14/20

Izakaya

52 Waterloo Street, Surry Hills, NSW

All Details

Terry Durack

If this is a real izakaya, I'm probably going to get drunk. I will also probably eat a little bit of all sorts of things; none of them startlingly good. The izakaya is, after all, the department store of Japanese dining; the place you go for a drink and a nibble and another drink until - where wash I? Ah yes, in the gutter.

When in Japan, the izzy is a god-send, because it means you don't have to decide what to eat before you decide where to eat. Otherwise, it's off to the tempura-ya for the best tempura, to a tonkatsu-ya for the best crumbed pork schnitzel, or a kare-ya for the best curry and rice. No wonder the izakaya grew from a traditional sake shop where you could buy a jug and drink it, into casual, small-plate, pubby places set on permanent happy hour.

No wonder, also, that it's the hot trend up and down the east coast of Australia.

The recently landed, no-reservations Izakaya Fujiyama nestles into the new eat beat of Waterloo Street. Some good people are involved: owner-chef Kenji Maenaka worked at Four In Hand, Aperitif and Bodega (he's the one with the Japanese headscarf). Then there's mop-top sommelier Charles Leong of MG Garage, Aperitif and Sailors Thai on the floor (the one in the long maekake apron) and mixologist Charlie Ainsbury of Duke and Bayswater Brasserie (the one with the cocktail shaker).

The bar is a cracker, lined with stools that give good sight lines to both cocktail and cooking action; otherwise the large, dark, square room has plenty of bare tables on its poured-concrete floor. Apparently izakayas the world over are going the same way; morphing more into restaurants than bars. But there are still plenty of booze options, with 20 sakes by the glass (well, porcelain sakazuki cups), 10 different Japanese beers and some serious cocktails.

Here's the battle plan: be aware that every izzy has its good and not-so-good dishes, and that the best are usually from the kitchen rather than the sushi bar.

Agedashi tofu, $13.50: light, large blocks of silken tofu cloaked with an elastic second skin and teamed with non-slimy okra and shiitake mushrooms in a super dashi broth. Love it.

Kingfish nuta with tortilla, $15: one of those weirdly gloopy Japanese dishes; the fish in a strange imbalance of lime and miso, the tortilla overly fried and shattery. Hate it.

Kenji's Fried Chicken, $14.50: yes, it's KFC time, Japanese style; the kara-age nuggets crunchy, knobbly and nicely seasoned.

Nigiri sushi, six pieces, $21. Perfectly pleasant and made to order, although some fish appears to be pre-sliced, so it doesn't exactly sparkle.

Snapper namban, $12: a great dish for lovers of escabeche; good, fleshy pieces of fresh, lightly fried fish soaked and cloaked in finely sliced vinegared onion. Addictive.

Teriyaki beef kalbi, $27.50: a messy but mighty dish of darkly glazed beef ribs with chilli relish. The beef is rich and beautifully cooked, the bones gnaw-worthy. Neanderthal but nice.

Sake, various prices: honestly can't remember. I think the Tengumai from Ishikawa was almost gamey and autumnal and the Okuharima from Hyogo was light and spring-like. Or not.

Grilled tuna jaw (market price): I didn't order this giant piece of prehistorica with its rich, fatty cheek meat, but my neighbours were going crazy about it.

Chocolate cake with quince, $11.50: don't think just because it's a Japanese joint that you shouldn't do dessert, as it is one of the chef's strengths. This is warm, rich and melting, lightened by the lingering sweetness of the fruit and a delish condensed milk ice-cream.

The wine list is challengingly short, if not arrogantly so. There's a gaping chasm between the simple, share-able, good-value food and having a list of just three whites and three reds, one of which is the luscious 2009 Bass Phillip Crown Prince Pinot Noir for $95. It makes it hard to go out for a quick bite to eat without blowing the week's budget on the drink.

But then, this is more fun dining than fine dining; a melting pot of dude-food, Japanese aesthetic and Sydney style. It's an Aussie izzy, ay. Don't come for Sydney's best sushi, best tempura, or best whatever (although it may be the best tuna jaw); just come for a good time. In that sense, it's a real izakaya.

tdurack@smh.com.au

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52 Waterloo Street, Surry Hills, NSW

  • 02 9698 2797
  • Cuisine - Japanese
  • Prices - about $75 for two, plus drinks, about $75 for two, plus drinks
  • Opening Hours - Mon-Sat, dinner
  • Author - Terry Durack
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