The Les Amis group own some of Singapore's most prestigious restaurants as well as the Michelin starred Cépage in Hong Kong. Their flagship French restaurant Les Amis (see here) with its S$5 million wine collection has won numerous awards and accolades and is currently ranked at number 53 in the Restaurant Magazine’s list of the World’s Best Restaurants.
Alongside the French eateries, including Au Jardin and Bistro Du Vin, Les Amis also operates a number of restaurants specializing in Asian cuisines. These include: Torisho Taka, Shabu Shabu Gen and the Vietnamese Annam but the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly Aoki – overseen by and named in honour of executive chef Kunio Aoki (a chef who has served Japanese Emperor Akihito.)
A small, simple sign in Japanese ‘kanji’ and a plain Japanese noren (fabric door covering / divider) is all that marks the entrance to Aoki.
Inside, the tone and atmosphere of this fine dining Japanese restaurant is set through a harmoniously layered mixture of warm natural hues and textures. Wood and bamboo dominate with flashes of bronze - a striking washi paper ceiling ripples majestically with the slightest breeze.
The most striking feature is undoubtedly the hinoki wood counter. Hinoki wood or ‘Japanese cypress’ is the same wood that is traditionally used to make the ‘Sushi Oke’ or ‘hangiri’ barrel-like bowls used in the preparation of sushi rice.
Behind the counter, there are sleek floor to ceiling cedar wood cabinets displaying an impressive collection of Damascus steels with wooden saya covers. Pops of colour come from such things as, the mandatory ‘Maneki Neko’ (beckoning cat); a display of individual Kiriko (glass sake cups) and from the elegant kimono-clad servers.
There are a few intimate tatami room booths but one of the fourteen spaces at the counter are most prized. We were lucky enough to be sat directly in front of chef Kunio Aoki as he silently, masterfully and diligently prepared the finest fish that they have flown in from Tokyo's prestigious fish market four times a week.
Our meal started with ‘Otoshi’ (appetiser) featuring a dashi-based broth, topped with shredded Bonito flakes and a fresh garden salad with impossibly thin slices of radish.
Next up was a Chawan Mushi - a chilled egg custard dish ‘steamed in a tea bow’ containing mushrooms and prawns seasoned and flavoured with dashi, mirin, soy and ginkgo seeds.
To complement our Sushi platter we ordered a Yasai Tempura (vegetable) and an Anago Tempura. The vegetable served included mushroom, aubergine, carrot and shiso leaf.
The tempura better was good enough but not the best I’ve had. The accompanying Tentsuyu sauce (three parts dashi and one part each of mirin and soy), grated daikon, lemon and salted matcha (powdered green tea) however, were delicious.
We ordered some Anago Tempura – Anago, is a salt-water eel also known as the ‘Whitespotted conger’. Not to be confused with Unagi, which are fresh-water eels, Anago meat is lighter and less oily than its more common unagi cousin.
The ‘Futamono’ (lidded dish) of Miso Soup was a particularly good example of its type.
Throughout these initial courses we had been observing itamae-san Aoki wielding his sword-sharp knives slicing though the most amazing pieces of fish meat and hand forming the ‘neta’ sized pieces into nigiri (the maki were made by a more junior itamae.)
It was particularly pleasing to see the fresh Japanese ‘wasabi’ horseradish root grated against the traditional shark shin covered paddle.
The sushi selection served with oshinko pickles featured all the favourites as well as a couple of rare treats: Unagi (fresh-water eel), Tamagoyaki (rolled sweet egg), Maguro (bluefin tuna), Toro (fatty bluefin tuna), Tai (snapper), Ebi (prawn), Ikura gunkan (salmon roe ‘battleship’) and Akagai (clam) with Kappamaki (cucumber).
Dessert featured a light and refreshing trio of a Red Bean Ice-cream; a block of crystal clear Umeshu Jelly made from the Japanese apricot liqueur beautifully set with a dainty leaf and the most amazing homemade Warabimochi.
A world away from the usual sweet Mochi (made from glutinous rice), the Warabimochi made from ‘warabiko’ (bracken of fiddlehead fern starch) and coated in ‘Kinako’ (sweet, finely ground roasted soybeans) had a wonderful sweet, clean earthy flavour and a meltingly silken texture.