Thursdays make acceptable evenings for cocktails, right? If you’re at AKI in Valletta, then the answer is yes. Monday through to Sunday create perfectly good cause for a visit to the MICHELIN Mention restaurant focused on its contemporary approach to Japanese cuisine.
If you’ve not been to AKI, get ready for a pure vibe. And when we say ‘pure’, we are neither referring to the peaceful aura of a restaurant, nor the simplicity of drink or food – the emphasis here is on the vibe being so purely a vibe. The contemporary freshness of the layout, bar area and open kitchen with a brigade of professional Chefs, to the lounge aspect that allows you to eat exciting and shareable plates of Japanese-inspired cuisine accompanied with a selection of cocktails, each an artwork in their own merit.
The expectations of restaurants like AKI are tailored to the young or young at heart whose idea of a good time in the city features a cascade of delicious cocktails, bite-sized full-flavour nibbles and an atmosphere that keeps the night going… maybe even resulting in an attack of the mains section on their varied menu, some items are highly irresistible.
Start your evening off with a browse of the cocktail list; an ode to each of the mixology masteries is narratively scripted on the earlier pages of the cocktail menu; however an easy-to-read version lists the cocktail list as a whole. Flipping through the cocktail menu transports you to a fashion magazine full-gloss feeling where each outfit, styling or model is even more stunning than the last – every cocktail features a special touch; ordering more here is exciting.
We opted for the barrel-aged Seppuku, a Hennessy cocktail with black barrel Jameson, homemade black sesame syrup, ginseng tea, creole and wood bitters and a flavoured ginseng tea ice ball.
Bitter and sweet, this aromatic drink, worked well as an aperitivo despite its strong alcohol presence. The bitters, the ginseng and the black sesame add a brightness that lets your palate know you’re in for some binging.
The food at AKI rushes out of the kitchen in a true lounge-style; with mini plates of crudo, sushi, dim sum, tacos and sides juggled together based on your eclectic taste.
Our cascade of flavours began with the Pulled Beef Bao Buns – a tender and very moist mixture of juicy beef that was sweet and smoky. Seasoned with a ginger soy, the umami presence gave the dish a nice aftertaste, juxtaposed with the initial cucumber freshness. Messy to eat, but definitely worth it, the soft bao dough absorbs all moisture for the perfect beefy bite.
Probably the absolute highlight of the menu, in my prawn-crudo-loving opinion, the Local Prawn Mini Tacos made their way to our table, and as the food photography was taken, my patience grew thin, my inept ability to control myself around this crispy corn shell prawn taco overpowered my professionalism.
Without waiting for my peers, I squeezed a fair amount of fresh lime juice onto the glistening sweet prawns, hues of pink, red and scarlet calling me in. I lifted my hand, closed my eyes and in one solid motion, popped my idea of food heaven into my mouth. I’d been here before, many times in fact; for this alone most times.
The luscious Maltese prawn, unequivocally, can stand up to any shellfish, local or international as the most all-consuming flavour profile known to this human. Pairing a crisp taco, with warm corn aromas on its fry, a smooth avocado purée, but not too much, a sprinkle of wakame and crispy garlic to promote contrast of earthy and robust flavour powerhouses with the gentle sweetness and incomparable texture of a local red prawn.
After the creamy prawns, my heart was content. But there’s nothing with even the potential to follow besides an oyster. AKI’s Fresh Shucked Oysters, served with a ponzu dressing, are accurate for the restaurant’s fusion and vibe, however the house ponzu is a tad overpowering, giving the oyster almost no time to shine.
The first taste is the umami ponzu, shallots offering that tart bite synonymous with a classic mignonette. The oysters are fresh and plump, allowing for a good bite – please, don’t forget to bite – rich, delicate and elegant. But not too much oyster taste; only an aftertaste of the mollusk. Order them, by all means, but don’t start off your meal the traditional oyster-slurping way; savour the more delicate dishes first, like the Prawn Mini Taco.
