Aqua's arrival in London was eagerly awaited, but reviewers have been less than glowing and have also questioned if its open ostentation is appropriate in a global recession. Kerstin Kühn talks to the man behind it all - British-born Chinese David Yeo.
What is it with department store roofs and restaurants at the moment? Two of London's most eagerly awaited openings this year have been up high - Selfridges' roof has been home to Pierre Koffmann's pop-up extravaganza, while Aqua has recently opened atop the former Dickens & Jones building on Regent Street.
Koffmann's long-awaited return to the stove was widely hailed as a roaring success but Aqua's launch, the London debut for the Hong Kong group, has met with a far less glowing response.
Renowned for its super-stylish interiors, the group's arrival in London was certainly one of the biggest restaurant launches in the capital this year. But with the hype comes expectation. The building itself is impressive - not just its 17,000sq ft size - but also its design. Split into three distinct areas, there's the trendy circular bar, Aqua Spirit, and two separate restaurants all surrounded by rooftop terraces overlooking central London. The high-spec, uber-cool finishes of the Japanese restaurant, Aqua Kyoto, complete with sushi counter, the black glass-lined walkway and the Spanish dining room, Aqua Nueva, with tapas bar, all hark back to Conran's openings of the booming 1980s.
Indeed, this is a criticism Aqua London has had to face up to as reviewers question the validity of the venture, arguing it hails from a different era - one before the global recession took hold. At a time when budgets are being slashed, restaurateurs at all levels are being forced to cut margins, and value for money is de rigueur and many critics argue the open ostentation is drastically misplaced.
Aqua managing director David Yeo disagrees. British-born Chinese, Yeo is a self-taught restaurateur who swapped a career as a high-flying lawyer for a fledging restaurant empire that now spans 15 sites.
Caterer Are you worried about launching such a massive restaurant in a recession?
David Yeo Not really. I think London is really starting to pick up again. Of course, I didn't plan to launch this in a recession - the project has been more than two years in the planning - but London does seem to be getting busier again.
Caterer Why did you decide to split the site into two restaurants and why Japanese and Spanish?
DY We split it because of the sheer size of the site and also because the layout lent itself to a division. It's also in line with some of our other restaurants in Hong Kong and Beijing which are split into more than one operation.
Japanese has been the fastest-growing part of our business and we believe that we will offer a slightly different dining experience. We're much more authentic - with a lot less fusion and Western influence - but not traditional.
The Spanish side has been driven by my passion for Spanish wine and food. It took me a whole year to hook up with the right chef and I'm really delighted to have the opportunity to be working with Alberto Hernandez - he's easily one of the best chefs I've come across.
Caterer How have you staffed the site?
DY Our general manager is Tony Geary [ex-Sketch] and he has done all of the front-of-house staffing. Our kitchen team is from Madrid because Alberto wanted people who really understand his cooking. The Japanese side has been a bit of a struggle because there aren't any Japanese restaurants in London that do the food we do. So, we've brought in some of our people from Hong Kong to help set things up and our head chef is Japanese. When you move a cuisine to another country it will naturally adapt itself but we really want to keep things quite pure.
Caterer What are you hoping to achieve?
DY While we have a Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong, we have no such ambitions here. We have a lot to get right and learn in London. And we're finding our way to do what we can to ensure that our guests have a great experience.
Caterer Tell us a bit about your background.
DY I trained as a lawyer and went out to Hong Kong in 1991 where I worked in finance. I opened the first Aqua restaurant there in 2000 as a hobby. I do a fair bit of cooking and loads of my friends said I should have my own restaurant and I thought "why not?". It was a very small eaterie in Soho, which is a very old part of Hong Kong and home to lots of antique markets. We were the only restaurant there and the menu was created by an Australian chef and featured lots of Australian produce.
I am an absolute foodie and was really taken with the new wave of Japanese cooking - it's all about a natural evolution of flavours that has no boundaries - and so I launched my second restaurant, a Japanese venture called Wasabi-Sabi, in 2002. Together with a business partner we then also took on two Chinese restaurants and it all grew from there.
