Where Provence meets Tokyo
Thanks to Aka Bistro, the arts in Lincoln now include culinary ones, separate and distinct
Lincoln has a lot to offer. Historic sites. Modern art. Pastoral landscapes. But not restaurants. Maybe that’s why when Chris Chung and Christian Touche opened Aka Bistro here in March, they decided to give the town a twofer. It’s a sashimi bar! It’s a French restaurant! And for the most part, the twain don’t meet. Aka Bistro keeps its cuisines as separate and distinct as the land masses from which they come, as the words “aka’’ (Japanese for “red’’) and “bistro.’’
Chung, born in Hawaii and raised largely in Macau, was previously the sashimi chef at Uni. Touche, from France, was the general manager of innovative French restaurant Clio. The Ken Oringer establishments share space in Boston’s Eliot Hotel. When the pair left to strike out on their own, they stayed true to their roots, and their roles.
Behind the sleek, U-shaped sashimi bar that occupies half of this restaurant, chef Chung continues to turn out ethereal, inventive creations that center on raw fish. If you sit here, you’ll receive a menu devoted to them, plus a short roster of French dishes.
The other half of the restaurant is a dining room, separated from the sashimi bar by a partial divider. It’s a modern, open space aesthetically in line with the nearby Gropius House: wood floors, pale walls, simple furniture, and a splash of dark red in the form of muted, dot-patterned upholstery. On the walls are framed black-and-white photos of Provence taken by general manager Touche’s great-grandfather, the photographer Firmin Meyer.
Here, you receive a menu fat with traditional Provencal dishes, both homey and high-minded, and a slender list of sashimi options. Some of the French recipes were handed down to Touche from his mother, who in turn received them from her grandmother. They’re prepared by chef de cuisine Christophe Santos, formerly the executive chef at La Voile, a Francophile’s haven on Newbury Street.
Many of the French dishes are very good. Some are excellent. But it’s the sashimi that’s really transcendent. You can choose your own adventure by ordering a la carte, but the two most tantalizing menu options involve ceding control. The first: “Omakase: the best way to enjoy Aka — the freshest and most original dishes in season.’’ The second: “Sashimi combination platter: traditional or innovative interpretation of exotic fish.’’ As with Uni, one comes here to let Chung do his thing. He is doing it just as skillfully as ever.
“Omakase’’ is the Japanese term used to denote “chef’s choice.’’ You decide how many courses you want to eat (or how much money you can bear to part with), then see what appears before you. The starting price here is $70 per person for six fish offerings and dessert; each additional course is about $15.
The omakase one night begins with a single Kumamoto oyster, topped with sea urchin and roe, served in a black ceramic bowl atop a bed of ice. It is salty-sweet, but also distinctively tart and a bit smoky: Chung has treated it with ponzu, a Japanese sauce based on the citrus fruit yuzu, along with a candied form of yuzu kosho, a condiment made from yuzu, chilies, and salt. On the side is a cartoonishly large and round pink berry. It’s a yamamomo (“mountain peach’’), or Japanese bayberry, a palate cleanser that leads us into the next course. We almost don’t want to be led — the flavors of the oyster are so stunning, we would be happy to have several more rounds.
But Chung is already at work, rolling sayori (needlefish) into translucent slices of cucumber, a light and refreshing take on maki. Next, slivers of branzino are laid on a plate, interwoven with slices of chilies. Over them, Chung pours hot sesame oil infused with ginger, scallions, and cilantro. The temperature warms the fish without cooking it, and the oil lends a touch of richness to its delicate flesh.
This is followed by fat, buttery slices from the belly of a Kindai tuna, a more sustainably raised alternative to the endangered bluefin. Miso mignonette and mustard seeds highlight its richness.
We’re surprised by the next course, a generous serving of rock shrimp tempura. These lobster-like shrimp are fried in heftier-than-usual batter, served with XO sauce aioli and prosciutto dust. Omakase generally proceeds from lighter courses to heavier, but these are too heavy — the sort of guilty pleasure that would be a great bar snack. They take us from anticipatory to overly full in a few bites.
This doesn’t stop us from enjoying pan-seared abalone, served in a pearly shell with maitake confit, pickled green onion, and a pool of golden curry sauce. For dessert, there’s a jiggly panna cotta flavored with green tea, accompanied by ginger and sesame purees.
