Sitting down for dinner at The Aubrey, I’m told by a waiter that the restaurant is an ode to “the laidback izakayas of Japan, the country’s answer to relaxed eateries like pubs.”
I’ve visited Japan and can attest that izakayas are indeed a bit like pubs. I ate at one in Shinjuku, Tokyo, where men stood alone at plain wooden dining benches drinking whisky mixed with sparkling water. One sent over fried prawns on sticks and nodded at me, smiling and gesturing as they arrived. It was the best type of communication we could muster. At another, we sat underground, amid thick clouds of cigarette smoke, as businessmen ordered what was essentially Japanese fast food from digital at-table ordering screens late at night.
At The Aubrey, the newly-opened venue downstairs in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, I’m pretty sure I’m in a supremely luxurious restaurant rather than an izakaya. My guest confirms that we are and that I’m not losing my marbles.
Also confirming my belief are salmon-hued sofas, original 18th century apothecary illustrations and paintings in three parts, spanning entire walls and depicting Japanese vistas which take me anywhere but where I can see out of my window: the ground floor shopping space at Harvey Nichols across the road.
This is a creative take on an izakaya, but I’m not entirely displeased. The dining room feels well balanced, offsetting the world outside with a Japanese trap music playlist and curious artefacts, leaving the place cosy without feeling cramped.
I’m sad that the likelihood of being grinned at and bought food by a friendly Japanese man feels low, but I hope the payoff is better quality food. Everything is designed to share, and inspired by classical Japanese cooking techniques of Edomae sushi, Tempura and Robata.
We start with sushi. In izakayas, much like in the rest of Japan, sushi is served on a warm bed of rice, and the fish is room temperature too. In the Mandarin Oriental’s izakaya the sushi is westernised and mostly unremarkable, save for some richly fatty seabass, one with caviar and a strong, minty shiso leaf which counteracted the intensity elsewhere and a final provocateur: yellowtail tuna with ants, sacrificed atop the fish to give a citrus kick.
My guest texts the following morning: “Flossed out another bit of insect.”
Oysters are teensy-tiny but burst like neat little mouthfuls of sea, and topped with chili daikon and ponzu, feel authentic. For mains, Iberico Secreto Pork is a mesmerising discovery. Sliced into ambitiously chunky slices, they could easily have strolled across the finish line to beat naughties favourite sweets Juicy Fruits to lift the trophy for most mouth-smackingly juicy food on the planet.
Dishes arrived one or two at a time, a refreshing response to the usual ‘all at once’ narrative of sharing plates which always feels like being short-changed. Next was Saikyo Miso Sablefish, dramatically singed on top, which had a sweet, textured crunch from the miso to offset the depths of pillowy sablefish.
A Wagyu Oxtail and bone marrow fried rice came with marrow in-bone – it was good fun to scrape that into the densely fried rice myself, the meat adding a gorgeous fattiness to the already-rich rice. The bone marrow cleverly melts into the dish, leaving behind its challenging look and inserting invisible trails of boisterous flavour in the rice, as decadent as stirring honey into porridge. It’s all balanced out by a welcome plate of oily leeks with red miso and shiso vinegar.
Wine is from around the world but it feels great to pair food with countless iterations of saki, all from Japan. We also couldn’t get enough of a German pinot noir succulent enough with red berry flavours to almost pip the robata pork to the ‘juiciest ever’ trophy.
It’s a shame the restaurant is dedicated to Aubrey Beardsley, an 18th century British artist with a penchant for Japan, rather than a Japanese person. But I suppose that theme suits: the food at this opulent, dimly-lit izakaya with rolling sofas to while away hours on feels designed for the British palate. It’s not risk-taking, but it is good.
The Aubrey is a new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental, Knightsbridge