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An exceptional dining investment
1 Scotts Road
#01-19 Shaw Centre
Tel: 6333 8015
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 12pm to 3pm; 6.30pm to 11pm
GOING to a restaurant is a little like developing a relationship. Especially when it's been around as long as Aoki, which has spent the last 14 years in its little corner of Claymore Hill along with its French sibling Les Amis, quietly shadowing the evolution of Japanese food in Singapore. Even as the group's restaurants on that stretch revamped or changed concepts, Aoki stayed largely the same, dispensing the entire spectrum of classic Japanese cuisine from sushi and sashimi to lunch sets and elaborate omakase - plus everything in between.
Presiding over it all is chef-owner Kunio Aoki - the talk-little but glare-lots quintessential old-school Japanese sushi chef. Leaving most of the bantering to his much-friendlier team of chefs that work beside him, chef Aoki tends his own side of the sushi counter, layering shiny slices of fish over just-warm rice before handing them over to the select guests who have "earned" the right to be served by him.
We fully empathise with any guests who come away from Aoki feeling a little affronted by the perceived "standoffishness" of the staff who seem more intent on catering to regular clientele than accommodating the hesitant newbie who comes just to try the great-value chirashisushi set that is consistently raved about. While service has always been efficient, there was a time when we would dine there not daring to make eye contact with chef Aoki, since we were never sure if he simply detested humankind, or if his facial features are just arranged that way. It's taken a while, but we've since come to realise that he's a lot - or can be - friendlier than he looks.
His no-nonsense approach and clear focus on keeping high standards at prices that range from value-for-money to no-holds-barred indulgence is the reason that Aoki is still around after all these years and is consistently rated among the top Japanese eateries in Singapore. At one point it was starting to look its age - tired and drab, but a recent massive renovation has more than rectified that. It is safe to say with no bias, that the newly renovated Aoki is now the best-looking Japanese restaurant in town.
From its elegant, discreet doorway you enter into an opulent dream chamber of Japanese old-world glamour. Bold black and white feature walls and understated furniture form the upper level dining area, which looks a lot more spacious than before. They've managed to fit in more tables without feeling hemmed in, and retained the semi-private booths.
But what takes the breath away are the multiple hand-crafted Kumoki panels - exquisite wooden screens that took one and a half years to make by craftsmen in Kanazawa. Marvel at that and the luxe hand-made fridges behind the chefs that you see in top sushi restaurants in Tokyo. With no compressor, the fridges are cooled by ice blocks to keep the sashimi at just the right temperature.
What hasn't changed much is the menu which is dictated by seasonal ingredients and covers all the cooking styles from raw to tempura to beef rice bowls and hotpots. You'll be happy to note that the Mazechirashisushi (S$42) is still available and is just as good - warm rice topped with an assortment of cubed marinated seafood. It's worth upgrading to a more luxe version, Barachirashisushi (S$65) for the better-quality seafood mix, especially the addition of uni (sea urchin) which enriches the mix.
For a good introduction to chef Aoki's skills, the S$200 sushi omakase offers very good value at lunch as he rolls out a stream of ingredients from super tender shiroika (squid) to beautiful uni from Awaji island near Kobe. His style is pure Edomae right down to sushi rice seasoned with salt and vinegar but no sugar. Each morsel is warm, with enough bite and chew, topped with razor-precise sliced fish that's generously long and thick. Shiroika is slippery tender and sweet, and the chutoro firm and fleshy, cut from a massive specimen from Niigata weighing 160 kg.
If you're not a fan of strong-flavoured kohada, the baby version is milder and sweeter and delicious. The usual suspects follow - kinmedai, akami, shima aji, akagai, ebi, katsuo and more. But chef Aoki's Japanese suppliers give him access to unique ingredients like the Awaji uni which is less rich but so elegant.
While the main dining room excels in across-the-board Japanese dining, the true heart of Aoki lies upstairs in the refurbished private room, open only for regulars. A minimum booking of three people is required and only on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, but that's when you get the undivided attention of chef Aoki and his magic box of super ingredients unmatched elsewhere in Singapore.
Starting at S$250 for lunch and S$400 for dinner, chef Aoki personally prepares appetisers like a beautiful slippery junsai or water lily, topped with plump lobes of uni from his supplier in Tsukiji who picks the literal cream of the uni crop and sends him one of a handful of precious boxes. Considering he shares the same suppliers as two and three Michelin-starred Tokyo restaurants Sawada and Sushi Saito, there's some serious stuff being served here.
For example, he serves the largest botan ebi we've ever laid eyes on, with extra-terrestrial looking bright green roe that is lightly marinated with olive oil and soya sauce. The prawn itself is served raw and topped with caviar. Exceptional.
Michelin-starred Japanese restaurants in Singapore have something to worry about. In its current form, Aoki puts them all in the shade, ticking off all the boxes for food quality, ambience and authenticity.
It's taken some time, but we're not afraid of chef Aoki anymore. And for any intimidated newcomers, worry not. Aoki is a long-term dining investment. Stick with it, and the pay-offs are huge.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.