Looking for the UK's top specialist restaurants? Most restaurants are generalists: be they French or Chinese, seafood or vegan, brunch or dinner spots, their menus blend national or global influences. But, for a minority of chefs and owners, food is all about specialisation, in a service style, regional cuisine or product. This month, olive salutes the deep-divers who, absorbed in their niches, enrich food for all.


Multi-course Japanese dining: Roketsu, London

The Japanese influence on Western dining is profound. Modern tasting menus, for example, owe a debt to kaiseki, a formal, multi-course Japanese dining style that has fascinated European chefs for decades. Trained at Yoshihiro Murata’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant Kikunoi, Daisuke Hayashi learned the principles of kaiseki from one of its masters, and now shares its holistic ethos at London’s Roketsu, a serene, minimalist counter-dining space. Daisuke’s use of exceptional micro-seasonal ingredients, exquisite plating and bespoke Kyoto crockery are recognisable kaiseki hallmarks. More abstract kaiseki guidance gives his cooking further rigour (for example, that food should engage guests’ five senses using five flavours: “saltiness, acidity, sweetness, bitterness, umami”). Across its 10 courses, Roketsu seeks to embody perfect balance in dishes such as Cornish crab, pear, air-dried onion, carrot, fennel, yuzu and dill, or smoked trout, horseradish miso and walnut. Daisuke describes himself as a humble interpreter of ingredients: “Not too much seasoning on a fresh, seasonal product. When I plate a dish, I never use the entire space.” Such respectful, precise treatment of ingredients is today evident in many European restaurants, and Daisuke feels Japanese cooking will continue to influence fine dining: “Less oil, calories and plenty of umami will get attention in coming years.” £190pp; roketsu.co.uk

Homemade Bao: Little Bao Boy, Leeds

Holidaying in Malaysia as a child, James Ooi remembers kneading bao dough with his dad’s Chinese- Malaysian family: “It’s a nostalgic food for me.” Since 2016, these buns have also been James’s professional calling as – at his Little Bao Boy kiosks at North Brewing’s Leeds bar and its suburban brewery – he has won over West Yorkshire with his A1 bao. Dough is proved overnight and rolled each morning, with fillings getting similar care and attention. The brisket in James’s best-selling beef bao is marinated and slow-cooked for 14 hours in shaoxing rice wine, ginger, soy, orange and garlic, then topped with crispy onions, sriracha mayo and cucumber. Such hits (see also the fried chicken bao made with thighs marinated in gochujang buttermilk) have spread Little Bao’s rep beyond Leeds. James, whose parents ran a noodle bar in Middlesbrough, operates several delivery kitchens nationally and a new kiosk at York’s Spark. Working with a Yorkshire bakery, he’s also developed a flour that produces “super fluffy” bao. For, as Britain falls for these buns, the good stuff is increasingly “like gold dust”. From £5; littlebaoboy.com

A selection of bar buns and chips

Authentic Texas BBQ: Pappy's Smokehouse, Kendal

Back in Texas “BBQ was a family thing,” says Robin Perris. Robin’s grandpa, a director at a local meat market, was, with her father and uncle, an avid competitor in BBQ cook-offs, where success inspired Robin’s dad (known to Robin as pappy) to launch a mobile BBQ business. Years later – and thousands of miles away in Cumbria – Robin’s love of low-and- slow, hot-smoked meat is undimmed. Having previously produced wholesale smoked meats under the Pappy’s brand, Robin created an outdoor restaurant last year at Pappy’s Kendal smokehouse and, in May, opened a nearby taco bar. “In Texas,” explains Robin, “if it’s not cooked on wood, it’s not BBQ. And if you’re going to do our style – low and slow, 100% offset – naked flames never touch the meat.” Instead, you must maintain a steady temperature in the huge, custom-built pits where Robin typically smokes half a tonne of meat per session. When smoking Pappy’s heavily marbled, USDA Black Angus brisket (the one meat Robin imports: “Like gold, it always sells out”), those smoking sessions can take 18 hours. As well as platters of ribs or Texas ‘hotlink’ spicy beef sausages, Pappy’s menu includes burgers, dogs and loaded fries. But do not expect pulled pork or brisket smothered in BBQ sauce. Texans love to showcase the ‘bark’ created by dry rubs instead. “The bark,” says Robin, “holds most of the flavour.” Mains from £10; pappystexasbarbeque.co.uk

