Bar Boulud was my go-to. My refuge. Home to AA Gill’s favourite burger in London - he fell in love with a ‘Piggie’ that was so heavily decorated with toppings “you couldn’t eat [it] opposite anyone who hadn’t already agreed to sleep with you”. For a decade, Bar Boulud was a Knightsbridge bolthole where one could sit alone at the bar, drink a pint of Anchor Ale or a glass of something fabulous poured from a magnum, eat some posh sloppy comfort food and somehow feel that you were simultaneously in London, Paris and New York. But times change - and restaurants, particularly after a decade - need to evolve. Bar Boulud closed during the pandemic and has now reopened as a Japanese restaurant.
Older, a touch greyer, quite considerably fatter, I return. The Aubrey, named after gloomy Victorian Aubrey Beardsley’s transgressive Japanese woodcuts (which bizarrely don’t seem to appear anywhere in the design at all) is the new restaurant in the basement of the Mandarin Oriental. It feels more secluded now, a touch more rarefied, a move towards a gentlemen’s club rather than Boulud’s more egalitarian bistro.
The room fixtures are as lovely as ever - dark wood, low lamps, heavy on the velvet - but the transformation to an “eccentric izakaya” (a Belgravia take on a Japanese drinking den) seems complete. Guests appear happy with the transition - demanding couples on dates waiting for the DJ to kick in, affluent families, influencers shooting their shot as well as the requisite robata grill evangelists.
Sitting in the ‘Curio Lounge’, surrounded by decorative stork illustrations, what’s exciting is how fully the restaurant has committed to a complete transformation: starting with a cocktail list that is heavy on spirits formulated via potato or bean curd. My “The Black Cat” (Teeda Rum, Umeshu, Port Charlotte Whisky) is genuinely awe inspiring but inexplicably arrives topped with a half circle of salted chocolate, a combination I found so bizarre I simply slid the unwanted oversize Cadbury’s button off and discarded it. Next time I will have an old fashioned, without the Kinder Surprise. A pale pink Torri (not the kind that is being drummed out of power) turned out to be a Shōchū spritz with grapefruit that proved refreshing and surprising in equal measure. To accompany our meal we were recommended a bottle of Ikigall, the fragrant stone-fruit-forward brittle white wine created by ex-El Bulli sommelier David Seijas: an unusual choice perhaps for a Japanese restaurant in London but actually an inspired one: sharp enough to cut through the eel, the braised leek and the high-end BBQ alike.
The food itself is wonderful. To start, oysters, with daikon and ponzu rather than the more commonplace Mignonette sauce of vinegar and shallots. Plump Irish and pudgy British oysters impressed: the Japanese ones that were on offer on some press nights, like most international travel this year, seem to have been grounded for now - they were not missed. Shishito Peppers - aka Padron peppers with a working knowledge of Manga, bullet trains and hand loomed denim - and a tangled zesty mass of wakame seaweed started things off in a splendid fashion.
Sushi-wise, our selection was superb - each bite of sashimi and nigiri as vibrant and precise as any I have tasted in London. While it feels like the yellowtail, hamachi and ikura (salmon roe) all deserve a mention, the edomae nigiri were the main talking point. They were topped with ground ants - four of them per piece, lying like fallen soldiers in no man’s land, or in the immediate aftermath of a school child targeting them with a magnifying glass. Some diners prefer to be warned in advance about this Bug’s Afterlife on top - we were glad we had no spoilers. If this is the future of food, it doesn’t seem too bad but then it also appears utterly unnecessary for anyone beyond the bushtucker enthusiasts. Don't let it put you off.
The charcoal chicken (karaage) came as black as your ex’s heart, thrillingly both burnt and juicy in places and topped with a red tangle of Togarashi chili threads. The saikyo miso sablefish (prepped like Nobu’s world-conquering black cod) cleaved effortlessly with a spoon and came with a narwhal’s tusk of a ginger as a palate cleanser. Wagyu oxtail fried rice - akin to some elevated takeaway side - was topped with bone marrow, which reminds you that a) you should go back to Hawksmoor and b) you should probably book in that physical. Crab korokke was moreish to the point of embarrassment, dotted with Tonyu béchamel and kani miso. I could have eaten double. Dessert, a delicate dollop of white Yuzu meringue and chocolate mouse topped with scaly shards of Earl Grey tea 'crackle', proved a muted but not overly sweet farewell. Service throughout is attentive, unobtrusive and fastidious - our server Aaron Song Jing Kong took everything in his stride.
By this point I was convinced this Knightsbridge restaurant was an unqualified triumph. I eyed the 1am closing time and felt like diverting the poor souls being lured into Salt Bae’s Nusr-Et Steakhouse a few doors down. They should come here instead, a proper experience that will surprise, delight and look good on social media. I'm already planning my next visit to the Aubrey: next time I might just sit at the bar and enjoy a perfect Waygu sando and a kitana-sharp Asahi. Times change. A new era approaches. Progress!