Review: Aya, Dubai: Is It Worth it?
Aya: Dubai’s Next Top Asian Restaurant?
Aya, 11 courses (including 3 bar snacks), 1 cocktail, 3 mocktails, 2 bottles sparkling water: AED1800 excluding service ($490, €442, £376). The Square, CityWalk by Meraas, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. +97143433330. @ayadxb_
Tasteful, restrained elegant decor
Strong bar menu tapas style
Superb Beef Wagyu Kushiyaki
Service is M.I.A many times
Eye-gougingly high prices
Aya, another Chef Izu venture
Aya is the latest venture by Dubai’s lauded Chef Izu; the prolific chef behind Carine (2018) and GAIA (2018). This does not account for other openings Izu Bakery in Dubai Mall (2018) and Izu Brasserie (2018) only moments away from Aya. Oh and lest we forget former forays at La Petit Maison (2010), still the darling of Dubai’s corporate expense accounts. My first engagement with Chef Izu came through La Serre (2012, a former partnership with Emaar Hospitality), which I maintain serves the best almond croissants this side of Paris. You are welcome to try to find one after 9 AM if you do not believe me.
So it seems that Chef Izu dances like the Fred Astair of Dubai’s Food Scene seldom putting a foot wrong. So would Aya become a delicious result after Chef Izu’s Asian research and tasting tour some years prior?
I follow in the tasteful footsteps of David who both reviewed Aya earlier. I live for his musings like a ravenous food groupie.
Is Aya Entering a Crowded Field?
A swift online search on TripAdvisor suggests there are 220 Japanese restaurants servicing Dubai with chilled sashimi, maki rolls and – of course – wagyu everything. Dubai loves wagyu. The overpriced cat food my vet insists I buy for my three ungrateful (but adorable) rescue cats is likely – minimum – grade 9+ wagyu.
Dubai’s busy landscape is replete with cheap, mid-tier and fine dining Japanese food. Notably, Reif Othman opened what I would argue was 2019’s talk of the town Reif’s Japanese Kushiyaki. Admittedly, I do not consider Reif’s Japanese Kushiyaki as fine dining. However, it certainly brings the sophisticated sensibility that comes with years of working in such spaces. Nobu and Morimoto also offer high-end Japanese dining on coupled with powerhouse names or brands. So Aya will need to bring something special to stand out (and stay open).
Aya: First Impressions
Aya’s Bar Menu Highlights
The bar food menu is a strong selection of tapas-style dishes and maki rolls ranging from AED25 to AED175 (US$7, €6, £5 to US$48, €43, £37). The bar menu offers generously offers 27 items at varying price points which affords diners a proper insight into the kitchen’s concept and technical ability. The diverse menu results in seven sushi maki options, a wagyu katsu sando (AED150, $41, €37, £31), Spanish octopus (AED175, US$47, €43, £37), Korean Fried Chicken (AED70, US$19, €17, £13) and satay beef skewers (AED55, US$, €13, £12). I notice five vegetarian items are featured on the menu including spicy grilled corn (AED65, US$18, €16, £14) and padron peppers (AED60, US$16, €15, £13). Curious that shishito peppers are not sold (or described as such).
The half dozen octopus “takoyaki” croquettes were the standout dish (AED85, US$23, €21, £18). Impossibly crunchy croquettes collapse bursting with white modest cubes of well-cooked octopus bathed in a creamy emulsion. The stack of crusted croquettes is sparingly dressed in takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise with a generous shaving of bonito. It is mildly salty, abundantly creamy but, importantly, just sheer pleasure. You should make it a priority.
A quintet of short rib beef gyozas with a truffle-infused dip (AED80, US$22, €20, £17) arrive laid asymmetrically over a thin leaf and stone plate. The pan-fried gyozas are a tad dry making the dipping sauce necessary. I prefer the beef gyozas at Reif Japanese Kushiyaki which come in a pool of sweet soy and spring onion oil. Aya’s gyozas would also benefit from this serving style as, perhaps, they would retain moisture from the marinade.
