Stratford: How Bamboo Mat is bringing Nikkei cuisine to east London

Second site offers fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cooking plus options for a bottomless brunch

Padron peppers with mango miso at Bamboo Mat, £5.50 – image Matt Grasyon

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You would not expect a Moldovan teenager to know much about Japanese food. But that is where Denis Gobjila’s story starts.

Well, like all of us, it actually started with him as a baby, but we’ll skip to the food part.

Today the 34-year-old is co-owner of Stratford’s Bamboo Mat, a rare London restaurant serving Nikkei food.

The cuisine brings together the clean simplicity of Japanese cuisine with the fiery exuberance of Peruvian food and has developed organically since the late 1800s, when a wave of east Asian immigrants arrived in South America.

“The first time I tried Nikkei it was sour and then boom, flavours in your mouth,” said Denis.

“It was so fresh and I thought: ‘This is the next level of food’.”

Bamboo Mat’s menu includes Padron peppers drizzled with mango miso, grilled octopus paired with lentil mash, crispy chicken thighs coated in anticucho sauce, yellowtail kingfish dotted with yuzu truffle soy and a smorgasboard of sushi, sashimi and nigiri.

Much like these dishes, the venue was created using a fusion of skill, patience and passion.

But it is literally hundreds of miles from where Denis started.

He grew up in Moldova helping his grandparents tend their small farm and baking with his mum.

“I followed my cousin to culinary school and my starting passion was cakes, but now I can do very little and don’t really like pastry flour,” he said.

Enter Japanese cuisine. After training, he got his first job in 2007 at Sushi Studiya in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and over a period of three years, worked his way up to head chef.

Co-owners Denis Gobjila, left, and Victor Rosca – image Matt Grasyon

On arriving in London he then landed a job as sous chef at Vietnamese restaurant Namo near Victoria Park.

But it was a random interview at a new restaurant opening in Hackney that set his tastebuds ablaze.

“They said Jordan Sclare had created some of the dishes and they were so good I went straight home, googled him and found he was executive chef at Chotto Matte,” said Denis.

“I went there the next day knocking on the door and asking for a job.

“The sushi head chef, Keita Sato, said they didn’t really need anyone but made me an offer for, I think, less than £16,000. I said: ‘No problem’.”

Denis instantly became immersed in the world of Nikkei, learning new skills in cutting fish, cooking rice, preparing vegetables and decoration – all the while refining his techniques in sashimi, sushi and maki.

“They gave me opportunities and I was ordering ingredients all the time and creating dishes,” he said.

It was also here he met his now business partner Victor Rosca who previously worked at Sushisamba, Roka, and Lucky Cat by Gordon Ramsay.

Denis began creating his own menu in his head, but it would be another five years before he actually got to serve the dishes.

“I got married and, in hospitality, it’s hard to maintain family life, so I left the kitchen for five years and worked in my wife’s accounting company,” he said. 

“But the dream was always in my mind because, for me, an office job is boring. I kept looking for something and finally it happened.”

Bamboo Mat in Stratford – image Matt Grasyon

Fate stepped in when a friend’s seafood restaurant in Leyton collapsed after Covid.

“They were very upset and had some outstanding balance to pay to the landlords, so they were going to take that place from them but I quickly stepped in and took it over,” he said.

“I had been looking for something smaller, like a takeaway concept but, when that opportunity came up, we quickly changed our plans and designed the menu.

“I’d had it in my mind for the past five years, so it didn’t take long.”

The venue opened in May 2022 but what they did struggle with was ingredients.

“The fish was the hardest to get because we were looking at central London suppliers and they had never come East before,” said Denis.

“I used to drive to Heathrow Airport to get the fish every three days until finally we got more sales and convinced them to come out this way.”

In fact, the duo had an explosion of popularity overnight, thanks to a few carefully written paragraphs in the summer of 2022.

“Grace Dent’s review in the Guardian changed our lives because after that, it was crazy, crazy,” said Denis. 

“In a nine table restaurant, we went from doing a few a night to minimum of 60 covers a day. It was a bit of a shock but very good.

