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New Eats: Aoki

We got hipped to a hidden, exclusive little omakase restaurant off of Yan' an Lu. Shhh... Don't tell anyone. Click here for sushi porn.
2014-10-24 14:25:32

My first impulse with a place like Aoki is to keep it to myself. I imagine most people who come to this omakase sushi restaurant feel the same way. It's the kind of place that begs to be kept secret. Hidden in some anonymous residential alleyway under the shadow of the Yan'an gaojia, it doesn't want to be found.

What's more, owner Anthony Chong isn't really looking for a lot of exposure. He seems content maintaining an exclusive mystique about the place (though how could a restaurant with only nine seats that charges a minimum of 1280rmb per person not be exclusive?) Regardless, he's quietly made Aoki's presence known through a WeChat whisper campaign. He invites his friends. They invite their friends, QR codes are scanned, and subsequent reservations are made via text message, referrals are made by introductions over WeChat, etc. That's how I was hipped to this place.

Aoki's namesake, naturally, is the guy making the sushi, Kunio Aoki. He's half Chinese, half Japanese. He spends his time jumping between both countries. When he's not running the restaurant that bears his own name, he works at another sushi bar with a its one name recognition, Sushi Ichi, a one Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo's glitzy Ginza district.

I imagine being connected to that restaurant gives Aoki-san some currency with the fish dealers of Tokyo, because he's getting some excellent product here. Naturally, offerings depend solely one what's seasonal and of proper quality. And he only orders according to how many reservations have booked. You won't likely have the same Aoki experience twice, but here are a few slices of mine.

Order your sake and your server presents you with a variety of tiny cups to choose from. Some are smooth and simple bamboo carvings. Others are painted with intricate motifs of cranes, a symbol for longevity.

Dinner starts with a trio of amuse bouches, among them is this beautiful block of tofu topped with okra and a few orange orbs of salmon roe. Sliced in cross section, it resembles a star.

That's followed by several sashimi courses, among them this generous hunk hokkigai (surf clam) flared a brilliant red.

Aoki's braised octopus is another highlight. I'm guessing he cooks it long, low, and slow, maybe with a few intermittent deep tissue massages, too. It is meltingly tender.

Ankimo, or monkfish liver, is another item Aoki does exceptionally well. It has the creamy texture of foie gras. Poaching it in sake and mirin gives it sweet edge that balances out any fishy flavors. This is a fairly standard omakase dish.

This is a unique presentation: Japanese red hairy crab. Aoki steams the crustacean, shells the meat and then packs it back into the carapace. It's sweet, with an intense flavor of fresh sea spray. That little orange mound in the foreground is its rich, creamy roe.

The only cooking equipment you see behind the counter is a tiny gas-powered grill, where Aoki grills fish like this bream garnished with the pickled purple shoots of ginger.

His nigiri selections are pure artistry, like this silver slab of mackerel, with its assertive, almost steak-y flavor.

There is tuna, of course. This is one of several styles in which he presents it. He also gently sears it with a kitchen torch and rolls it up in maki. And that's probably just scratching the surface.

Aoki even manages to make me like something that I usually pass on, Salmon roe. A sprinkled mince of yuzu zest cuts through the salinty, opening another layer of complexity to an otherwise commonplace sushi dish.

And there is this little coda, which I absolutely love...

Cherry wood-smoked slices of daikon, a deceptively complex dish—the perfect accompaniment to a postprandial sake.

As stated above, Aoki isn't cheap. You have two price points: 1280rmb or 1580rmb per person. That's basically a set menu, chef's choice (though Aoki-san will accommodate food intolerances). The more expensive option, obviously, gets you more expensive items. I did the entry-level option and was completely satisfied. At the moment it's not clear to me if they're taking reservations by phone. For better results, I suggest contacting them through WeChat. Here is their ID: YUANSHE-2014.

For a listing of Aoki click here.