Go Zen – Glass delves into fine Japanese cuisine at Aqua Kyoto

A FEW floors above the bustle of Regent Street, you’ll find a Japanese haven precisely designed for convivial fine dining. Aqua Kyoto – part of the Aqua Restaurant Group, whose other London venues include Hutong and Aqua Shard – is noted partly for its outdoor terrace, but my friend Bei and I visited on a snowy Monday afternoon, and somehow the cosy interior seemed more inviting at the time.

The interior at Aqua Kyoto

Capitalising on the sudden virality of the Danish concept of hygge, chef Paul Greening, a New Zealander with a background in microbiology and a clutch of awards for his cuisine, has developed Aqua Kyoto’s new Ikigai menu to deeply impressive aesthetic effect. “Ikigai” literally means “reason for living”; Greening has applied this philosophy to his ingredients, with a “root to leaf” cooking method that utilises his ingredients to the max.

One example would be the wild seaweed salad, where every element of the seaweed is used; it is served in an unforgettable sesame sauce. Wild Japanese mushroom and chestnut gohan is another highlight of Greening’s root-to-leaf approach – the gohan (rice) is cooked in stock derived from the mushrooms’ stalks and skins. At times he stretches the idea to slightly mystifying effect: his sour cherry sorbet, azuki chocolate and almond praline dessert is intended, with its yuzo shiso cream, to represent a forest floor and therefore “balance and purpose”. Such rich food surely does not need a conceptual trellis.

Ikigai – suckling pork belly, eel, root vegetables and jade oil

But the Go Zen set lunches are a concept unto themselves. Served in a twelve-chamber box and accompanied by white miso soup, they come in two iterations: Kyoto, which includes wagyu beef, black cod, sushi and seasonable vegetables; and Shojin, which is vegan. Bei had the former, I the latter; the spinach salad with the goma dressing (part of the Kyoto box, oddly enough) was the most memorable for us both. Vegan standouts included the mugwort tofu with truffle and ankake sauce (it somehow seemed light and dense simultaneously), the kenji roll with daikon and ginger dressing, and the teriyaki mushrooms.

Go Zen – Shojin

As for the meat and fish, Bei helpfully provided her opinions: the black cod was beautifully textured and perfectly seasoned, the spicy tuna oshizushi was an unusual savoury confection with a unique taste, and the wagyu beef was deeply flavoursome. Perhaps the beef was a little chewy, the rock shrimp tempura could have been crispier, and the cherry blossom-infused, wasabi-seasoned rice (common to both Go Zen boxes) could have been warmer to offset the coolness elsewhere, but such quibbles – as the old Mandarin saying goes – would be like looking for bones in an egg. The knowledgeable staff will be on hand to recommend the best sakés if you’re unsure; remember, “Nihonsu wa ryori wo erabanai.” (“Saké does not get into fights with food.”)

Go Zen: Kyoto (small box for those in a hurry)

As you leave, you’ll notice an “ikigai tree” – a medium-sized potted plant on which diners can hang their “happiness goals”. It’s a gimmick, of course, but it’s unsurprising that at Aqua Kyoto, even the gimmicks are pretty.

by Arjun Sajip

Aqua Kyoto, 5th Floor, 240 Regent Street, (Entrance 30 Argyll St, W1F 7EB), London W1B 3BR

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