“We believed in the restaurant and knew it would be quite successful, but we definitely didn’t expect it that quick.

“Maybe we deserved it, or maybe we were lucky – I don’t know.”

Sushi and vegetarian ceviche at Bamboo Mat – image Matt Grasyon

Keen to capitalize, by August they had found the Stratford venue and this time they got to design it from scratch.

It is a much bigger space, with room for 68 people inside as well as a 10-seater private dining area and 25 seats outside.

“It is the same concept as Leyton, but because it’s bigger, it has more opportunities in the kitchen so we can create more,” said Denis. 

“It’s a good location, green and peaceful and as we are quite young as businesspeople, our budget was not too big because we don’t have any investors.

“We basically made everything here by ourselves or with friends and created it organically with our own hands.”

From the outside, it looks, dare I say it, pleasantly dull.

But inside it is joyous with a neon rope interior created by Peruvian designer Sabastian Salas.

The vivaciously colourful food includes a newly launched bottomless brunch at weekends.

This features signature sushi, seabass ceviche with aji amarillo tiger’s milk, sweet potato, red onion, chancha corn and artichoke tostada with salsa criolla and salsa verde and a brunch special- fluffy pork or nasu (Japanese aubergine) bao buns.

The restaurant opened in December last year with what was supposed to be a soft launch.

“It wasn’t at all soft,” said Denis. “I think we did 250 covers for the first four days. It was really, really hard.

“When you create something, it’s scary because you invest everything and don’t know how people will react – you only know its nice for your own taste.

“When people appreciate the food you feel really positive because people like what you’re doing.

“So it’s enjoyable to get that busy and get crazy shifts, especially because this cuisine is not well know in the industry here.

The restaurant’s interior – image Matt Grasyon

“There aren’t many Nikkei restaurants in London. I think that’s because it’s quite tricky. 

“It’s a bit sour, a bit spicy and different flavours but our menu works because it is a good balance.”

There is, however, one dish which is secretly very traditional for Denis. It pays homage to the person who gave him his love of the freshest ingredients.

“We have one salad on the menu inspired by my grandmother,” he said.

“Moldovan cuisine is very different because it is a poor country, so we cooked what we grew in the garden.

“My grandparents had a small farm and, in the summertime, she used to cook Romano peppers on charcoal and it was just amazing – so smoky.

“At Bamboo Mat, we have a fresh salad with cabbage, carrot and beetroot served with a smoked sauce.”

Family is in fact still the driving force for Denis. Many young chefs seem swallowed up by their success and struggle to have a personal life outside work. But the Romford resident is home most days by 5pm.

“I have two kids, a son aged three and a seven-month old daughter and that’s the priority,” he said.

“If you manage everything properly, and it is under control, you can have the free time. Also, my wife is a very, very good woman, very supportive.

“Sometimes she’s mad at me, but I’m trying to make life better for my family, not just for myself.”

I’d call that perfectly balanced fusion.

Find our more about Bamboo Mat here

Lamb chops in anticucho sauce, £18 – image Matt Grasyon

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Stratford: How Grappelli Food Hall offers a wide range of Italian produce at The Gantry

Hotel-based grocery and restaurant offers fresh ingredients and imported flavours at East Village

Grappelli Food Hall features an extensive range of imported produce

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British hotel lobbies are not known for their shopping options.

Sure, in higher-end places there might be a gold and glass case of tasteless and astonishingly expensive jewellery.

In Wales, at the mish-mashed pile that is the Celtic Manor Hotel in Newport, I once saw BMWs being flogged beside an unhappy looking installation of Penderyn whisky bottles.

But generally, all that is to be found in such establishments is a cheery concierge, a branded umbrella or two and sometimes a vending machine.

Not so at The Gantry in Stratford.

While Grappelli Food Hall is cut off from the hotel by a see-through foldaway wall, it’s very much part of the hotel building.

Half Italian grocery and deli and half cafe, bar and restaurant, it’s incongruous as part of a hotel, but somehow right for Stratford. 

Sitting on the imaginary border between Westfield and East Village, this is a place that is very much for the locals as well as the visitors.