I didn't really plan on changing my career and becoming a restaurateur as I was very happy being a lawyer. Running restaurants was really great fun but it got to the point where it took up an awful lot of my time so I decided to stop practising law and concentrate fully on the restaurants.
Caterer Your law background must come in handy though?
DY Oh yes, it certainly does. I do all of the legal sides of the business myself - property transactions, lease agreements, finance. It's a very useful background to have.
Caterer How did your portfolio of restaurants grow?
DY It was a completely organic expansion. What's different about us is that no two Aquas are the same. It's not like we're a chain and open different branches; each restaurant is unique and has a different menu, a different theme. What unites them is a selection of Aqua signature dishes, which include taraba crab tempura with crab miso paste; carpaccio of beef tenderloin wrapped around smoked aubergine; and a signature sushi platter.
Caterer How would you describe your restaurants?
DY From when I opened my very first restaurant, it was always very important to me to keep things simple. Eating and drinking is very basic and I didn't want it to be turned into something too formal or inaccessible. We do want to be different and edgy in what we do - it's not exactly home cooking - but it's still accessible and not over the top. We let the food do the talking and make people feel at home so that they will come back.
Caterer Despite this approach of simplicity you talk about, all your venues are very trendy and design-led.
DY Yes, that's true. I have overseen the design of all of our restaurants with the help of professionals. From when I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect but my parents discouraged me, saying I'd end up just doing kitchen extensions. They pushed me into becoming a lawyer, which I really enjoyed, but whenever I see an empty space I quickly envision how I would like to design it - it comes quite naturally to me.
Caterer You've been quoted as saying that Aqua London is a "homecoming" for you. Is this your return to the UK then?
DY I have lived in Hong Kong for 18 years now and two of my brothers are out there working, too. We're all starting to think of coming back. London is home, so, yes, opening a restaurant here is very much a homecoming.
Caterer How did you find the site?
DY We were very lucky. Four years ago, we were looking for a site to showcase Hutong, our Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong, and found a basement site below the current Apple store on Regent Street. Unfortunately it didn't work out but, even though we lost that site, we established our credentials with the Crown Estate and two years later they called us back about this space.
Caterer What makes a good restaurateur?
DY I don't know what makes a good restaurateur. But for me, my type of restaurant is one that serves not only great food but also has the kind of environment where I can drop in every day and feel comfortable - a restaurant that's not too formal but affordable.
Caterer What's next?
DY All I'm focused on right now is to, hopefully, fulfil the potential this site is capable of and to do a good job with my team.
Manager Paulo Figueiredo
Capacity 16 in banquettes; 14 at the bar
Signature cocktails include nueva sour - midori shaken with vodka, sake, yuzu, egg white and Frangelico; and Aqua Kyoto - gin shaken with akinoto sake and dry sherry.
Head chef Alberto Hernandez
General manager Tony Geary
Typical dishes include roast foie gras with mango confit, herb salad and melon and black tea sauce; 24-hour marinated braised oxtail with pumpkin purée; Iberian beef tenderloin with salsa Espaňola; and apple jelly and apple ice with frozen yogurt and dark chocolate nibs.
Average spend £60 including drinks and service
Head chef Shibuya Kenichi
General manager Tony Geary
Typical dishes include steamed hamaguri clams with sake and dashi; black pearl sushi roll with fatty tuna, salmon and black flying fish roe; salt grilled yellowtail collar from the charcoal grill; and sakekasu ice-cream and roasted apricot and ginger jelly.
Average spend £60 including drinks and service
Aqua London, 240 Regent Street, London W1F 7EB
Tel: 020 7478 9549
While the concept of three ventures under one roof might seem unusual, it's the way Aqua likes to operate. The group, which owns a growing portfolio of restaurants in Hong Kong and China, is no stranger to running multi-faceted sites. It opened a four-in-one outlet in Beijing last year and next month will launch its first hotel operation, the 10-bedroom, all suite, Hullet House in Hong Kong, which also includes five restaurants and a bar.
- Aqua Tokyo; Aqua Roma; Aqua Spirit
- Tivo; Yun Fu
- Aqua Luna
- Agua; Shiro Matsu; Fez Bar; Hex Bar