It’s a little difficult to wax lyrical about Aoki now for two reasons, the first being that this lunch was more than half a year ago, and the second being that it’ll only be about another week before I fly of to stuff my face proper with sashimi in Japan. But see, this post will never go up if it doesn’t right now, because I’m afraid Aoki will lose its charm, its Zen minimalism, its serenity, after I get back.
Aoki is under the Les Amis group of restaurants, but stands out in its austerity, and although it is situated in the row of the Les Amis Empire (as I like to call it) to the side of Shaw Centre, its easy to waltz by without a second glance, if you even gave it a glance to start with. I had to peek past the drapes, and ask if it was indeed Aoki, before proceeding into dark corridor and into its hushed interior, half expecting to be walloped over the head and taken to see the Yakuza.
I didn’t dare snap pictures of the interior. And if you’ve been in Aoki, you’d understand why. The entire restaurant seats no more than perhaps 28 people, with private rooms hidden out of sight, I’m sure. All you’ll see are three or four partitioned tables, and then the sushi counter down a short flight of steps. It’s so small that any new arrival warrants everyone’s attention. I wasn’t about to whip my camera out anytime soon.
It’s minimal, furnished in lightwood, lit mostly by the bright ochre lighting atop the counter seats, and shrouded in a reverent sort of silence. Yet, the activity is a sight to behold – hushed, diligent, confident, and directed, from wait staff and Sushi chefs alike. It’s another world, where time slows down, where you sit back and let people take care of you, and where you’ll notice thin rice cloths hanging from the ceiling, swaying lightly in gentle drafts.
I made reservations a few days in advance for lunch, where their lunch sets go for $35++ in contrast to their dinners that rocket past $100. I’d advise that you do, for the counter seats especially, because these seats give a show more spectacular than a conveyor belt of listless-looking sushi. You see the chefs in action, blowtorches blazing, razor-sharp knives deftly slicing equally portioned slices of sashimi from slabs of fish, and the swift, almost effortless formation of sushi. It’s $35++ for amazing quality food, and meal-time entertainment. You don’t get that at many places.
Our meal started off with an Otoshi ($3++), a type of appetiser that could be thought of as a mandatory cover charge. Ours was a type of spinach, chilled and refreshing. In case you might feel short-changed, think of it as that it’s far better than having to pay for wet towels that you don’t use in a Chinese restaurant. You get your own warm towel to clean your hands with, and excellently brewed green tea that is refilled religiously throughout the meal.
That was followed by a light salad, tossed in a sesame soy dressing before the mains rolled in.
I knew what I wanted even before I made reservations. The only reason I was stepping into Aoki was for this. Well, other than how this was the only dish within my self-imposed Japanese Budget (a little higher than normal budgets, because with the Japanese cuisine, I tend to be more lax that way).
The Mazechirashi ($35++) is a huge ceramic bowl of a bed of sweet Japanese rice topped with a melange of ingredients from Tamago (sweet omelette), Ika (squid), Uni (sea urchin), Maguro (tuna), Chutoro (fatty tuna), Ebi (prawn), Hotate (scallop), Aji (Mackerel), Tai (swordfish), and Ikura (salmon roe). The rice itself is flavoured with a hint of floral ume (Japanese plum), that pulled everything together and kept it refreshing. I cannot rave enough about the quality of the sashimi here. Of the sheer freshness of the ingredients. The tuna was a deep ruby red and sweet. None of that anaemic-looking, metallic-tasting kind you get elsewhere. It was stunning. The sea urchin was creamy, sweet, and far less briny than most. Another favourite was the tamago, coloured a rich yellow with the consistency of a light pudding. I don’t think I need to go into every detail do I? I kept silent as I was eating. I was speechless.
Of course, if you’re averse to certain types of fish (I didn’t take much liking to the mackerel, not that it was inferior in any way), you are free to request it to be changed to something else. Our waiter was surprisingly kind enough to ask before he went off with our orders.
The Mazechirashi comes with the sweetest miso soup made with prawn broth that you can ever find around, pickles, and a trio of desserts that was naturally the second highlight of the meal.
My dining partner ordered the Japanese Breakfast set ($38++) that consists of an Onsen Tamago (hot spring egg – slow-cooked egg) submerged in a light katsu broth, miso soup, pickles, a type of cold vegetable dish, a bowl of rice, and perhaps the most perfectly grilled and tender Silver Cod ever. That fish was out-of-this-world, so creamy and sweet, flaky and salty with crisp, savoury skin. The entire set is – as its name suggests – a very typical breakfast that the Japanese have, simple, but done exceedingly well.
This needs one more reiteration – that fish was to die for.
That’s right, your eyes are not deceiving you. No watermelon slice! Just a triple whammy for the taste buds in the form of three delicate desserts on a platter, yours with just an order of a lunch set.
That block of semi-translucent jelly in the foreground is, according to the waiter, a ‘plum alcohol jelly’, or what I liken to Choya jelly. Supple, light, melts on the tongue, and with the fragrance of Ume. Incredibly delicious.
And then there’s the milk custard with a drizzle of burnt sugar (not caramel, there’s no butter in it). It’s the stuff of dreams. The custard is soft, lightly sweet, and contrasted beautifully with the slight bitterness of the syrup.
The last was a sweet corn ice cream, made in-house, and was frosty and light.
I don’t know about you, but I’d have these anytime over watermelon. This is the perfect set lunch.
Don’t just pay and leave after you’re done. Do what we did – sit back, relax, and watch the show (while trying to ignore the Japanese expats, Caucasians, and the couple beside us having a darn good time with their omakases). I couldn’t just walk away when tuna like that was sitting in front of me, within reach, but far out of budget.
This was my first experience watching food art. I’m not talking about those with the use of nozzle bottles and cake cutters. This was precision, assuredness, and dexterity.
Chef Kunio Aoki was the one who prepared my Mazechirashi, and he also happened to be sitting in front of me, aloof, silent, and very focused. He barely cracked a smile when I gave him the thumbs up for the Mazechirashi. He’s not one to engage the customer, but I didn’t mind that much, especially since he moved that box of Hokkaido Uni for me to get a better shot at.
We just watched, really. Everything was a show in itself. We paid special attention to the couple next to us and their endless flow of sushi for their omakase, the chef searing gorgeously fatty slabs of Otoro, the smell of fat wafting in the air. We’d just sat there for a good half an hour after our meal, soaking in the atmosphere, noticing Japanese businessmen filing into a private room, completely at ease and at home in Aoki.
It’s not out of reach if you head for their set lunches. It’s all worth it, trust me. That $30+ you spend on taxi fares? Go for a relaxing meal instead. I find it immensely difficult to find any other Japanese restaurant that will top Aoki in it’s concept and ability to transport you to another realm. Step into Aoki, and soak in its thrall.
1 Scotts Road, #02-17 Shaw Centre
Tel: +65 6333 8015