Interested in finding out more about the concept behind the menu and wine list at aqua roma – aqua tokyo – aqua spirit, one of Entaste’s most recently launched Hong Kong venues, I contacted the Simon McKinless, General Manager at aqua and met with him for an interview.
We talked about the restaurant’s unique menu and how it is a mixture of Italian and Japanese dishes, not a fusion (the cuisines are never really combined on single dish), but literally a selection of Italian plates alongside Japanese ones. We also discussed the decor of the place and how it has changed over the years to better reflect the concept behind the menu. He explained to me the wine and sake list, how it fits the restaurants dishes and how it is physically arranged. He even shared with me some of the trends that he’s noticed in which wines are ordered the most and by whom. Our interview follows:
Hi. My name is Simon McKinless, General Manager at Aqua.
Please tell me a bit about the concept behind the menu at Aqua.
When Aqua was conceived 9 years ago, when it moved here to 1 Peking Road, when the building went up, the concept was always to have a half Italian and the other half of the room Japanese, with two separate venues. Then, as time progressed, we realized that the concept needed to be that you could sit in either Aqua Roma or Aqua Tokyo but have an order from both sections of the menu. So now you can eat either Japanese and Italian and jump in and out of the cuisines.
So is it a fusion menu or is it divided between Italian and Japanese?
Not fusion. It’s literally Italian and Japanese. We essentially have three kitchens. So we have the Italian kitchen, we have a Japanese hot kitchen and we have the sushi and sashimi. So they come from three separate places with three different chefs in charge of those three kitchens.
And your wine list? How is that arranged?
The wine list has been always evolving. The first GM 5 years ago had his concept of a wine list, which was to have it in countries, or regions, or in grape varieties. So it has changed as people have different opinions. For the last two years, when I’ve been in charge as GM, we’ve put it so that you understand the list….Not everyone knows about wine, so we try and make it so that it’s easy to understand. So we’ve put it in grape varieties, because most people come in and they go “I fancy a glass of this, a glass of that” rather than “Oh I’m going to drink Spanish wine tonight.” So that’s what we did.
And how is the wine list fitted to such a diverse menu? Is it divided between Italian wines and Japanese sake or are other regions represented as well?
Because of the two different cuisines, we’ve made a very strong Italian contingent, because, obviously, we’re also an Italian restaurant. And we have a separate sake list on the back page. So again, when you look at the list, you have your sakes but you also have a strong influence of Italian wines. Then it’s open to interpretation across the board. As a group of restaurants, we have 5 main contracts with suppliers throughout Hong Kong, so we can cherry-pick wines that they advise and talk to us about. So we have a varied wine list with some very, very, very good wines, all at very good prices of course, I have to say that, but you can spend $450 on a bottle of wine or $4500 on a bottle of wine, so we have a huge variety, to try and make sure that we cater to everybody.
And do your customers tend to order one bottle of wine to match every dish or separate glasses for each one?
To be honest, we have a client base that’s quite diverse as well, with an average of 150 to 170 customers in a night or 200 costumers on a weekend night, you can never really distinguish how guests pick their wine. We’ll get some that will ask what would be best suitable with the dishes that they’ve ordered. Being in Hong Kong I’ve found that the Asian palate is very different from that of a Western palate, and especially with the ladies as well..
Well, we have particular wines on the list that we’ve put there simply because… If I have a table of four girls come in who might be from Hong Kong, we tend to have- the Woodstock Rose for example – that’s on the list because they like something a little bit sweeter. Again we have whites like the Gewurztraminer etc., because they tend to be more popular with the ladies that are from Hong Kong.
So you cater a bit to the trends that you notice?
Yeah, and we have, of course the owner of 1 Peking Road come in once a month and he will purchase only French wines and only expensive French wines, so we have expensive French wines on the list because there’s a market for them for people that only associate quality with French wines.
And I’ve heard about the signature wine label that Aqua is planning to put out?
It’s been planned for a while and we’re going to have a signature sake and a grappa that is going to be signature to us, so it seems like a natural progression to possibly even think about a wine. But, of course, when you think about branded wines, it doesn’t always have a great pedigree, so it does really depend. And then you start looking into whether it should be an Italian wine or etc., etc., So it’s a big undertaking and it has been talked about for a while, and I mean a couple of years. It would be nice if we could launch all three at the same time but that just delays the process with the other two. So, the grappa and the sake is going to happen. The wine is under discussion.
Which wine regions seem to be the most popular? What do your guests tend to order most?
Like I say, the very rich gentlemen from China will order French wine because it is associated with the best. We have a huge diversity of wines that we can pick from. I don’t any really stand out, to be honest. It’s very difficult to answer that.
And as my last question, I asked Simon about Aqua’s signature dishes and which wines he would pair with each of them. Here’s what he had to say:
If you could pick one or two signature dishes that best represent Aqua which would they be and why?
From the Italian side, we’ve created a warm marinated strawberries in an aged balsamic syrup with scampi tails and seared foie gras. That’s a pretty fabulous entree from the Italian side and certainly a signature. We also have a veal and foie gras ravioli with a porcini mushroom reduction that is off the hook, that’s pretty special. Japanese – obviously, we have a tataki platter, cucumber rolled sushi rice and the sushi rice has a bit of wasabi inside and it is rolled with cucumber and on the top, different textures and flavors. So, prawn, chopped tuna, seared foie gras, then you have wagyu, and so you get this lovely, long platter which has all these different tataki sushi rolls, which looks pretty sensational. And, to be honest, it was a taste that I was not great with at the very beginning 5 years ago, but now because of the tataki platter, I find myself enjoying sushi more than I would’ve anticipated and it’s a signature dish for us.
And which wines would you pair to each one of these dishes?
Look, if I go out for dinner, I tend to have a choice because of what I like and what I’ve tasted. I’m a big Pinot Noir fan, personally, but with the scampi and with the ravioli, I think something like a Ripasso, where it’s not too over-powering but can certainly match the foie gras because both dishes are quite – let’s say – rich in texture and the Ripasso still has a bit of body to enjoy with those. The sushi, that’s a tricky one, a glass of champagne. A nice glass of Louis Roederer to go with the sushi would probably be a good take for me.
That sounds great. Thank you for your time. And I’ll be looking forward to trying those dishes in the near future.