A relaxed atmosphere and refined Japanese fare need not be mutually exclusive. Chef de cuisine Yukihito Tomiyama tells Natsuki Arita why The Aubrey marks the beginning of a new era of dining
After 14 years of French fine dining under the helm of the renowned Pierre Gagnaire, the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong’s 25th floor has a new tenant. The Aubrey, a collaboration between the hotel and F&B group Maximal Concepts, is a stark departure from the sleek neutral dining space of yore thanks to an electrifying blend of colour, light, tapestries and traditional wooden furniture.
On paper, this absurd mix-and-match shouldn’t work – yet, somehow, it does. Forest-green drop ceilings reveal a garden of ferns over the bar. Gold accents and glass light fixtures glimmer against simple Japanese wooden dividers. Even the traditional Japanese artwork hung on tapestries along the walls serve to accentuate the richly coloured velvet seats.
But what’s most intriguing about this glamorous izakaya is not what’s happening in the dining room but who and what’s happening in the kitchen. At the centre of it all is chef de cuisine and skilled sushi master Yukihito Tomiyama, a Tochigi-born master chef and advocate of traditional Japanese fare.
Having worked in several revered sushi restaurants in Hong Kong and Japan, Tomiyama is well aware of the weight of responsibility that comes with taking over the legendary Pierre space. “What The Aubrey has to offer is quite a departure and is so different,” he admits. “But we hope that our guests and maybe some old guests from Pierre will appreciate the new experience we have to offer.” He adds that fans of Pierre might be happy to know that they were able to keep the same pastry chef from the Pierre culinary team.
But don’t be mistaken; Tomiyama has his sights set firmly on the future and fulfilling his mission to inject new energy and deliver diners a unique and contemporary way to enjoy fine Japanese cooking and craftsmanship.
“In many ways this feels like the beginning of a new era of dining,” he says. “I’m deeply honoured to be a part of its history.”
Like its traditional Japanese counterparts, The Aubrey aims to create the quintessential izakaya atmosphere characterised by breezy conversation, good company and the sound of laughter echoing well into the night. “That is what a true izakaya is: somewhere to enjoy drinks and food with good friends,” Tomiyama says.
Izakaya began to emerge in Japan’s Edo period, when sake merchants started pairing modest snacks with samples of their alcohol as a marketing tactic. Gradually, men of the Edo period started to spend more and more nights at the izakaya unwinding, chatting and letting go of their worldly burdens.
Today, the average izakaya is frequented by all ages and genders for the exact same reasons. Most offer the mainstays of Japanese cuisine such as yakitori (skewered chicken), karaage (fried chicken), sashimi, rice and noodle dishes, and other regional delicacies. Where The Aubrey departs from tradition in its refined calibre of ingredients and beverages that are practically unseen in Japanese izakaya, let alone izakaya in Hong Kong.
Tomiyama and his team allow each ingredient to speak for itself, nothing less and nothing more. Every oyster on The Aubrey Oyster platter is topped generously with uni, caviar or tobiko for a new take on the classic oyster and champagne combo. Another favourite is the white miso souffle, a playful textural experience that surprises diners with its blend of sweet and savoury.
“It’s a very rarefied experience,” Tomiyama says of the enticing dichotomy of down-to-earth comfort and luxurious fine dining. “It’s an interesting mix of two feelings: relaxed but refined.”
When Maximal Concepts and the Mandarin Oriental sat down with Tomiyama and his team, they were able to conjure a backstory that drew attention to the location for the then-to-be restaurant. “We came up with this idea of ‘the journey of a hungry mind,’” the chef says. “It relates to the idea of travel and how people become inspired when they travel to different countries and experience different cultures.”
The concept runs down to the roots of the entire establishment. The Aubrey’s cocktail menu, for example, embodies the idea of mixing cultures and tastes in beverages such as the Queen’s Gimlit – a tart blend of Roku gin, citrus, chamomile and cardamom inspired by the classic game of chess, which originated in India – and an extensive selection of Champagne, sake and original cocktails.
Indeed, every aspect of The Aubrey is designed with culture, whimsy, design and, of course, taste in mind. Anyone who walks through its doors is sure to come back for more.