The spicy salmon maki rolls (AED60, US$16, €15, £13) is another quintet of mouthful portions served on a board with pickled ginger and a verdant blob of wasabi. The snappy topping brings the kind of crunchy texture which Mrs EatGoSee enjoys but is not accompanying me on this occasion. I do enjoy these and they remind me of similar maki rolls I have eaten in the city
I spurned alcohol during the month of January (#DryJanuary). This was sorely tested during my time at the bar. The courteous, imaginative team pulled together a memorable selection of mocktails including a pomelo and sriracha mocktail with a sea salt rim. This zesty, sweet and liquid fire elixir is both delicious and perilously close to becoming my daily morning tonic. Aya’s yuzu and cucumber mocktail is eye-popping refreshing.
Aya’s Bar Experience Overall
You could easily come to Aya’s bar simply to enjoy the environs, the competitively priced cocktail menu and indulge in the considered bar snack menu. This would be an affordable way to enjoy Aya and move on. You would however miss the main menu highlights.
The bartenders collect our drinks and usher us towards the main dining room. The dining room is a brilliant, luminous space with textured brick walls that remind me of scenes in the Greek islands. The walls rise towards the ceiling’s large artsy feature: a heap of paper-like curls folding woven into each other. It brings character to a capacious dining room and complements the white tablecloths, chairs and elegance. Smart blue-grey chairs and the shiny wooden back bar bring warmth into the room. Oversized white blossoming cherry trees are gracefully adorned in red flags dangling like messages from a tree.
There is a soothing tranquillity here inviting you to stay for hours in this secluded sanctuary removed from the bustling pedestrianised CityWalk. You will however notice some outside noise if you sit closer to the windows.
A partitioned private dining room lies adjacent to the stretched open plan kitchen. This piqued my interest as a cosy corner of the restaurant that you should seriously consider for corporate entertainment or intimate group get-togethers.
Aya’s Restaurant Menu
The main menu of 69 items divides into soups (AED35-50), mezze (AED25-145), buns (AED80-150), rolls (AED45-80), “raw and rice” (AED60-335), josperyaki (AED160-420), mains (AED175-280) and sides (AED55-60). The separate dessert menu features nine options (AED15-120). The bar menu mostly replicates the mezze list. I counted 14 vegetarian items on the menu; however, none within the main or josperyaki options. Nonetheless, vegetarians will find plenty to eat between the mezze and sides.
Aya’s Main Menu Highlights
The wagyu beef kushiyaki with barbecue glaze, chimichurri and crumbled pistachio is stand out star (AED420, $114, €103, £88). A slender glossy plate slides across our table. The service removes a skewer so effortlessly as to foreshadow just how good this will be. Glossy, wafer-thin ribbons of beef stretch apart like meaty accordion bellows. It’s glistening with juice and glaze cooked medium, as requested. Our table descends into quiet only punctured by audible groans of approval and appreciation. The unctuous wagyu is bolstered by the spice and sweetness of the barbecue glaze. The accompanying side dish of chimichurri is a welcomed friend whose presence is pleasant if not strictly necessary. The superfluous truffle sauce is notably omitted from the menu. Jewels of pistachio crumb anointing the beef is a feast for the eyes but undetectable when eaten. Still, this is really good cooking. Being frank, this might be one of the best steaks I’ve had in Dubai period. You would hope so at this price point.
The josperyaki section lists the smoked lobster with pickled ginger, beurre blanc and caviar arrives in at a pearl-clutching AED400 (US$109, €98, £84). A whole lobster arrives cooked, tail and claw meat separated and re-assembled into this crustaceans scarlet shell. The team here achieves the balance dancing on a knife-edge. In the hands of amateurs, the subtle purr of lobster would be lost in rich sauces and salty caviar pops. A humm of smokiness whispers in the background without taking over. It’s rich eating and clearly a dish intended to be shared within a group.
I confess I know very little about Japanese or Asian food (in-depth) but I have a minor quibble (to which I will return). I am sceptical of the origins of this dish. I sense that Chef Izu is drawing upon his years of cooking in European Michelin kitchens. This dish would look more at home in Carine or, in his old haunt, La Petit Maison.
If you are only in the market for one AED300+ dish, I recommend the wagyu kushiyaki over the lobster. You should nonetheless stare longingly at the table that orders the smoked lobster with giant glossy terrier-like eyes hoping they will slip you a piece off their table.
Brown Butter Ice Cream
This will be a divisive dish especially when ice cream is available for AED15 (US$4, €4, £3) and this is dish sells for AED120 (US$33, €29, £25). Is the brown butter ice cream eight times better than the baseline scoop? I guess I will never know as we decided to go large (then go home after coffees). Still, the silky, pale taupe brown butter ice cream with olive oil and hazelnut crumble is the kind of curl-up-on-the-sofa joy I would devour mindlessly on the weekend while absorbing Netflix. A spoon falls through this considerable, heaped portion (also clearly intended for sharing) with zero resistance. The olive oil and hazelnut crumble adds delicious texture and boosts the oily nuttiness in the brown butter.