To keep to the flavours of the sea, the next nibble to hit our palates was the crispy, light-battered Prawn Tempura served with a chilli yuzu mayo for a tart, spicy and smooth dressing. The fry on the prawn is not too oily, pale as it should be. Prawn flavour is light, suggesting they’re tiger prawns perhaps. Happily followed by another swig of your next cocktail; the delicate Flower in Ice pairs nicely with hints of elderflower and jasmine hitting against the salty fry on the tempura; rose and lime to perk it all up and interact with the yuzu in the mayo dipping sauce.
The only thing missing from your palate now is some smokiness. Enter the Chicken Mini Tacos. Crunchy, crisp and carrying a nice balance and flavour profile; the ever present essence in this dish is the smoke. Pleasant, but I think it can go further.
Overall, the filling is not as captivating as it should be – salt profiles can improve here; and texture too certainly. There’s potential here, but it needs some attention.
Moving on to the Duck Spring Roll with the iconic Hoisin sauce to dip, double dip, triple dip and lap up with a spoon if there’s extra. We all know it’s packed with additives that make it so darn addictive, but it’s simply irreplaceable, a guilty pleasure I’m only slightly ashamed to admit; and only worth the slip if the spring rolls are good. Luckily, these were.
Tender duck, only slightly gamey. Crisp exterior; salted nicely – oil seems to have a nutty flavour that’s always welcome. Touch is only slightly oily; definitely a necessary feature to latch onto that rich addictive sauce.
A bottle of light to medium bodied Alsace special sushi vintage pairing nicely with the sushi round that followed. The Klipfel Alsace Sushi K White accompanied the Surf and Turf Maki, the Teriyaki Prawn Maki and the Chicken Teriyaki Roll.
The sushi rice was cooked well and fragrant with rice vinegar pops, the protein was all prepared well and presented to the kitchen’s standards and the condiments of ginger, wasabi and soy were ample throughout the sushi course.
The Surf and Turf features light shrimp carrying a faint internal spice, with flavours bouncing off the bold beef and tangy cream cheese filling. The Prawn Tempura, a classic maki bite with light panko fry for texture contrast, salty-sweet combos coming from the prawn and an interesting cucumber masago adding freshness while the avocado adds lusciousness. The Chicken Teriyaki Roll was tangy and sweet with cream cheese and fresh crunches of caviar as its highlight.
Another cocktail could very easily feature at this stage in your meal, but perhaps finishing off the sushi wine is a wiser choice. Dining at AKI usually results in a few too many drinks, so plan ahead and order up; with buffers of Chicken Karage, Pork Belly and Udon Noodles to counteract the tipple.
The chicken carried great flavour and texture. A tasty treat that’s perfect for picking at with you catch up with your friends or even a good option to pour with the Yaki Udon Noodles that offer an umami oyster sauce finish with a slight mirin sweetness that pairs nicely with the shredded duck and earthy mushrooms. A swirl of spinach for freshness and a sprinkle of toasted cashew nuts for crunch – not a bad option at all to serve with the Glazed Pork Belly Skewers either.
The sticky sweetness of the pork belly is just what you want after a few AKI Cocktails – pure bonus that they’re tender and juicy with a ginger soy glaze that brightens your palate while also softening the savoury senses and amping up the sweet profiles on your tastebuds.
Perfect timing, I suppose, for dessert – and quite a lot of it. Four hearty portions of stylised desserts made their way to our glistening white table (less the few soy stains dotted around our the periphery of our former dinner plates). A Passion Fruit And Vanilla Crème Brûlée served with coconut ice-cream – deep, dense, exotic and creamy, a Tropical Panna Cotta with mango sorbet – delicate, rich, tropical and smooth, a Hot Matcha Brownie served with vanilla ice-cream, white chocolate and a miso sauce – salty, buttery and subtle, and lastly The Cherry featuring almond sponge, cherry jelly, chocolate mousse and served with a cherry sorbet – sweet, powerful and most importantly… fun.
Kristina Cassar Dowling
HORECA Reviews are based on the experience of the diners on their particular visit. The nature of these reviews is based on the publication’s expertise in the industry, but also highlights the reviewer’s opinions and preferences. The aim of HORECA Reviews is to showcase culinary talent, to give the hospitality industry insight on their patron’s experience and areas for improvement as well as to celebrate the strive for excellence within the sector.