“Asian cuisine is not a different direction to I’ve always thought in,” says Chef Izu Ani, who counts Gaia, Carine and FIKA amongst his European cuisine-oriented outlets, alongside eponymous bakeries. “Now I’m bringing the focus to the cultures within Asia. I don’t just mean the Far East – we forget Asia is a big continent that has a multicultural food direction.” While the light, clean-lined restaurant has an Asian lean by ways of elegant architectural features, sophisticatedly lit nooks and garden feature, AYA relies on Chef Izu’s culinary DNA. “Food is all connected, all that changes is the pattern of the culture it comes from, which represents the way that culture lives.”
AYA – “beautiful” in Japanese or “miracle” in Arabic – is a showcase for those qualities as much as Chef Izu’s longstanding respect-rooted approach. “I’ve always been a big fan of Asian food for not only the cuisine, but for its meaning,” he says, referencing how it is often understood and treated with medicinal reverence. “They respect everything, and I’ve always had that respect factor in my cooking because without the product you can’t make anything happen. It’s the product which speaks of our philosophy of how we do things.”
Intelligent innovation, rather than novelty or market-demand creation, is also characteristic of Chef Izu’s menus, and AYA is a ready platform. “When I travel, I pick up ideas that I connect to the base of how I cook,” he explains. “This time I said, ‘let’s leave this playground large enough for us to keep reinventing, bring something back, something new to enjoy, something interesting to discover.’” It’s an homage to Asia that embraces pleasure and joy, rather veering overly serious and overworked. “It’s fun, and food should always be fun,” says Chef Izu. What AYA isn’t, however, is fusion. “Fusion is an aggressive act of trying to take something and interfere with it or gel it with something else,” he explains. AYA’s generous menu allows each region to have its own voice, with smartly – if unexpectedly – layered complementary elements, as with the surprise pairing of seaweed and taramasalata.
The collection of influences speaks to the maturation of Dubai’s F&B scene and the need for a return to genuineness in the kitchen. “We have a separate sushi counter where Chef Yuki does omakase, which means ‘leave it to the chef’,” explains Chef Izu. “I’m bringing the quality ingredients but it’s not just me – it’s a collective, because Asia is a collective, so to do it right I need to bring in different talents, and I’ve partnered with people at the top of their game.” While eating sushi prepared by the hands of Chef Yuki has been hailed as the “cheapest form of traveling to Japan” by patrons, he also quips that his Arab pastry chef makes the best kunafa in Dubai – “No, the world!”
Championing tasty, quality and healthy food – how he classifies fine dining, rather than categorising it as special occasion fare – Chef Izu knows how to go dirty but stay clean, exemplified by dishes such as tiger prawns with aji Amarillo, shiso dressing and citrus salad; by keeping fried elements such as the calamari or his take on the Singaporean pepper crab delicately crispy and light; or serving a decadent brown butter ice cream with olive oil sponge and hazelnut crumble. “Fine dining can be a kebab as long as it’s good and healthy – food is the biggest investment we can make in our body, without our health we can’t do anything, so why not treat it with the utmost respect by feeding it with the right ingredients?”
This sense of authenticity, in concept, philosophy and execution, resonates throughout AYA’s culinary offerings, from the shores of Turkey through to the waters of Japan. “I want things to feel right – it’s touch, not just look,” he says. “You take our with your hand because there’s a different chemical reaction when it interacts with the natural enzymes that are connected to you. There’s no foreign body like a spoon or chopsticks between you. It’s an experience to be had.”