What: Ajia (translated as ‘Asia’ in Japanese), is a new ‘immersive, speakeasy-esque’ brand from Thai restaurant brand Busaba, which has opened in the basement of the group’s recently opened Oxford restaurant. Billed as the ‘naughty little sister’ to Busaba, it takes inspiration from the izakaya bars of Japan.
Who: The Busaba group continues to be led by Terry Harrison, who joined the businesses as managing director back in 2017. However, the launch of Ajia is primarily being guided by Busaba’s marketing director, Neve Rabbou.
The food: Rather than just borrowing elements of the Busaba menu, an entirely new pan Asian food offer of small plates and nibbles has been developed for Ajia, which primarily combines elements of Japanese and Korean cuisine. Prices primarily hover between the £6 and £8 mark, and options include Korean fried chicken ‘KFC’ sliders served with kimchi and sriracha mayonnaise; crispy sweetcorn fritters with a sweet chilli dipping sauce; chicken satay; and a range of Taiwanese bao buns.
The drink: Ajia’s focus is on its cocktails, with a signature list of 16 drinks (ranging from £10-£12 each) inspired by the flavours of Japan, Korea and Thailand. Highlights include the Orenji with Beefeater blood orange gin, triple sec, orange and pineapple juice; a plum negroni with plum sake, Campari and sweet vermouth; and the Shen Long with citrus vodka, fresh dragon fruit, lime juice, fresh mint and sugar syrup.
The vibe: The room is described as an ‘atmospheric, design-forward space’. The design has been overseen by Paul Belford, which previously led the rebrand of Busaba in 2019.
And another thing: Signage at Ajia has been purposely kept to a minimum, in order to give the illusion of the bar being ‘exclusively for those in the know’. According to Rabbou, it’s intended as a nod to the original Busaba, which Alan Yau launched in London’s Soho back in 1999.
Ajia offers Busaba a new avenue with which to enliven its brand image, but will also move it into an increasingly crowded pan-Asian space, says James McAllister
Even before the pandemic hit, Busaba had faced a tough few years. Once the darling of the Thai restaurant scene, the group had been hit by a series of closures between 2017 and 2019 that saw it retreat from what was an aggressive regional expansion drive and fall back to its London heartland. Then Covid arrived, and it became one of dozens of casual dining chains forced to restructure its business via a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) in a bid to mitigate the impact of the Coronavirus crisis.
Now, though, Busaba looks to be on the rebound. Last year, the group launched its first restaurant in Wales within Cardiff’s Brewery Quarter, and now it’s opened in Oxford; a move that also heralds the launch of Ajia - a cocktail bar ‘inspired by the flavours of Asia’.
As Neve Rabbou, Busaba’s marketing director, puts it, the development and launch of Ajia was something of a happy accident for the group. “Terry [Harrison, Busaba MD] and I have been interested in exploring that more Korean and Japanese elements of Asian cuisine for a while,” she tells BigHospitality of the new brand’s conception. “When the Oxford site first came up, we liked it, but we both agreed the downstairs didn’t feel like Busaba. It was a grungy and cool underground space. That’s what planted the seed, and the idea stemmed from there.”
With its approachable, pan-Asian menu and eclectic cocktail offer, Ajia marks a departure for Busaba, but hangs on the coat tails of the growth in popularity of dishes such as Korean fried chicken and bao buns. While Aija might be able to sit comfortably next to (or indeed underneath) the group’s core brand and target a wider market share, there is a risk that it could confuse Busaba’s main Thai-based offer in the process.
Rabbou, who joined the group back in 2019 to oversee a 20th anniversary rebrand of the business, and who has led the Ajia launch, has ambitions to grow the concept further alongside Busaba. “With our growth trajectory, any new sites we’re looking at now, we want them to have underground spaces so that we also have the space to launch Ajia there too,” she says. “Busaba is a 22-year-old business, so to have something new and fresh is very exciting.”
Plans are also being considered to further boost Ajia’s commercial potential by using Busaba’s partnership with Deliveroo to make both the food and cocktails available for delivery. Beyond that, there is a possible progression into standalone sites. “It definitely could move into that space,” says Rabbou. “But that would have to be part of a bigger conversation about our growth plans.”
Ajia offers Busaba a new way with which to boost its brand image and appeal to a new customer as it prepares to expand once again, but its pan-Asian approach risks diluting its core brand message and put its up against specialists in the field (Oxford is home to a number of restaurants serving Korean fried chicken and bao buns).
Busaba’s early strength was that it offered something new in a homogenous dining scene. A move into the now on-trend baos, Korean fried chicken and chilli beef fries (the only US-inspired dish on the menu) feels as much of a departure as it does progress. As such, Ajia is a brand to keep an eye on.
27-29 George St, Oxford OX1 2AU