April 21, 2012
Have your say
Photo: Fiona Morris
The Friday-night after-work scene in the back streets of Surry Hills is hopping. Drinkers teeter on the edge of the gutter outside the venerable Shakespeare Hotel, all the small bars and no-bookings eateries have waiting lines and it's only 6.30pm. The smell of frying fish from the corner fish-and-chip shop is inducing hunger pains. But it is a different form of deep fry we are headed for: katsu, the comfort food of Japan, usually pieces of chicken or pork, floured, crumbed and deep-fried to a golden crunch that beats the Colonel hands down.
Naively, we haven't booked for the low-key restaurant that opened on the strip in December. It was a mistake. The popularity of its sushi sibling in Darlinghurst, Sushi Yachiyo, should have been a warning. We look into the plain shop-front window and - oh joy! - the restaurant is empty. But pushing past the Noren door curtain and into a small black room, every table has a reserved sign. Tonight, it's takeaway fish and chips in the park for us.
Saturday night, the scene is very different. At the same time of evening, we are again the first to arrive but few other diners join us. The minimalist decor consists of a tall paper floor lantern, spotlights and walls painted black, doubling as blackboards with chalked up specials and a list of house-imported sakes. A corner of the room is partitioned off by an L-shaped counter, behind which two young chefs work.
The long menu includes a sushi and sashimi list, but we decide to order a run of small dishes and eat tapas-style. We also share two types of sake, an easy-to-drink Ofuku and a drier Hakushika, served in clay bottles with shot glasses.
Two tuna shiso ''cigars'' are slender strips of melt-in-the-mouth raw tuna, each wrapped in a large aromatic shiso leaf. The mint tang of the shiso contrasts with the creamy tuna and there's a spicy chipotle miso dipping sauce to add bite.
It's unusual to get excited about leaves but the avo negi miso salad makes quite an impression. Half an avocado filled with sweet shredded baked crab meat nestles in a tangle of greenery. Then there are are crunchy lotus root chips, young beetroot greens and shredded cabbage, all doused with a miso dressing that is so incredibly moreish, the sides of the bowl are wiped clean.
Nasu dengaku is a classic dish, beautifully executed here. Two thick stripes of miso reduction, one red and one white, are spread on top of the creamy flesh of half a fried eggplant - the bitter skin of the vegetable a perfect foil to the sweet miso.
Of course, katsu is a must. The table next to us has a plate of chicken katsu delivered and it is enormous. We opt for the bite-size wagyu beef, deep-fried crumbed balls filled with shredded wagyu cheek, which has been slow-braised for two days. Dipped into a red bean miso-reduction sauce, it is an incredibly rich mouthful.
Finally, a dramatic scampi hot pot arrives. An elegant beaten metal dish sits on top of a clay stove, with a flicker of charcoal fire underneath. Three fat scampi, tales intact, sit simmering in a rich miso broth, with thick slices of silky mushroom stalks, seaweed and cabbage. It is a stand-out dish, in taste, texture and presentation.
Punching above its weight, this unpretentious venture deserves to survive the revolving-door restaurant scene of Surry Hills.
Menu Japanese, specialising in katsu and bite-size servings.
Value Good. Entrees, $11.50-$16.90; mains, $16.80-$35.70; katsu, $3-$4.50.
Recommended dishes Avo negi miso salad; wagyu cheek katsu; scampi hot pot.
208 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills, 9690 2424
Fully licensed, BYO wine only
- Entrees, $11.50-$16.90, Mains, $16.80-$35.70, Katsu, $3-$4.50
- Tues-Sat, 6pm-11pm
- Licensed, BYO