As self-confessed foodies, we like to consider ourselves quite well versed in world cuisine. Admittedly the concept of Nikkei was completely new to us, with the word generally referring to a Japanese person born outside of Japan. In the case of Aji, a new eatery on the Palm Jumeriah, we’re talking about Nikkei cuisine. The cross-pollination of Japanese and Peruvian food that began in 1889, when approximately 7,000 Japanese workers emigrated to Peru to help build the South American countries economy.
Aji is one of seven licensed restaurants that opened last month at Club Vista Mare, a beachside complex situated on the trunk of the Dubai’s manmade Palm Jumeriah. Coming to us from the team behind Abu Dhabi’s exemplary Bu, a Pan-Latin concept that has taken the capital by storm. Aji is a vast and sprawling space and one that has a distinct wow factor. The main dining room is meticulously designed to resemble a Peruvian Palace and is an all-encompassing space that feels familiar, while still projecting a profound sense of grandeur. Ornate mirrors hang from the walls, while square picture frames suspend precariously from the ceiling. Towards the back of the restaurant lies a private dining room, suitable for twelve privileged guests and housed in a structure that can only be described as a glass birdcage (complete with sliding doors). The Japanese influence subtly seeps into the Peruvian space via trees of pink cherry blossom and a graffiti artwork of a woman who resembles both indigenous Peruvian and Japanese Geisha – it’s a striking piece and one that is representative of everything Nikkei.
Like Bu, Aji transpires to be a multi-faceted space. As we move past the raw bar, complete with cuts of raw seafood and octopus tentacles and into the sake bar, separated from the main dining room via Shōji (a Japanese partition of translucent paper spread over a wooden frame). Guests are immediately transported to Kyoto, with an overwhelming selection of Japanese sake presented by the knowledgable and ever-courteous team of bar staff. Surprisingly the sake bar is not the only trick up Aji’s sleeve, as the bar area gives way to a more casual lounge, a space of exposed brick work and leather booths, where striking paintings of birds adorn the walls. Despite an appealing outside terrace offering ocean vistas, we were entirely captivated by the design and bravado of the interiors. Opting to spend our meal in what could potentially be one of the most exqusite restaurants spaces in Dubai… period!
Knowing very little about Nikkei Cuisine, our meal at Aji acted as both a culinary journey and an educational experience. Call us naive but we’d perceived Peruvian cuisine to be a lot of ceviche, polenta based dishes and an abundance of pulses. While this may be the case in the most traditional sense, nothing could’ve prepared us for the hybrid of two distinguished world cuisines, intrinsically woven together.
To promote an interactive dining experience small plates are delivered to the table (sharing style) as soon as they’re ready and we’re immediately lulled into a false sense of security with the arrival of the Ajiru Salad. A zesty mix of lettuce, baby carrots, cabbage and confit duck, containing just a hint of citrusy orange and sweet tamarind that complement each other wonderfully, to bring the dish together. Yet we’re still none the wiser to Nikkei cuisine.
Having spoken way too soon, a gigantic platter of food appears at the table. A deep bowl of overflowing ice, on which a number of dishes balance precariously. The sight is a visual spectacle and we barely comprehend the information as our waiter rattles out names and descriptions for each of the pieces of this colorful jigsaw. The full impact of what constitutes Nikkei is immediately evident – the Japanese influence on Peruvian food, the sweet potato sushi, the ceviche tacos. It’s a revelation and we ponder exactly why it’s taken us so long for us to discover this interesting (albeit niche) cuisine.
We begin with the more traditional the sushi, the futomaki. Which come in two flavours Spicy Tuna Futomaki (cucumber, spring onion, mango and spicy mayo) and Quinoa Futomaki (avocado, crab meat, red quinoa and salmon). These are the two most ‘Japanese’ dishes that we sampled and despite tasting goof, they’re not as exciting as many of the other dishes in the tasting menu that we sampled.
Of more interest were the piqueos (appetizers) of King Crab and Maguro Tacos. The crab in particular, layers wasabi guacamole, black tobiko (flying fish roe), quinoa and yuzu over a portion of sweet potato, that though obscure sounding, is a textural wonder. Furthermore the taco of tuna, truffle oil and kyuri (Japanese cucumber) may present itself as the latest Instagrammable food gimmick but is in fact a worthy dish should you look past its inevitable fusion.
Fusion is perhaps not the correct word to describe Nikkei, as it’s not a new concept of trying to combine elements of two distinct cuisines. It’s a historical progression of cultural influences that has evolved over time, creating something altogether new. The Tiradito dishes are the perfect example of this, presenting sliced raw fish in the style of sashimi, as opposed to the cubed nature of the Peruvian ceviche, though both are displayed within a spicy sauce. The Clasico, as the name suggests is far more traditional (halibut, umeboshi and leche de tigre) while the Wagyu version (ginger, spring onion, zhu) is an inspired beef carpaccio.
Peruvian ceviche’s are also present and were perhaps (dare we say it) the best we’ve tried in the UAE. Ceviche has certainly been the food trend of Dubai 2016 and the Rocoto (flounder, onion, coriander and chulpe corn) and Limeno (sea bass, coriander and onion) are certainly up there with the best in the city, creating a burst of flavours on the palette.
