London’s oriental restaurant scene has a new puritan streak. Half a mile from Chinatown, the city’s ‘Japan Street’ has gained a new gastronomic flagship in the shape of Gary Yau’s Aaya. Hatched by the same dynasty that brought us Hakkasan and Yauatcha (owned by Yau’s brother Alan), it is little surprise that equal attention has been lavished on the design as the cuisine.
Aaya’s £2.2m interior is the work of David Archer Architects, with David Archer being a collaborator with the Yau family since he helped create Hakkasan in 2001, working for Jestico & Whiles.
Aaya is introducing an unembellished version of Japanese cuisine to a fusion-dominated scene. With so many eastern design cues to choose from, Yau deliberately eschews the pop-cultural avant-garde embraced by Tokyo dining culture. Instead, he has settled on the tranquil nature of historic Kyoto wooden temples, shot through with modernising accents of glamour that nod to Ginza’s opulent fashion boutiques.
The concept made sense to Archer, who sees those twinkling Tokyo flagships as ‘today’s equivalent of religious buildings in terms of the level of investment and the service of the dress by the architecture’.
The expectation of drama is set by the huge oak door, crafted with inlaid marquetry in a geometric floral pattern. Yet inside, while craft details play a strong supporting role, most attention has been paid to the balance of geometry, light and space.
Set over two floors, the main ground-floor restaurant boasts the open proportions of a traditional Japanese lodge, with a long bar that runs the length of one side. A statement staircase then descends to a more dramatic, intimate basement. Here, the key feature is a 10m-long sushi bar, inset below ground level so that diners can watch the tantalising art of food preparation at eye level.
It is lighting that plays the key role in defining and creating Aaya’s ambience.
‘I wanted to play around with different expressions of transparency, to create the vertical shutters of historic buildings, but expressed in light rather than wood,’ Archer explains.
In a system of wall panels, lines of LEDs are cleverly interspersed with ribbed, tinted glass to emulate the vertical banding seen in the partitions and screens of traditional Japanese wooden temples. These panes are set within hardwood timber frames, as it seemed ‘smart to experiment with glazing effects in the context of traditional Japanese joinery,’ says Archer.
Behind the ribbed glass and LEDs, bronze mirrors refract a subtle glow, and around the staircase this interplay comes into spectacular effect, summoning the glamour of a Tokyo boutique. This combination of different materials has the effect that ‘the layers of glazing are alive, and as you move around they change continually,’ says Archer.
There is little structural intervention in the light-oak-clad dining room, and all the bespoke oak furniture, designed by Barber Osgerby, is clustered into convivial groups beneath a low sightline in this high-ceilinged space. Crafted from the same light oak veneer as the walls, the furniture merges seamlessly into the space, its pared-back leather upholstery exuding trademark Barber Osgerby class.
It is a calming environment, thanks to a judicious use of textures and tonal harmony that Archer describes as a ‘sensuous exploration of materiality’.
The one opulent touch is the glow from the glass-topped slate bar, setting off the otherwise diffuse lighting. On the ceiling, a fretwork of dark tatami mats provides another dramatic focal point.
The geometry of the architectural scheme is expertly carried through all the features, emphasising its typically Japanese tranquil aspect.
The 140-cover restaurant has two distinct personalities. Upstairs, the restaurant feels well-mannered, while in the basement the drama is heightened, with a dark backdrop of walls with stencil decoration and large lampshades of commissioned silk, based on a kimono design hanging above the sushi bar. It is here that the exotic influences come out to play, in the service of the perfectly presented food. There is an element of performance here, with the design setting a theatrical backdrop for Aaya’s sushi masters at work. Yet the whole place retains an easy-going air – cocktails are served in clear plastic beakers and diners feast with disposable wooden chopsticks.
A great deal of humility is presented in this luxurious interior, a winning combination that evolves the experience of Japanese dining in London, just as Hakkasan did for Chinese.
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