A love of Steely Dan and appreciation for wordplay inspired the name behind Chef Tom Catherall’s latest restaurant venture (he also owns Lola’s Coastal Italian). He and partner David Richard opened Aja at 30 Avenue in Inlet Beach on New Year’s Eve 2022.
Critics described Steely Dan’s Aja as bold and full of unusual sounds. With the high-end Asian offerings served against the backdrop of trance music and pops of brass everywhere, I think they share a spirit as well as a name.
“It’s elevated ingredients but it still will be familiar Asian food for them. It’s not like any Asian restaurant you’ve ever been in,” said Catherall.
He is right.
The luxury starts when you enter the door and spot beautiful textured subway tile lining the bar, shiny white counters all around, and the understated elegance of swaths of exposed brick. But it’s the lighting that steals the show. Gorgeous brass chandeliers that look like bamboo nests of varying sizes and shapes hover over the dining room while pendant lights with brass tops resembling a flute of champagne bubbles light the bar.
The brass continues with foot rails under the bars, outlet covers, silverware, and stylish water pitchers stationed around the space. Perhaps the most unusual and eye-catching brass accent though is the grout highlighting the tile under the sushi bar. The strips of metallic make the fan-like tile look like iridescent fish scales—a perfect match to the sushi chef above deftly slicing some of the freshest fish around.
The open sushi counter offers dinner and a show as the sushi chef chats amicably with guests while ninja-slicing through buttery avocado and deep red hunks of tuna.
The menu changes daily as they find their groove. Dumplings are rolled every day. Fish from Hawaii, New Zealand, Japan, and wherever the freshest fish are swimming populate the evolving menu. The commitment to peak freshness resonated throughout the dishes on a recent visit.
Joey, the gregarious bar manager, recommends some of his favorites while hand-piping whipped blue cheese into olives destined for dry martinis. The assorted sashimi plate does not disappoint—buttery soft salmon melts in my mouth, slices of tuna offer a fresh-off-the-boat flavor with a firm steaky texture, slivers of yellowtail taste of sea salt and umami, everything precisely fileted, but it’s the bit of clam that is an unexpected delicacy. The flavor of the tide coupled with a firm yet soft texture served with a yuzu chili paste makes the perfect marriage of flavors.
Dumplings arrive next in a traditional bamboo steamer, a fragile orchid peeking out from the center with deep violet and creamy white tendrils. The dumplings are delicate but amply filled. A fresh sprig of cilantro lays atop them for brightness, and fried sticks of ginger lend unexpected heat. The dipping sauce is bold and unusual (like its musical counterpart) with earthy yet zesty soy with layers of sesame and lime.
As I take my last bite of dumplings, the American tuna roll shows up. It sits like a piece of art floating on a bone-white china plate shaped like a long, slim boat; it’s pure elegance. The sushi rice is tender, and a nice crunch of cucumber lends texture. The creamy avocado, delicately filleted tuna, sriracha, and hoisin touches give the roll the perfect balance of sticky, sweet, and spicy.
The beverage menu adds another layer to the concept of elevated Asian with nods to the rising Japanese cocktail culture. The familiar negroni is crafted with Roku Japanese Gin and Umeshu. Sake, Japanese Whiskey, Haku Vodka, yuzu, and lychee can be found throughout the menu lending more layers of adept flavor pairings to the food.
Next up is the Thai Basil Chicken nestled with crunchy hunks of red pepper and onion, tender green beans, and chicken, all bathed in a red curry flavor bomb sauce. The aromatic rice soaks up all the goodness. Hot Chili Seafood comes hard on the heels of the chicken. A selection of calamari, shrimp, and scallops are lightly battered and flash-fried then bathed in a sticky spicy sauce alongside red peppers and well-cooked noodles. The fresh cilantro and tendrils of green onion provide brightness and texture to the signature seafood dish.
No meal is finished without dessert and Aja doesn’t disappoint. The Ginger Creme Brulee comes with a nest of juicy mixed berries, but it is the satisfying crack of the spoon on brûléed sugar crust that makes this dish. Digging into the super smooth custard, a delicate ginger flavor emerges, not overpowering, just bold and a little unusual, kind of like Steely Dan.