An Inside Look at The Aubrey, Hong Kong's Most Glamorous Izakaya
In the wood-panelled spaces of The Aubrey, ukiyo-e woodblock prints mingle with Victorian pencil portraits and Belle Époque furniture, all burnished with the muted glow of Tiffany stained glass lamps—a tableau that could easily have been plucked from a salon in 1880s Paris. It's somewhat of a shock, therefore, when looking out the window, your gaze is met with the geometric futurism of the Hong Kong skyline from 25 floors up. Despite the cognitive dissonance, The Aubrey's home on the top level of Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong writes another chapter in the hotel's—and by extension Hong Kong's—story of cultural exchange.
Dubbed an "eccentric izakaya", The Aubrey is a paean to Japonisme, a cultural movement that swept Europe in the latter half of the 19th century following Japan's forced reopening from its self-imposed centuries of isolation in 1858. In the ensuing years, European travellers and merchants brought back examples of Japanese art, porcelain, curios and photographic documentation of people and architecture, sparking a frenzy among artists such as Van Gogh and Degas for all things oriental.
That fervour is manifested in The Aubrey's impressive 140-strong art collection—much of which was procured through auctions—as well as the food and beverage programmes. The culinary side of the equation is headed by veteran chef Yukihito Tomiyama, formerly of Michelin-starred Shinji by Kanesaka, who has curated a menu of Edomae-style sushi and sashimi, alongside robata (charcoal grill), tempura, and elevated izakaya dishes.
Despite his traditional background, Tomiyama's creative flair comes through in creations that flip established culinary conventions on their head, namely nigiri sushi sprinkled with ants, potato salad topped with Oscietra caviar, and savoury white miso soufflé. "Although the izakaya is regarded in Japan as an ordinary place for locals to go, at The Aubrey, we wanted to leverage the comfort food of the izakaya and elevate it with a touch of luxury," explains Tomiyama.
Meanwhile, mixologist Devender Sehgal is the talent responsible for The Aubrey's triumvirate of bars. A familiar face within the bar scene, Sehgal spent six years running the cocktail programme at three-Michelin-starred 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana—his tenure coincided with the establishment's four-year streak on Asia's 50 Best Bars. At The Aubrey, Sehgal's approach taps into the ephemerality that drives the Japanese gastronomic zeitgeist, apparent in three cocktails based on a core ingredient that changes with the seasons—the opening salvo is dedicated to the Japanese strawberry in all its crimson glory.
These rub shoulders with a more permanent selection of chess-themed libations—in keeping with The Aubrey's ethos of cultural exchange, the age-old game was chosen for its history spanning India, Persia and Europe—as well as a dependable list of refined whisky highballs and chu-hais (essentially, shochu highballs) that are a cornerstone of modern Japanese drinking culture. "What we have done here is that we are bringing two cultures together from the East and the West that merge into what becomes The Aubrey," explains Sehgal of the culturally peripatetic host of influences that the cocktails draw upon.
The restaurant itself opens up like a treasure box, slowly unveiling itself in titillating fashion. Guests enter via a foyer and through a Japanese noren curtain, arriving in the main bar area replete with a four-seat omakase cocktail counter, where Sehgal and his team curate a journey of the spirits against the backdrop of The Aubrey's sizeable Japanese whisky collection. Around the corner, the atmosphere transitions into that resembling a garden, as lush greenery, mirrored walls and hand-painted frescoes vie for space with cabinets chock full of curious. At the far side of this space is an oyster and sparkling sake bar, and behind it, a private dining room that holds a framed portrait of the restaurant's namesake: 19th-century English writer and illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, who in his short life became one of the earliest proponents of Japonisme.
As Hong Kong's fortunes continue to shift, The Aubrey's presence, and the all-enveloping microcosm of whimsy within it, is a timely reminder of the value in creating a place where cultures meet, where something entirely new can blossom.