Part of Hong Kong group Aqua's first UK venture, Japanese restaurant Aqua Kyoto feels more like a 1970s disco than a fine-dining venue, but its menu is up there with London's major players. Kerstin Kühn reports.
Aqua London has a sense of mischief about it. As you enter an inauspicious looking corridor opposite the Palladium theatre in Soho and catch the lift to the fifth floor, you can't help but feel like you're about to enter a secret world of naughtiness. Indeed, once past the terrifyingly pointless receptionists, a massive space awaits, which feels more like a 1970s disco than a fine dining restaurant.
Aqua London opened last autumn as part of Hong Kong restaurant group Aqua's first UK venture. The company, which operates around 15 high-end restaurants in Hong Kong and Beijing, took over the top floor of the former Dickins & Jones department store on Regent Street and built a mammoth 17,000sq ft restaurant space. It is divided into three separate areas - the Aqua Spirit bar, the Aqua Nueva Spanish restaurant and the Aqua Kyoto Japanese restaurant - all giving a sense of a massive nightclub and surrounded by corner rooftop terraces overlooking central London.
Aqua Kyoto comprises a large, open dining room, which comfortably seats 110 diners and includes a central sushi workstation where punters can watch the busy chefs in action. The large menu offers a vast variety of Japanese dishes - everything from unusual sushi rolls and classic bento boxes to grills, tempura, rice and noodle dishes.
The kitchen is headed up by executive chef Jordan Sclare, who oversees a brigade of 18, the majority of whom have joined the London restaurant from Aqua's Hong Kong operations. As well as the brigade, a large share of the ingredients is also flown in from Asia. Fresh fish such as tuna, yellow tail and bream, for instance, is delivered daily, while speciality spices, sauces, fresh herbs and even Japanese bincho coals arrive twice a week. However, Sclare tries to use British ingredients wherever possible and sources part of his seafood - including scallops, langoustines and lobsters - from Scotland.
The London-born chef, whose CV includes head chef roles at the Michelin-starred Nobu on Park Lane and the recently closed Buddha Bar as well as positions at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and the Savoy, says Aqua Kyoto is definitely up there with the capital's major Japanese players.
"We are a much smaller operation than some of our competitors, such as Nobu and Zuma, so we have time for a lot more attention to detail and refinement," he says. "For instance, we make small batches of tempura batter every hour using chopsticks and we change the fryer oil every two hours to keep things fresh."
The Aqua restaurant group has a range of signature dishes, which it serves at most of its restaurants including a deceptively understated starter of spinach rolls with roasted sesame sauce (£6.50).
The blanched and rolled spinach is accompanied by an intensely nutty-flavoured sauce comprising a paste of crushed toasted sesame seeds, sugar and dashi (bonito stock) and is disassembled at the table by the waiter.
One of Sclare's personal signature dishes is twice cooked crispy pork belly served with langoustines, yuzu pepper and round daikon radish (£14.50). He braises belly of Berkshire pork for six to seven hours in a soya-based stock with cinnamon and dashi before compressing it with a heavy weight, cutting it into dice and pan-frying the squares on both sides. It is then served with pan-fried langoustines, shiso sauce and yuzu pepper as well as the pickled daikon radish, which offers a sharp acidity that cuts straight through the fattiness of the pork.
Moving on to the sushi, the most popular choice is the Tataki platter (£32) - another Aqua signature dish - which offers 12 pieces of modern and traditional sushi including spicy tuna, tuna belly, salmon, yellow tail, crab and foie gras. However, unlike regular sushi rolls, which come wrapped in dried seaweed, Aqua envelops the rice in thinly sliced cucumber. "It keeps it much fresher," says Sclare.
Next to sushi, no Japanese restaurant should be without that classic dish of black cod, and at Aqua Kyoto saikyo miso black cod (£24.50) is the top selling dish.
"We don't prepare the cod in the oven but grill it on the barbecue," Sclare explains. "The miso sauce drops on to the hot coals and the smoke infuses the fish, which gives an amazing flavour."
Aqua Kyoto may be housed in a room more akin to a cheesy nightclub than a classy restaurant but its menu is certainly up there among the capital's top Japanese eateries.
Aqua Kyoto240 Regent Street, London W1F 7EB
020 7478 0540
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
• King crab tempura with crab miso, £18
• Half marinated lobster with seared foie gras and wasabi cream, £24.50
• Chicken thigh skewer with sansho teriyaki, £9
• Crispy tofu with daikon and okra dashi sauce, £5.50
• Grilled beef tenderloin with Japanese mustard sauce, £22
• Chargrilled sea bass and shiitake mushroom with truffle garlic soy, £21
• Green tea tiramisù, £5
• White chocolate and coconut mousse with Malibu sorbet, £6.50
• Half-baked chocolate pudding with black sesame ice-cream, £7.50