Monday, November 27, 2017

Treat Yourself: Go Zen Boxes at Aqua Kyoto

Okay, so bad news: for various boring reasons I won't get into, we had to cancel our trip to Hong Kong and Japan this Christmas.

I know.

As a consolation prize for not being able to enjoy yakitori in tiny Tokyo diners and watch snow monkeys take dips in Sapporo onsens, I ditched my usual al desko lunch at work to try the new Go Zen boxes at Aqua Kyoto instead.

Located centrally (and conveniently!) near Oxford Circus, Aqua Kyoto is one of four London restaurants owned by the Aqua Restaurant Group; the other three being Aqua Nueva (home to contemporary Spanish cuisine), Aqua Shard (the stunning restaurant perched on Level 31 of the Shard), and Hutong (which I wrote about here).

Executive Chef Paul Greening designed the Go Zen boxes, taking inspiration from the traditional Japanese "go zen" cuisine (which typically consists of a selection of small dishes accompanied by rice and soup). Aqua Kyoto calls it an "elevated version of the bento box" - I call it one of the prettiest (and tastiest!) lunches I've ever experienced.

But first ...

We tried Aqua Kyoto's spinach salad, which is prepared at your table (with impressive flair) and served with toasted sesame seeds and a Japanese goma dressing, made of sesame paste, sanoto sugar (Japanese light brown sugar), organic gluten-free tamari and kombu dashi (seaweed stock) - a magical, delicate combination of ingredients. Despite its popularity on the menu, I was dubious about this humble-looking spinach salad - could it be a gimmick, I wondered? But peanut dressing was so moreish (not overly rich or cloying), I found myself absentmindedly helping myself to second, third, and fourth portions as I chatted with my friend Christina.

(It's one of those dishes where you get down to the last bite and look shyly at the other person, saying, "Go for it, it's all yours", while secretly hoping they'll say, "I couldn't - I'm too full" and then helping yourself!)

But there wasn't much time to deliberate over who'd get that last bite, because our Go Zen boxes appeared: the Kyoto Go Zen for me (12 "compartments" priced at £38, although a smaller version consisting of 6 compartments is available for £25) and the Shojin Go Zen for Christina - a vegan box (£29) which was just as beautifully presented as the Kyoto Go Zen and with - dare I say - even more interesting and innovative ingredients (kimchee was topped with nuka pearls, designed to resemble salmon roe. This (the kimchee) Korean touch was most welcomed, adding a bit of heat and excitement).

I listened attentively as Head Sous Chef Ken introduced each "compartment" to us, but really I was finding it difficult not to tuck into the Wagyu bavette, glazed with mustard teriyaki.

Amongst my favorites were the chawan mushi (a savoury steamed egg pudding, which I usually love eating with a hot bowl of sticky white rice), the gindara saikyo yaki (tender black cod cured in den miso for three days before being grilled), the classic tamago (Japanese omelette), and finally the rock shrimp tempura coated in a chilli garlic umami sauce.

Christina's vegan Shojin box looked equally delicious, particularly the kenji rolls (daikon, asparagus, avocado, white enoki mushrooms, with a daikon and ginger dressing), vegetarian sushi rolls (wrapped in mango and cranberry "skins"), and the sweet potato tempura.

And just when I thought I couldn't eat any more, a fresh-from-the-wok bowl full of green tea soba noodles appeared on the table - and I could have eaten this for days. Handmade by Chef Paul Greening, the flavor of these noodles reminded me of the yakisoba I miss from my favorite Japanese restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. It had a certain homemade taste, which is quite an achievement for any large restaurants such as Aqua Kyoto. Tossed with edamame, Japanese mushrooms, onion teriyaki and tamago, it's a dish I'd order again next time I'm in the restaurant.

And with these Go Zen boxes on the menu? It's likely that I'll be back soon.

Huge thanks to Aqua Kyoto for hosting me! My beautiful and delicious lunch was complimentary. All opinions are my own. The new Go Zen boxes are available for lunch from 12 pm - 2:30 pm, Monday - Friday. Book a table here.

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