Alan Yau may have revolutionised the London dining-out scene, but now his little brother is bringing a new kind of Japanese restaurant to Soho. Rosie Birkett reports
Walking into Aaya is a strange, if somewhat enchanting, experience. One minute you're walking through the streets of Soho, with its disorientating Hogarthian hubbub, and the next you're being beckoned into a room so tranquil and elegant it's almost slightly ethereal. Since its opening in April, Gary Yau's first solo restaurant venture has had the critics gushing, not just for its immaculate Japanese food, but because of its sheer grandeur - the high ceilings, sumptuous blond wood, extensive illuminated panelling and edgy, modern furniture. It's not exactly your typical Soho Oriental.
This chic, gleaming interior, which was designed by David Archer Architects, certainly wouldn't look out of place in Wallpaper magazine, and it must have cost a bomb - though Yau is keeping the price of the project confidential.
There are hints of intricacy in the wood embossed with Japanese blossom and the beautifully embroidered lampshades that hang above the long downstairs sushi counter. There is ambient music playing loud enough to create a buzz but not enough to impose on conversation, and friendly waiting staff float around the 110-seat upstairs restaurant in baggy white robes reminiscent of Oriental fishing trousers.
"We try to offer traditional Japanese cuisine with a modern interpretation," says Yau of the menu, which features hot and cold appetisers, salads, grills, toban dishes, fried, steamed and braised options, as well as sashimi and sushi. "We get our products from local Japanese suppliers as well as importing directly from Japan," he says. And what ingredients! Blue swimmer crab, wagyu beef, sea urchin, Kumamoto oysters and Hokkaido scallops are among those that stand out.
All the chefs in Aaya's 25-strong brigade are Japanese - it seems obvious, but all too often it's just not the case - but the front-of-house staff aren't (or if they are, they speak perfect English). This is just as well really, because some of the dishes, like botan ebi nigiri (it means raw shrimp) do need explanation unless you're familiar with the nuances of Japanese cuisine.
The nature of the menu relies on the ingredients being of the highest quality, as much of it is served in modest quantity, raw or lightly grilled. Light, fresh dishes such as the cold appetiser of razor clam (£7), served diced in its shell, its creamy taste complemented by peppery sorrel, and grilled Kumamoto oysters (£9) with ponzu sauce - a tart mixture of soy, citrus and sake - express the kind of sleek simplicity Yau is striving for.
As with most Japanese restaurants, fish and seafood make up a good chunk of the menu, with the £9.50 seared tuna katsu tataki being one of the best-selling dishes, and Yau has found a steady pair of hands to entrust this fishy foray to. Head chef Akihiro Onishi, who hails from Kyoto, leads the brigade with more than 20 years of experience behind him - and a licence to handle blowfish. This Japanese delicacy is among the most poisonous vertebrates in the world, hence the need for the much-sought-after licences, which are awarded to only a few highly skilled chefs.
While Yau might not have blowfish on the menu quite yet, he has included yellowtail - a meaty fish often used in sushi - in a number of dishes. The grilled yellowtail cheek with ponzu daikon (£12.50) comes served on the bone, bursting with flavours of the sea, and is so substantial it looks like a pork chop. The white, fleshy meat is perfectly accompanied by the grated daikon (radish) and ponzu, which gives it a tangy kick.
Desserts also feature subtle takes on Japanese fare: sake jelly with poached peach and peach sorbet (£7), and shiso panna cotta (£6.50) - a light-green quivering slab flecked with vanilla pod seeds, flavoured lightly with the minty herb.
No doubt, Aaya will become the haunt of certain members of the London elite, thanks to its chic interior and elegant, light food, but it's also a place where businessmen will make short work of plates of nigiri at the sushi counter downstairs, and where friends will meet over sashimi lunches.
Gary Yau, brother of Alan, the man who raised the profile of Japanese cuisine in Britain, has brought an upmarket and accessible Japanese restaurant to the heart of Soho.
What's on the menu
Away from the stove
"The last place I ate out and really enjoyed was on a recent trip back to Japan. I went to a yakiniku restaurant in Ebisu, Tokyo, called Keijyou, and the beef was amazing," says head chef Akihiro Onishi.
Aaya, 66-70 Brewer Street, London W1F 9TR. Tel: 020 7319 3888