare at them for at least 5 minutes before diving in. It’s also worth mentioning there is a fully vegan version of the Tasting Menu too, so the experience really caters for everyone.
Afterwards we both felt surprisingly unstuffed, so we headed to the next door Bar Tokyo, a fabulous, candlelit ruby red, cocktail emporium with everything on tap including some stand-out Japanese gins and whiskeys that you won’t get anywhere else. Infact pre or post dinner drinks are a must here. If you love gramming your night out, I recommend the Sakura Sour made with Lotus blossom, sake and lychees as it comes in a bird-shaped glass.
There are 36 individually designed rooms at No.131, ranging from Cosy to Very Good and Excellent. We were booked into an Excellent Room which was enormous, with an emperor bed, huge floor to ceiling windows, draped curtains, bold art on the walls and piles of cool books to curl up with.
The freestanding tub, rainforest shower and luxury Bramley & Acqua di Parma toiletries were also a big plus. If you are coming with little ones opt for a Family Room which has double showers and additional twin beds. Or if you want a room to match the YOKU vibe, go for an Outstanding Room, which have unique finishing touches including exquisitely embroidered throws and Eastern inspired pottery.
All the rooms here are super spacious thanks to the Georgians’ love of roominess and have antique finishing touches. You’ll also find statement wallpaper, industrial lighting, and original artwork from the likes of David Hockney and Banksy. Our room was incredibly comfy, and felt very luxurious, and despite being above the Gin & Juice bar we weren’t kept awake at all
Breakfast needs its own shout out too. There’s a great menu here that has all bases covered from smoked salmon on sourdough (£14 ) to the full English (£14). Oat milk and vegan options were also easily whipped up and the fruit salad and Granola with Greek Yoghurt (£7) were delicious.
I loved that it’s served in the indoor-outdoor heated terrace that overlooks the Imperial Gardens too. It was just the calming, zen-filled view and vibe we needed as we nursed two great flat whites alongside our sake hangovers.
OUT & ABOUT
What’s not to love about staying in the UK’s most elegant spa town? There is so much to do here, from exploring the Promenade, Montpellier and high street with their browsable boutiques from Anthropologie to the Little Interior Co (Muddy Stilettos Awards 2022 Best Lifestyle Store, no less), to people-watching with a spritz in one of the roadside cafes or bars. Between May and October you can dip into the famous Cheltenham Festivals, or come in March for the famous horse racing. Venture 15 minutes out of town and you’ll find yourself knee deep in the Cotswolds’ most beautiful villages from Stow-on-the-Wold to the Slaughters.
Yes, it is pricey, you’ll need your flexible friend for this one (or your extremely flexible partner) but a meal costs no more than any other top end restaurant, and that really is what you get here. And for the service, volume of courses, divine setting and sheer number of ‘wow’ moments, it is worth every penny. A tasting menu for two, with a bottle of wine and two desserts came to just over £250. As with many top fine-dining restaurants don’t forget that there is a 12.5% service charge too.
If you are after a slice of authentic Tokyo in the middle of Regency Cheltenham, you’ll adore it. The perfect setting for romantics (it’s fabulously intimate), for impressing business contacts or anyone wanting to mark a special occasion with friends or family. Any lovers of Asian cuisine and sushi. Spot on if you love dressing up for a night out.
Anyone after a cheap meal, it won’t be for you, or if you only dine-out in sliders and shorts, you won’t get in. The menu at YOKU is truly and thrillingly exotic, so definitely one for serious foodies out there who love a bit of excitement when they eat out.