After all, who comes to a hotel and buys fresh vegetables and meat? 

Grappelli Food Hall owner Alessandro Grappelli

“It is incongruous, but the people running the hotel came to us and said they had a space,” said Alessandro Grappelli, the man behind the new opening. 

“The venue is incredible and it was a no-brainer. I look at it as a shop that happens to have a hotel above it.

“It’s in an area that’s been super developed, a new city built with all the experience of building the old city.

“For us it was an opportunity.”

Opportunities are very much Alessandro’s forte.

Originally from Rome, he came to London to learn English for six months and that was 26 years ago.

“I found a job and, 25 years and six months later, I’m still here,” he said.

“My family is here and I’ve spent most of my life in the UK.

“London has given me so much. There is so much meritocracy here.

If you’re good at what you do, you have the chance to prove yourself – unfortunately in Italy it still doesn’t work this way, although I do miss the weather.

“I came to London with £150 in my pocket and I started out washing dishes.

“Then I was a salad chef, then pasta, starters and main courses.

“After I’d been in the UK for three years, some of my friends came over and decided to open a restaurant in Fulham. I joined them and it was a great success.

“However, after a few months, they didn’t really want to live in London and so they told me to take the restaurant and pay the rent.

Grappelli offers a range of produce including meat and veg

“That’s how I got started – I was 22. I was lucky, of course, but I also made the most of my chances because they don’t come that often in life.”

Today, Alessandro runs upmarket Roman restaurant Grappelli in Cobham, Surrey, as well as Taverna Trastevere and Pizzicheria Grappelli in Clapham.

The latter was very much the blueprint for his latest venture in Stratford, offering mainly imported groceries from Italy but also making use of local produce.

“We use Dingley Dell Pork, from Suffolk, to make our sausages fresh,” said Alessandro.

“For us it’s about finding the right meat – the chicken and the pork – to make things fresh.

“The idea for the first grocery and deli came after Covid, when we were selling produce to locals close to our restaurant in London.

“We didn’t want any other influences, just Italian – people loved it because it’s a beautiful experience.

“We have the produce people can buy and a kitchen, so customers can see how to turn the ingredients into a meal. 

“Our chefs are highly skilled, but they also follow our philosophy – we make simple things but using amazing ingredients and the results are incredible.

“For me, the concept is to get as close to eating with my family at home as I can. It’s about selecting the right produce and suppliers. 

“For example, we have our own brand tomato sauce that, when you look at the ingredients list, is just tomatoes and basil. There are no additives. 

“When you try it you feel just like your are in Italy and that’s my passion – the real flavour of simple things.”

Fresh vegetables at Grappelli Food Hall

Something that will certainly appeal to hotel guests and locals alike is the dining side of Grappelli which offers an extensive array of quick bites.

There’s a selection of pasta dishes starting at £9.50 with Gnocchi Ai Pomodoro, ranging up to a Lasagne Alla Bolognese for £11.50. 

Foccacia sandwiches come packed with the likes of mortadella, Parma ham and bresaola and range in price from £8.90 to £9.50.

There’s also a range of antipasti including bruschetta, veal meatballs and buffalo mozzarella alongside the canny inclusion of variations on a theme of avocado on toast, for the less traditionally inclined.

“Even with these dishes, we make them with fantastic sourdough bread and an Italian twist,” said Alessandro.

“I think people don’t really know what to expect from us yet.

“When we first opened our doors, we had people who said that they couldn’t believe they had just had our carbonara in Stratford. Some came back again and again.

“That gives me so much satisfaction.

“We want people to try our food and then to go back to their offices, their friends and their families and say that they’d just had the best pasta.

“Across all of our restaurants we sell carbonara to thousands of customers and, according to them, it’s the best in the UK.

“That’s why the whole Grappelli team and I are really excited to work alongside The Gantry on this new venture.

“We really pride ourselves on the research that goes into selecting our products and we hope that this will be reflected in the customer experience.”

Grappelli Food Hall is located at The Gantry on Celebration Avenue and is open every day from 7.30am to 7pm.

Read more: How Kinaara on Greenwich Peninsula offers authentic Indian flavours

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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