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Japanese food goes global at this buzzy, brash new lounge in Soho

Timothy Barber
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Aqua Kyoto
Fifth floor, 240 Regent Street, W1B 3BR
020 7478 0540, www.aqua.com.hk

Cost per person without wine: £42

AQUA KYOTO is a Japanese restaurant opened by a Chinese company, sharing its space with a Spanish restaurant – and it feels like something from brash and showy Los Angeles. Tucked up on the top floor of a building overlooking Soho with sleek tapas-themed Aqua Nueva and cocktail bar Aqua Spirit, it’s one third of an attempt by Hong Kong restaurateur – and former Credit Suisse lawyer – David Yeo to shake things up with some design-heavy glitz. And in a shallow sort of way, Aqua Kyoto is rather fun.

First you have to find it though, and it doesn’t help that the address says Regent Street but the entrance is on Argyll Street, halfway between Oxford Circus and Liberty. Nor does the fact that said entrance is a dark, anonymous lobby, empty save for a lift and a suave bloke to point you towards it. The lift whizzes you up to the top floor of what was once, for anybody who can remember such things, the Dickins & Jones department store. It spills you out into another shadowy reception area where an army of spectacularly-sculpted robo-babes (if they’re human, they don’t show it) will ask you whether you’re here for tapas, sushi or a cocktail, before leading you towards whichever you chose.

We decided on option “B”, sushi, but not before a stop-off at option “C”. The Aqua Spirit bar is smart and dark (that’s a bit of a theme) and loud, with booths to one side lined with patterned silk rolls, and a grand, circular black cocktail bar in the middle. It was mobbed by flashy folk in suits and high heels when we visited.

The centrepiece of Aqua Kyoto is a sunken kitchen where the chefs slice and dice away beneath a huge, circular Japanese lantern that dangles above them dramatically. You can eat at the bar surrounding the kitchen if you want, or head to one of the moodily-lit tables that fan outwards between walls of black lacquer and luminescent red panels. There are some glass-walled private dining spaces too, and at the back the door opens onto an impressively large terrace. For the time being it’s the smokers who get to patronise the tables and chairs out here while enjoying the lit-up view over the West End, but this should be a peach of a spot come summer.

BIT OF HOLLYWOOD
Back inside, the menu has many options, with sections including soups and salads, hot dishes large and small, noodles, charcoal grill, sushi, sashimi, tempura, rolls and mixed platters, and where to dive in can be a bit of a conundrum. We began with some thickly-cut salmon, tuna and yellow-tail sashimi which wasn’t the tastiest I’ve had, but king crab tempura following it was delicious. A prawn, scallop and mushroom soup, served in a little teapot, was smoky and aromatic, and fat tranches of charcoal-seared salmon served on a steaming hot stone slab were suitably theatrical. We followed that with juicy little strips of grilled beef topped with a sweet mustard sauce, before finishing with some tuna sushi rolls dressed with a wasabi sauce that stung and satisfied equally.

The portions are big and chunky and the presentation imaginative, if hardly dainty. This isn’t high Japanese dining in the Nobu sense, but it’s enjoyable nevertheless. Normally I’d go spare trying to eat with electronic music pumping in the background, but at Aqua Kyoto it makes sense. The place isn’t subtle, it may not even be tasteful, but it’s a smart attempt at bringing a bit of Hollywood – or Hong Kong, or wherever – razzmatazz to London, and it deserves to do well.

IN A NUTSHELL:
While it veers towards style over content, this is a vibrant place with good Japanese food and a glitzy atmosphere. A good spot for cocktail-drenched fun, rather than serious dining.