The full spread of dishes at Pappy’s Smokehouse in Kendal, which includes Texan favourites such as smoked beef brisket, macaroni cheese and spicy pinto beans

Indian 'little bits': Bundobust, across northern England

Raised in a Bradford deli-café renowned for its Gujarati farsan (or snacks), Bundobust co-owner Mayur Patel always preferred these “little bits” – the samosas and kachori – to big bowls of curry. He craves “a medley of flavours and textures” in every meal. “I hate every mouthful being the same.” Consequently, while there are a couple of stew-adjacent curries on Bundo’s menu – such as its excellent tarka dhal or chole saag – these hip bar-canteen venues in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester major on Indian street foods. They serve stellar craft beers with pots of sublime, multi-layered bhel puri and chaat (like vibrant, savoury, carb-rich salads), sweetcorn chevdo dry-fried with peanuts and spices, scrambled egg bhurji and bhatura bread, or that Mumbai train station classic, vada pav – spicy mashed potato, deep-fried in a bun. “For a lot of people, default Indian means curry,” says Mayur. “I like to challenge that. We represent India in a different light.” Dishes £2.75-£7.25; bundobust.com

Basque dining: Baratxuri, Ramsbottom, Bury

Talk to Joe Botham about northern Spain and he lights up at memories of “mind-blowing” clams at Bilbao’s Kirol; distinctive soft, gooey tortilla at Bar Nestor in San Sebastián; or whole grilled turbot at iconic asador Elkano. The Baratxuri co-owner has eaten with and learned from the Basque Country’s best and, back at his restaurant on the edge of Pennine Lancashire, he and head chef Yvonne Lumb translate that experience into a sensational menu of cangrejo crab fritters, burnt Basque cheesecake and wood-grilled txuleton – the 1kg mega- steaks of ex-dairy cattle (in this case, premium Rubia Gallega, over 12 years old at slaughter) for which the Basque Country is renowned. In fact, Joe is a specialist twice over, having originally done a similar number on Andalusian cooking at his neighbouring restaurant Levanter. His latest coup for both restaurants has been to secure a source of bluefin tuna (sustainably caught in traditional almadraba nets) from near Tarifa on Spain’s southern Med coast: “It’s the most unbelievable thing you’ve ever seen or tasted – the fat is unreal. We’re serving the belly like txuleton – a big steak on the bone with fried potatoes and salsa verde. That’s the future.” Pintxos, £4.75-£6; txuleton, £60; baratxuri.co.uk

butterflied sea bream at Baratxuri, with salsa verde and bilbaína (garlic, chilli, oil and vinegar)

Ten more kitchens that go deep in one delicious area of food:

Flat Iron, London

£12 steaks for all, utilising this overlooked feather blade cut; flatironsteak.co.uk

The Spärrows, Manchester

Central-Euro dumplings and pasta, from spätzle to pierogi; thesparrows.me

Humble Chicken, London

Yakitori using every part of the bird (liver, thigh, achilles and more); humblechickenuk.com

La Cuina, Cardiff

Montserrat Prat’s homage to the food of her native Catalonia; lacuina.co.uk

Max’s Sandwich Shop, London

A restaurant where all Max Halley’s magic happens between slices of focaccia; maxssandwichshop.com

The Original Gangster sandwich at Max’s Sandwich Sho in London

Tharavadu, Leeds

A delicious dive into light, sensitively spiced Keralan cooking; tharavadurestaurants.com

Maremma, London

Named after a gastronomically treasured corner of its region of focus, Tuscany; maremmarestaurant.com

Träkol, Gateshead

Live fire specialists, adept at anything from pig’s head to grilled scallops; bytheriverbrew.co

Beza, London

Exploring Ethiopia’s rich, religiously observant repertoire of vegan food; follow on Instagram @bezaethio


Homage, Manchester

Intimate space for artisan cheeses, deluxe chutneys and paired wines; woodrestaurantgroup.com

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