Okay folks, time for a history lesson. What's the deal with Nikkei, you ask? It's one of the most underrated cuisines in the world. We all love our sushi. We all love our ceviche. But what would happen if these two globally renowned dishes combined cultures? That's what a meal at Aji will teach you. The 19th century witnessed throngs of Japanese people migrating to Peru. Both countries are known to be particularly passionate about their food, and a fusion was simply inevitable. Peru's thriving fishing industry paired with Japan's distinct seafood recipes lead to the inception of Nikkei cuisine. This was accentuated with Peru's indigenous cooking techniques and penchant for spice combinations. All these years later, the food hasn't lost its spark.
Fun fact: Peru has the world's second largest ethnic Japanese population. OMG, right?
The recently launched Aji is one of Palm Jumeirah's hottest restaurants, so booking in advance is a no brainer. If spontaneity is your thing, you'll easily be able to nab a table at lunchtime. Aji usually floods up with guests after sunset, which conveniently happens to coincide with happy hour.
Aji is located in a dining cluster at Club Vista Mare on The Palm. There are plenty of spaces outside, although parking up closest to the entrance is wise for when you're waddling out with a belly full of jelly. Parking is free, uncomplicated, and doesn't come with a time restriction.
Greeting and seating
We were already smiling from ear to ear upon setting foot on the dining strip. A gorgeous view of the ocean, a face full of breeze, and a menu oozing with exotic cuisine – everything you need for a perfect afternoon! Aji's maitre d' welcomed us and offered us a seat either in the restaurant or out on the veranda. With wind so fierce it could blow your food away, we opted for a table indoors.
Knowledge and service of the waiter
Our South American waitress handed us a few too many menus that left us spoiled for choice. Each one followed a different theme, leaving us to choose from the lunch menu, the Bento Box menu or the regular menu. The waitress walked us through her personal favorites on the menu and left us to wallow in the countless options on the menu. She wet the bottom of our glasses, took our orders, and zoomed off into the distance leaving us to enjoy Aji's charming décor.
Our midday feast featured tuna tacos, Nikkei sushi, sea bass bao buns, black cod anticuchos, and chica morada. We wrapped up our meal with a classic espresso and cappuccino.
We decided to whet our whistles with bite-sized appetizers – tuna tacos and Nikkei sushi. We could smell the tacos from a mile away as they sailed from the kitchen to our table, generously bathed in truffle oil. The perfect balance between crunchy and creamy, the taco shell perfectly complemented its delicately chopped and flavored tuna stuffing. The Nikkei sushi is what had me at the edge of my seat. Prior to today, my tongue has never had the pleasure of tasting Japanese and Peruvian flavors do the tango on a plate. The Nikkei sushi was going to be a total game changer, and I made sure to cleanse my palate before tucking in. Just when I was about to throw in the towel and admit that it tastes like something off a Yo Sushi conveyor belt, the Peruvian spice kicked in and took my tastebuds on a rollercoaster ride. Subtle and sexy, just like the Peruvians.
Next up – the sea bass bao buns and black cod anticuchos landed on our table, barely allowing us to recover from the first course. Bao buns are a personal favorite, like sinking your teeth into a duck feather pillow. If you've ever wondered what a savory marshmallow tastes like, a bao bun would be it. The deep fried sea bass filling came dressed in a zesty Peruvian pico de gallo. While my teeth enjoyed the crispiness of the battered fish, the soft buns hugged the insides of my cheeks while the piquant pico de gallo tickled the back of my throat. Following this little circus performance in my mouth, the crème de crème of the afternoon was the anticipated black cod.
Anticuchos is a marinade that can be found everywhere from street carts to fancy restaurants in Peru. The simple sauce is a concoction of vinegar, cumin, ají pepper, and garlic. Tracing back to the 16th century, a traditional Peruvian meal would be incomplete without a splash of it. Our black cod arrived on a portable grill, skewered and drenched in the signature anticucho sauce. Given the chilly weather, we were more excited about warming up by the grill than what was served on it. Whether it's coated in miso paste or anticuchos sauce, black cod never disappoints. The fish practically melts in your mouth and gives your jaws a break from the constant chewing.
Too full for another round, we bravely soldiered on and perused the dessert menu. Resisting tempting options like the chocolate lava cake, we ventured for a more authentic dish. After consulting our waitress, the chica morada cake emerged as the winner. What sold the dish to me was the mention of purple corn, which is essentially what chica morada is. Traditionally, it's a beverage made from purple corn. In this case, it's a cake flavored with the juice of purple corn. What I thought would come out of the kitchen was entirely different from what actually came out. An avant-garde work of art, it looked like it belonged in a museum instead of on a plate. Crowned with a white chocolate mold and a scoop of glittering chica sorbet, the dessert looked more glamorous than Kim Kardashian's Instagram grid. The plate was accented with a white lashing of rice pudding and gold flakes. An entirely unique dessert, my tongue was bewildered – not trained to react to these unearthly flavors. It felt like my first meal on an alien planet. Just...wow!
Courtesy extended during the meal
The manager visited our table for an enthusiastic chat about Nikkei cuisine and interior design. With a beaming smile, she walked us through the laborious construction of the restaurant prior to its launch. She gave us a million and one reasons to revisit Aji, from its irresistible weekly ladies' nights to its loaded Friday brunches. Frankly, the unique menu is reason enough for us to return!
Aji is accented with an array of captivating designs, from its haunting wall mirrors to the eclectic collection of tiles spread across the floor. Far from a casual trip to Ikea, the restaurant's interior designer journeyed all the way to Peru to authentically explore the country's culture. The restaurant is a reflection of his time away, narrating stories of walking through shadowy alleys and sauntering around ancient Peruvian palaces. The first thing to catch your eye, the tiled floor, has been painstakingly hand painted by a craftsman specially appointed by Aji. Amid the vibrant interiors, the ambience is heightened with striking Asian graffiti and South American music.
A little pricey for a casual lunch, Aji is ideal for dressing up to the nines and unwinding over a feast of Nikkei grub and cocktails. Our grand total rounded up to 320 dirhams.
Overall, would you return?
Yes, and I'm bringing all my friends too. Aji's culturally unique menu is something every palate should experience. Not only is Nikkei a lovely souvenir of the past, it's also a fascinating example of how seemingly contrasting cultures can join forces and fuse flavors. The glamorous urban restaurant interiors paired with its seaside veranda make it perfect for practically any occasion – a birthday, an anniversary, or just to show a tourist friend that Dubai is not all about kebabs.
The ceviche sampling platter, chocolate lava cake, and anything off the cocktail menu.