The latest high profile eating place in town is ai, serving contemporary Japanese food. It is an excellent option whether you have a conservative palate or are looking for just another glitzy place to party with a few oriental-inspired snacks thrown in. Yet, there’s enough talent in the kitchen should you want a completely unique, world-class experience.
Although ai’s area is vast, the restaurant itself is mid-sized and includes a bar area with a separate entrance. The terrace garden is enormous and is peppered with grill and sushi stations — expect this to be one of the city’s more happening party places.
Inside the restaurant, the vegetarian menu is a masterpiece. It features ingredients that exist in Japan, yet in completely innovative ways. Take for example rice paper pouches (Rs 299). They consist of Japanese pickles diced fine and blended with a creamy sesame dressing before being popped into edible rice paper. The other irresistible vegetarian starter is burnt lotus leaf wrapped banana blossom (Rs 399), created specially (and skillfully) for an Indian audience. You can choose to peel off the crisp lotus leaf that has a smoky flavour, or eat the whole little morsel with a mayo-like dip, but the idea of combining mashed sweet potato with banana flower is an inspired one.
The same, alas, cannot be said for seaweed and daikon salad (Rs 499), which has less than a teaspoon of seaweed and a mountain of vegetables. Even the so-called plum dressing recedes into the background. It is unfortunate, because ai uses umeboshi or Japanese pickled plum to outstanding effect in some of its other plates.
I sampled an off-the-menu pan-seared foie gras with mirin, soy and sugar with an assertive, tongue-tingling umeboshi dip and was captivated. The dish was being tried out as a prospective offering on the party menu. I loved it for the interplay of rich and sweet versus sharp and refreshing, and for the innovativeness behind it.
Whatever you do, don’t miss ai’s scallops, in whatever form you care for them. They are by far the best quality-wise than anything else in the city. Also, they are the only place to serve arc-shell sashimi: an unmissable treat for its texture and flavour. The kami nabe (Rs 799) is a treat for its presentation: a soup with chicken and fish served in a fire-resistant paper container with a flame below. Avoid some of the vegetarian tempuras: the white asparagus is too slippery to make a good tempura, the enoki mushrooms do not make an impact; only the shishito peppers are superb.