On another visit, a small combination platter of sashimi features pristine fish treated amazingly well. There’s a bit of razor clam ceviche, the saline chew of the mollusks offset by the zip-pow of citrus and jalapenos. Buttery slices of hamachi get a drizzle of creamy ginger vinaigrette and accents of yuzu, pineapple, and sea grape, a kind of seaweed that looks a bit like tiny green roe. There is lovely kinmedai, more branzino, and Scottish salmon, bright coral with white striations of fat. Kindai tuna comes with onions, ginger, and pickled mung bean sprouts. The flavors are exciting, satisfying, intriguing.
Some of the French dishes look and taste as good. A salad makes the most of violet artichokes, a variety from southern France. Lots of little artichokes are served with greens, topped with a bit of orange zest and artichoke leaves that have been roasted until they caramelize. Crunchy, light, and sweet, they are reminiscent of Vietnamese fried shallots. An artful pool of goat cheese cream decorates the plate.
Squid is sauteed with asparagus, garlic, and parsley. It’s a buttery, simple dish, all green and white and soothing to the eye (except for a random garnish of cherry tomato). Spring lamb stew is a rustic concoction featuring tender, well-seared meat with a gently gamy flavor and pretty little spring carrots. It tastes like something made by a very good home cook. One of grandmere’s offerings, perhaps?
Seared duck breast is sliced only part of the way through, so the pieces look almost woven together. The skin is marvelously crisp, the center perfectly rare. It comes with potatoes, green olives, and green olive jus. It is intensely salty, but also intensely delicious.
Other dishes are undersalted. Steak frites is made with a tender cut rather than the chewy one you crave when ordering this dish. It lacks personality, and seasoning. Even after we add a generous sprinkle of salt, it still needs more. Cod with navy beans, cherry tomato confit, and chorizo oil is a bore, also in need of seasoning and with underdone beans.
Cod appears again in the form of brandade. It’s more potato than fish, a tasty, fluffy berg with a pretty arugula salad and lemon vinaigrette. It’s a generous portion, but what’s the point of brandade if you can’t taste the cod?
Frogs’ legs have a dynamite texture, meaty and chewy. They’re a great vehicle for garlic, a la their compatriots, escargots. The broccoli puree they’re served with lacks flavor. (Frogs’ legs also appear on the kids’ menu; Touche ate them growing up, why shouldn’t your polliwogs?)
Beautifully cooked scallops come with leek fondue and braised endives. It’s a good combination of warm and bitter flavors, but for the citrus sauce that also appears on the plate. It tastes like gourmet Tang. And excellent duck confit, crisp-skinned and flavorful, comes with potatoes that taste good but look like a sloppy breakfast hash.
Dessert, however, is as lovely and precise as sashimi. Pastry chef Jillian Rosenberg (UpStairs on the Square, Clio) caramelizes buttery brioche and serves it with bright strawberry sauce and a bit of ice cream. She cloaks a poached pear in rosemary sabayon, luxurious and lightly herbal. And perhaps best of all, she shows humble rhubarb’s avant-garde side. A log of fluffy rhubarb mousse is topped with crumbs, like the best yogurt and granola you ever had, and accompanied by dots of rhubarb puree and pieces of candied rhubarb. On top, there’s a sheet of dehydrated rhubarb that looks like pink packing tape and tastes like concentrated spring. She ends each meal with a plate of complimentary pates de fruits in rotating flavors.
The wine list is a careful mix of standard and more unusual offerings, almost all French and showcased by region. There’s an accommodating range of prices, starting in the high $30s. There’s also a diverse and satisfying list of beer, from Japanese Hitachino to French Fisher, with a cider from Normandy thrown in for good measure. You’ll also find a good sake selection.
Service is attentive, if occasionally prone to snafus. One night, a waiter delivers the wrong glass of wine, then offers an erroneous description of a special. Mistakes are corrected with professionalism.
Aka Bistro is an ambitious undertaking. On the French side, it’s not yet quite as polished as it aims to be. At the sashimi bar, it is — with the prices to match. It seems the market will bear them, and wait for the kinks to be worked out. The restaurant is impressively busy most nights. It’s not perfect, but it’s very, very good. With the all-star team behind it, it’s only likely to get better.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.