The Aqua Kyoto rooftop bar is dripping with luxury, and sushi so good you’d be happy dying from Polonium poisoning.
Aqua Regent Street has the daftest entrance of any restaurant I know. Just opposite the Palladium, you go into a ground-floor lobby, decked out in crimson swag. At this level, there’s nothing to show it’s a restaurant at all, rather than, say, a Bond villain’s HQ. No menu, just a nattily-dressed greeter hanging around. This poor sap asks you if you are going to the restaurant. When you bravely reply that you are, he motions you to the lift and tells you it’s on the fifth floor (there are only two buttons in the lift, ground and five).
When you emerge, you run the gauntlet of a reception desk staffed with yet more of these elegant, non-functional assistants, this time tasked with the marginally more advanced job of directing you either to Aqua Nueva, the Spanish half of this whopping operation, which is to the left, or to Aqua Kyoto, the Japanese bit, to be found, as you can easily see, straight ahead. Aqua Kyoto, it dawns on you, is an operation conducted in the manner of a nightclub, not a restaurant. First up, there’s a bar, Aqua Spirit. Then there’s another one, surrounding an open kitchen and sushi workstation, so you can sit and watch your meal being made. Overhead is a gigantic pastiche of the red lantern that traditionally signals an inn in Japan. Everywhere there’s more of that crimson crushed velvet, plus lots of mirrors. Feels like a high-class strip joint.
Further in, the main dining room is large and open in feel, to encourage people-watching. It ends in glass walls giving on to a big open terrace overlooking Regent Street that boasts decking, rattan furniture and a relay of the sound system from within to facilitate smoking.
When we went on an early Friday night the place was full, jammed with swishy-looking types starting the weekend with a splash, some of them classy tourists, others who might just have been footballers’ wives. When I went back for a set lunch this Monday lunchtime, though, the place was nearly empty, the courteous and keen staff considerably outnumbering the customers. I much preferred it like that, although others, I understand, may be more sociable than me. It seemed a fantastic luxury and a real bargain to be able to enjoy so much space, such attentive service and pottily opulent surroundings for the price of a well produced bento box (£15.95) and a Kirin beer (£4.50). The true cost of delivering lunch to me must have been in the hundreds, if not thousands.
On a nice lacquer tray there were nine dishes in their own bowls — two big pieces each of decent salmon and tuna sashimi; some excellent tempura, crispy and dry, with a couple of big prawns and some vegetables accompanied by a dipping sauce; some good teriyaki chicken on a little bed of salad; a welcome big bowl of plain boiled rice; a mild miso soup with silky chunks of tofu; a few pickled veg; a bowl of earthy dark seaweed with matchsticks of stewed carrot — plus one oddity: a savoury egg custard cup containing pieces of chicken and crab stick. Served with a wooden spoon, this dish (“chawan-mushi”) is a bit disconcerting, having that particular soft, slippery texture that’s highly rated in Japanese cooking and a bit spooky to Western tastes.
Altogether, a really satisfying, carefully prepared and well-served lunch at a modest price. When we went in the evening we spent much more — £142.26 — and enjoyed it less. You could easily drop hundreds here if you felt so inclined (grilled lobster, £38, wagyu beef, £60).
For us, the biggest hit on the Aqua Kyoto menu was one of the cheapest dishes, “short-neck clam miso soup with black shichimi spice” (£4.50), an absolutely wonderful bowlful of intense umami flavours.
A sashimi platter at Kyoto Aqua, 12 chef-selected pieces (£32), included prawn, scallop, sea bass, yellowtail, salmon, and “fatty tuna” (o-toro) — and it had all been cut in surprisingly chunky sections. If you love sashimi you tend to think the more the better, but this broad style of serving seemed a bit excessive. It wasn’t comparable to that served at Aaya, the expensive Brewer Street restaurant that opened last year and sadly has already closed. To our taste, the fatty tuna was over the top — mere “mid-fatty tuna” (chu-toro) would surely have been fatty enough. But the tastes being hit here are all rich ones that don’t leave the palate as clean as some Japanese food. I’ve heard on good authority that the Aqua Kyoto infinity brunch is particularly worth checking out on the weekends.
You can eat enjoyable, authentic Japanese food nearby for much less, at the homely Izakaya Donzoko, round the corner in Kingly Street. But then the whole Aqua operation isn’t really about eating, so much as going out, seeing and being seen, consuming to the limit. If that’s what does it for you, Aqua’s the big new place.
Aqua Oxford Circus address: 5th Floor, 240 Regent Street, London, W1B 3BR
Aqua restaurant London Opening Hours: Mondays-Saturdays 12pm-1am, Sundays 12pm-8.30pm