Aya’s Other Dishes
Overall I have two observations about Aya’s menu.
Without a doubt, the stars of the show truly shine offering excellent cooking served with thought and care. The capability of the kitchen is without question. Yes, Izu strikes again.
It is not however a flawless experience. My two lingering doubts start with the questionable Asian origins of some dishes as remarked earlier.
My minor quibble about the smoked lobster is building resonance as the dessert menu is largely absent of discernible Asian influence. Even our standout dessert could sit comfortably on a number of European menus. Yes, there is a token Japanese cheesecake with caramel and bergamot cream (AED55, US$, €13, £12). A trick is missed here. Where are the wagashi “petit fours”? Where are sata andagi-inspired doughnuts for a market with an insatiable appetite for loqaimat drenched in date syrup? Even an eye-rolling shoehorn of matcha panna cotta could substitute the passion fruit and mango panna cotta (AED55, US$, €13, £12). It would be a cap tipped in the right direction. I look forward to seeing the dessert menu reimagined in order to lean into the concept more.
My second observation is that the stars of the show brighten the blemishes elsewhere. Noticeable faults made me question if dishes came from the same kitchen. The issue is a lack of overall harmony or unclear purpose. The kitchen can afford to cut a few extraneous items in a menu as large as this one.
Braised short rib bun and Seabass ceviche
The braised short rib bun is a steamed bao, yakiniku and pickled carrots (AED150, $41, €37, £31) offers delicious cubes of barbecued beef wonderfully soft and moorish. Oddly this dish is presented deconstructed which furrows brows are the table. Baos in Dubai at a third of the price may not be as good but they are, at least, assembled.
This seabass ceviche with coconut ponzu and crispy quinoa (AED105, $29, €26, £22) is a pretty dish of pastel pink like a coral reef in full bloom. The toasted quinoa is inspired by adding some bite. Yet, the coconut sweetness overpowers the delicate raw fish as the dominant taste. I think you’d be hard pressed to identify that there was fish in the dish yet alone seabass if you are not told. Reif Japanese Kushiyaki’s seabass ceviche with sweet soy and yellow pepper chutney with toasted quinoa is more balanced (and half the price).
Sweet potato mash
The sweet potato mash (AED55, US$, €13, £12) side dish is divisive. A pretty humble bowl of Thanksgiving sweetness courtesy of the maple sriracha woven through. The dish is then topped with toasted hazelnuts, almond flakes and pumpkin seeds. It is a little bowl of Christmas but unsure how it sits with the rest of the courses. It did not work well with either the lobster nor the wagyu (despite coming recommended). However, the broccoli side dish worked very well.
Aya’s service is a mixed blessing. The waiters were always well informed of the menu and each course. They invited restraint when we became over-enthusiastic and underestimated both the portion sizes and the richness of certain dishes. They want you to enjoy your time. I admire their counsel that “less is more” instead of allowing customers to embark on a folly of overordering. Too often I eat out in Dubai only for the waiter (who is trained accordingly) to ask if I want more luring me into a revenue maximisation plot.
We did have (at times, great) difficulty getting the attention of the service. The bartenders made for lifeguards instructing the floor staff that attention was needed. This is striking for a few reasons. The restaurant was mostly empty for most of our 2.5-hour stay, which means they were not busy. Aya has an open floor plan without obstacles to obstruct the view. Importantly and, lest we forget, it is a fine dining restaurant where service a significant factor in the experience.
I recommend that the restaurant turns its attention to this issue soon. This could easily be a reflection of the rather recent opening date.
Aya: Other Dishes
Aya, Would I Return?
The main restaurant is enjoyable, especially in the mains. I am somewhat confused as to why low-priced dishes do not climb the heights of the pricier items. Conversely, the mezze dishes are mixed but directionally positive. There seems to be room for pruning some of the collectively 78 items listed between the main menu and dessert menu.
Lastly, I would in courage to the kitchen to lean into the Asian concept in the dessert menu.
Who Should Go to Aya?
Couples celebrating anniversaries, corporate expense accounts, chef Izu devotees and buzz chasers.