Rounding out the momentous platter we find Aji’s unique take on nigiri hidden amongst the icy monoliths protruding from our table. The Hotate Truffle (scallops, truffle butter, masago and black truffle) and the Aji (halibut, black quinoa, amarillo and coriander) are certainly a full mouthful but taste absolutely divine.
With an abundance of raw seafood, there’s little doubt that Nikkei cuisine is ambitious and the seafood aspect seems to be the common link, allowing the two distinctive styles to converge and complement one another. Nikkei is about more than just fish though. Aji Anticucho is a street food dish originating from the mountainous Andes. Traditionally, the beef is marinated in vinegar and a blend of spices, before being skewered and cooked. At Aji the concept remains the same but the barbecue comes smoking hot and direct to your table. The beef is slathered in an anticuchera sauce, though it’s the soft texture and seasoning that are the real plus points to this dish.
Continuing to surprise and setting very high expectations in the process, the Shrimp Tempura caused quite a stir at our table, due to it’s unique purple colouration. We can safely ay that this is the first time we’ve eaten purple shrimp and colour aside, the shellfish were piping hot, wonderfully fleshy, while still retaining their overall delicate nature.
The Tako Grill is an inspired dish of octopus confit (certainly a new way to cook octopus for us), panca miso, truffle oil and quinoa tabbouleh. The dish is basically an elevated and enhanced version of the signature ‘Pulpo Tiradito’ from BU, presented in a similar fashion and retaining the same succulent flavours.
Octopus is a prime example of how Nikkei is less about fusion and more about culture. At the beginning, the Japanese in Peru had little choice but to cook Peruvian food but they began adding their own touches. For example, the Peruvian fishermen would throw the octopus away as they weren’t deemed edible, to which the Japanese would use their influence and incorporate these unwanted molluscs’s into the food.
Innovation and inspiration are the driving force at Aji and despite the accompaniments of Arroz Dulce (rice, edamame, bell pepper and cashew nuts) and Vegetales (snow peas, asparagus, bell pepper, carrot and cabbage) being relatively standard fare. The Udon Nikkei is a dish unlike anything else we’ve experienced and certainly acts as a piece of dinner theatre. The expected bowl of udon noodles arrived at the table but something was different. Flaked with tuna the dish was moving and apparently alive! The heat from the dish reacts with the flakes of tuna and give the impression of butterfly wings or perhaps the jerking movements of a praying mantis. Off-putting for our dining companion, we relished this unique touch that became one of many talking points regarding our dining experience at Aji (just to confirm the dish is not alive).
It’s difficult not to draw comparison with BU but similarly the desserts at Aji are very strong. The citrus inspired Yuzu Cheesecake is a beautifully plated dessert of mandarin and meringue and one that cleverly utilizes gyoza (Japanese dumpling wrappers) into proceedings. Looking more like a nacho tuile, the sweetened gyoza adds an additional crunch to cut through the creamy nature of the citrus based cheesecake.
The Sticky Rice was surprisingly the superior dish. With these Asian-inspired dishes usually being far too stodgy and milky for our liking. Here at Aji, the dessert is more like the traditional mango and sticky rice that you find on the streets of Thailand and topped with a crisp meringue, chia and coconut milk. The dessert is both delightful and refreshing.
The innovation and ‘out of the box’ thinking continues well into the cocktail menu. Crafted by a team of highly skilled mixologists, these ‘edible cocktails’ confirm the unsung fact that mixology is an art form. Wether you order then sea urchin shaped Summer In Hokkaido with its blend of champagne syrup, sake and sea urchin air (yes sea urchin air!) or the barmy Pina Ramen. A cocktail which arrives to the table like a bowl of ramen, complete with edible coconut noodles, clarified pineapple juice and banana infused rum. The very notion of a pina colada is turned upside down and becomes an edible treat quite unlike anything else.
Regular readers will know about our obsession with all things matcha. So you can only imagine our excitement regarding the Matcha Ceremony, a cocktail that’s made at the table, as though you’re partaking in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. A matcha and pear cryogenic ice powder is muddled together with pink ginger caviar and pear shochu using a whisk. As the thick mixture dilutes, the drinks moves from a soup to a tea like consitancy and has a nice fruity flavour, undercut by the subtleties of the earthy matcha.
Dining at Aji is a wonderful experience but we had just one minor criticism. Despite the efficient and friendly nature of the team, it appeared at times, as though they were unsure of the menu and the dishes presented to the table. Granted this is a new restaurant with an expansive menu and things are still bedding in, we just hope that in future visits the staff show more certainty and confidence as Aji is truly exceptional.
Dubai has once again hit us with a sucker punch between the eyes with the launch of Aji and the complex of Club Vista Mare. Dining here offers guests access to the wonderful stretch of sandy beach, complete with deck chairs and sun loungers, which in all honesty could be Dubai’s best kept secret.
Club Vista Mare is forging ahead with experimental cuisines, so wether it’s the fine dining Ethiopian concept at Gursha or the Nikkei Effect at Aji. We’re headed back again for brunch very soon and we suggest you do the same…
We were invited to dine at Aji. All views are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE.