Words: Will Stroude; Image: Steven Joyce
I can't be alone in thinking that there's sometimes such a thing as too much luxury when it comes to drinking and dining: an imperceptible point where attention-to-detail spills over into hoity-toity, slouching stuffiness.
When you're in this particular part of west London - Knightsbridge, to be exact - and visiting a gastronomical offering housed within a five-star hotel as used to catering to A-list movie stars in town for their latest press junket as it is to the more 'ordinary' among us, it's an anxiety that often comes with territory.
How refreshing it is then that The Aubrey London - the new Japanese-styled bar and restaurant tucked away in the corner of Mandarin Oriental - manages to balance exquisite service and culinary excellence with a suprisingly warm atmosphere and some genuine cool.
Oysters and Nigiri platter (Lateef Photography)
The Aubrey marks the UK debut of Maximal Concept, the Hong Kong group behind the award-winning Mott 32, John Anthony and the original Aubrey at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong.
Billed as 'eccentric izakaya' - izakaya being a Japanese term that loosely translates to 'pub' or 'drinking den' - this arresting new bar/restaurant hybrid replaces the long-running Bar Boulud (which closed during the pandemic) and seems well on its way to opening up this corner of Knightsbridge up to a more vibrant crowd.
Make no mistake, you won't be comparing The Aubrey to a typical gastro-boozer after laying eyes on its extravagant offering of signature cocktails and Japanese-inspired sharing plates, complete with succulent sushi platters and delicate Japanese osyters. This very much dining and drinking at its finest, but presented with enough verve and confidence to allow the experience flourish as much as the menu.
The Aubrey London bar (Image: Steven Joyce)
The beautifully-appointed space has been cleverly divided into five unique and characterful areas to create a sense of cosiness; from the 'curio lounge' to the 'library' to a smart wood-panelled bar if faster access to Bar Director Pietro Rizzo's cannily curated cocktails is top of your agenda.
Said cocktails are executed to perfection, with a lengthy list of classics complimented by a smaller seasonal offering centred around one ingredient (during this visit, the Japanese strawberry). A robust Volpone (Etsu Gin, Wasabi Liqueur, Citrus, Soap Bar) slipped down with ease while the Salome (Sake, Rice Shochu, Etsu Ocean Water, Tomtato Liqueur, Umani) achieved what a lifetime of Blood Marys couldn't in managing to successfully win my dining partner round to tomato-based tipple.
Salome cocktail (Image: Lateef Photography)
Chased with a robust Black Cat (Teeds Rum, Umeshu, Port Charlotte Whisky, Okinawa Sugar) - an Aubrey signature - and a spicily sweet Kikenji (Strawberry, Tequila Blanco, Chili Umeshu, Citrus, Red Perilla), the evening unfolded with a lively sense of self-indulgence, and while the price tag of around £20 per cocktail will might limit this izakaya to special occasions for most, there are plenty of spots in the capital you'd fork out not much less for something a fraction of the standard.
The food is as much of a talking point as the drinks, with The Aubrey treads the delicate balance between bar and restuarant experience with aplomb (aided by a buzzy and thankfully not overbearing soundtrack of Japanese trap, funk and disco). A punchy red caviar and ponzu sauce brought the aforementioned oysters to life and the Edomae sushi ranked as some of the best I've ever had, complete with a sprinkling of dried ants and miniature flowers to ensure an eye-widening anecdote for later.
Cauliflower Charcoal Karaage (Image: Lateef Photography)
The best was yet to come with more small plates of melt-in-the-mouth Saikyo Miso Sablefish, scorched Iberico Secreto Pork and succulent charcoal chicken karaage (also available with cauliflower); a cremated-looking dish that hiding moreish and tender fried chicken beneath. Even sides like red miso and shiso vinegar leeks were savoured like a delicacy. Only the Wagyu Oxtail and Bone Marrow Fried Rice defeated me, proving a little too rich for my palate.
It was all rounded off with a fluffy white miso soufflé. Perfectly baked and perfectly sized for sharing, it's an invention of The Aubrey that I'd be looking to repeat myself, if only it wasn't vastly more tempting to arrange a prompt return visit...