The Epicurean's Atlas: AIDA
ADDRESS 1 rue Pierre-Leroux, Paris, 75007, France
O n a narrow side street in Paris’s elegant 7th arrondissement, in a narrow dining room set behind a discreet koshi lattice screen, Chef Koji Aida stands before a nine-seat counter, ready to welcome the few guests each evening who have been fortunate enough to reserve an omakase experience at his namesake restaurant. As many of us have learned from dining at sushi bars, omakase means “chef’s choice,” and although pristine raw fish will most likely make an appearance during the evening, this chef belongs to a different Japanese culinary tradition.
He specialises in what is known as kappo – the “cut and serve” cuisine of a dedicated chef tending to a few people seated at a counter, like the one at Aida. Such restaurants bring guests closer to the action of cooking, allowing them to interact with the chef to better appreciate the precision and intentionality that goes into assembling the dishes that make up a multi-course meal. Chef Aida changes his menu daily and according to the preferences of the diner, but he may start with veal sashimi en gelée or an itame (stir fry) of abalone and morels. He will arrange cold potato noodles over sticky okra sauce in a lovely porcelain dish, tempura-fry white asparagus and sea bass, or stud a savoury flan with bits of lobster. He may prepare a medley of seasonal vegetables that suggests a regional specialty from his home of Niigata.
Aida grew up in a family that ran a traditional ryokan inn and restaurant. At the age of 20, he travelled to Paris for the first time and experienced what he termed a coup de foudre, that bolt-out-of-the-blue feeling so many get from a first visit to the City of Light. He studied French in the Loire Valley, then returned to Japan for five years to study cooking. He resettled in Paris in 1997, and spent the next few years working his way through French and Japanese restaurants, always looking for ways to bridge the culinary complexities of his adoptive country and the pared-down focus and simplicity of the cuisine of his homeland.
“Aida experienced what he termed a coup de foudre, that bolt-out-of-the-blue feeling so many get from a first visit to the city of light”
In 2005 he opened Aida with a broad-ranging approach that married French ingredients, such as veal sweetbreads and wild asparagus, with Japanese preparations such as tempura and sushi. In 2008, Aida became the first Japanese restaurant in France to earn a Michelin star, an honour it still holds today. The Michelin assessors extolled the quality of Aida’s ingredients, the exacting knifework of the chef and the overall sense of focus on a menu that extends through a dozen or more courses.
The focus of Chef Aida’s kitchen is the teppanyaki grill. In interviews, he has stated that this cooking method encourages his guests to better understand the ingredients he sources and the techniques he practices, and further encourages them to engage all five senses as they interact with the meal.
There may be a half-lobster from Brittany, sizzling and caramelising in its juices, a thick slice of sweetbread, or a fat oyster, seasoned and barely kissed by the heat before being slid over a baton of toast. From its opening days, the centrepiece course of any meal at Aida has been a chateaubriand of Limousin beef seared on the teppan and served with two dipping sauces – ponzu and sesame – and crisp, golden garlic chips. As he sears and slices the beef, Chef may have a pile of fresh greens, dancing and sputtering alongside on the grill. It will be followed, in true Japanese fashion, with rice and miso soup. Dessert will most likely feature fresh fruit. If strawberries are in season, he will surely feature them in an ice cream with meringue, a granita accompanied by lemon syrup or even a strawberry and tomato gazpacho – this is another call back to his home, because Niigata strawberries are famous and coveted throughout the country.
It is this commitment to original, simple flavours, keeping the integrity of each ingredient, which has led Pierre Chen to dine at Aida for a decade. The dishes are the base note onto which wine pairings are built.
For nearly 20 years, Aida has changed in small ways. Sushi goes off the menu now and again, and the option of a premium dégustation has appeared. The ample wine list, with its focus on Burgundies and grower Champagnes, has deepened, and, yes, prices have risen. But the heart of what Koji Aida does stays fundamentally the same. Even though many describe a meal at Aida as a trip to Japan, he wants to know that when you walk through that door and take a seat at his counter, you are about to eat a meal that could only be taking place in that season, at that time and in Paris. He wants diners to feel it, the coup de foudre.
All photos by Instagram/MichelinStarsChallenge