When it comes to dining with refinement and grace, the Japanese certainly take the cake. From turning the simple act of drinking tea into a culture-embodying ceremony to rendering steaming rice an art form sushi chefs can spend years mastering; these people take their food seriously. I managed to score a private room at Aoki where they certainly pull out all the stops to ensure your meal is - in a word - elegant. Of course, all that classiness comes at a befitting price with a party of two forking out $162.40.
The ambience alone left me pretty dazed so I'll try to walk you through it. The Zen-minimalistic exterior is more than easy to miss, little more than a curtain-clad doorway opening into the street. Intriguingly, the entrance is flanked by two tiny mounds of what appeared to be salt.
The unusual service was a sort of apathetic pampering; kimono-clad waitresses meeting your every need with meticulous thoroughness and a distant demureness on the precipice being cold. This clinical, empirically flawless service made me feel like an exacting mob boss for some reason...
Keeping with this Yakuza theme was a hidden call button below the table in the closed room, I kid you not! I pressed it half-expecting a trapdoor to open but a waitress slid the ricepaper-panelled door open in a heartbeat instead. With a perfectly-schooled unreadable expression, she took my life... I mean order.
Our meal began with a mandatory Otoshi ($3) starter comprising a pair of salads. The potato salad was creamy and extremely smooth with a generous amount of crushed black peppercorns.
The garden salad was a little more unusual with a Western-style mélange of crisp lettuce and plump cherry tomatoes dressed with premium shoyu and fragrant sesame seeds.
We washed this down with a House Sake: Kiyoizumi - Ichigou ($22). The rice wine was aptly named 'strawberry' (if my Japanese serves me right) for its sweet-sour, fruity nature.
A fine example of their meticulous attention to detail was offering us an array of Sake bowls to choose from, no two being alike. This made enjoying the beverage far more interesting than if we drank from a characterless, standard set.
The Shiroebi Uni ($20) proved irresistible as both my dining partner and I are suckers for sea urchin and shrimp. The Toyama White Prawns exceeded my expectations with their amazing mouth feel of delicate crunch, yielding softness and slight gooeyness. Crowning it, the vividly saffron-hued sea urchins - or sea urchin gonads to be exact - were delightfully creamy and sweet; the musky undertones might have been my imagination though.
The Hotaru Ika Okizuke ($10) was similarly gorgeous. The baby squids were extremely fresh, their eyes still crystal clear, and thus had a perfect gelatinous soft chew. The soy marinade was not too salty and yuzu zest accorded it a burst of vibrancy.
My Nigiri Sushi Tokusen ($50) was a luxurious set of nine different kinds of meticulously-assembled sushi. The salmon roe beckoned to me - a temptress in a clinging dress of red and black - and my (chop) stick seemed to fly forward with a mind of its own. It was perfect in the nude (I mean the roe) and not dressed with the typical saline, each plump sphere bursting like a rich, creamy bubble filled with the salty flavour of the sea.
I went for the maguro next which turned out to be soft and yielding, a smear of sweet Nama wasabi opened the palate to render the tuna steak-like in meatiness. Encouraged, I went on to savour the two other varieties of tuna nigiri on my platter, prized fatty belly pieces of different grades. The light pink cut was firm and creamily smooth while the darker pink - appearing not unlike a well-marbled steak tartar - was softer and richer.
I found my knowledge of Japanese cuisine stretched by my dining partner as he painted a background for my Anago Nigiri served with a Shisho leaf. Appearing like the more common unagi sea eel, this river cousin is a summer fish with more delicate flakes. The astringent Shisho cut through the rich fish and smoky, sugary glaze beautifully.
I was treated to ebi once again along with firm and meaty amberjack, glossy and slightly sticky pike as well as neutral-tasting sea bream.
The pickles really hit the spot as palate cleansers between the vastly different flavours of each fish. The ginger was delightfully astringent and piquant while the radish pickles were sweet and crunchy, one with an accent of yuzu zest. The only blemish in the platter was a too-firm and compact tamago as I admittedly favour mine light, airy and fluffy.
The Chawan Mushi that my set came with was perfectly straddling solid and liquid; quivering with almost impossibly fragility on my spoon. Melting on the tongue, it was rich, smooth and delicate with a blending of flavours from embedded chicken chunks and firm shrimp.
My dining partner's Nigiri Sushi Jyo-Sen ($30) was a selection of 7 largely similar to mine though sans the pike, Anago, tuna belly and ebi. Instead, he had crunchy cucumber rolls and a massive grilled prawn. His tamago was also ingeniously bent over a ball of sushi rice, a shape fitting just perfectly into the mouth.
Custard Pudding with Peach Sauce, Mango Sorbet and Plum Wine Jelly all sounded absolutely amazing individually, let alone served together in a dessert 'bento'. The sorbet had a lovely strong mango flavour and was most refreshing while the jelly had commendable kick despite being rather sweet. The custard - while good - was not as amazing with a too-subtle peach sauce on a pleasantly eggy custard that was not quite smooth enough.