There's no better foodie destination than the Land of the Rising Sun, but Sydney's ever-growing slew of Japanese eateries takes a pretty good shot at replicating it, while simultaneously experimenting with its own distinct Aussie-Japanese style. From legendary fine-diners to rowdy izakayas to smoky robata grills to cult ramens to homestyle, heart-made Japanese breakfasts, this list of our favourites from the 2020 Good Food Guide runs the gamut of all the things we love about Japanese dining.
Rising Sun Workshop's cafe. Photo: Christopher Pearce
Rising Sun Workshop (One Hat)
By day, it's a communal motorcycle workshop in Newtown serving full-throttle ramen flavoured with miso, kurobuta pork bones and Bannockburn chicken. By night, it's still a motorcycle workshop, but with an open kitchen firing on all cylinders to deliver flavour-packed share plates inspired by Japan. Roast Japanese pumpkin is the picture of wholesomeness, standing to attention in a hazelnut mole, while caesar salad is turbocharged with chicken crackling, pancetta lardons and garlic pickled in miso and sake. There's more rice wine on a smart little booze list and junmai is just the ticket with kombu-cured kingfish. Make a date at happy hour for cheap natural wine, katu sandos and free dad jokes.
Go-to dish: Breakfast ramen – springy noodles, thick-cut bacon, an onsen egg, grilled tomato and a tangle of leek all bob on the surface of a buttered toast-infused bone broth. It'll be the most important meal of your day/life.
1C Whateley Street, Newtown; 02 9550 3891; risingsunworkshop.com
Confit ocean trout at Tetsuya's Photo: Jon Reid
Tetsuya's (Two Hats)
Polish is the name of the game here at Tetsuya Wakuda's temple of Franco-Japanese fine-dining, a long-time holder of double hats. And it's no wonder, this is about as seamless an experience as you're going to get in a Sydney restaurant. It's degustation-only and while the menu safely retains signature dishes such as the confit Petuna ocean trout with its kombu crust lolling over matchsticks of green apple, there's also the unconventional but very delicious coffee-poached scampi, bedded down on silky cannellini bean puree. And if there's a more baller two-bite dish than a perfectly deboned confit chicken wing covered in Paspaley pearl meat, well, we'd like to see it.
Go-to dish: We love the delicate slices of kingfish sashimi, livened up with dashi cream and shishito pepper, but you can't go past the confit ocean trout, a signature for good reason.
529 Kent Street, Sydney; 02 9267 2900; tetsuyas.com
Wagyu with black pepper sauce, wasabi, soy and sea salt at Gaku Robata Grill. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Gaku Robata Grill (One Hat)
This tiny Darlo 24-seater on the former Fish Face site wouldn't look out of place on Tokyo's Piss Alley, with its glowing binchotan charcoal grill, hard-working chefs, high bench seating, and tables poked in any which way. Haru Inukai and Shimon Hanakura's menu is personal, inventive and surprisingly long, with daily changing deluxe special ingredients – white asparagus one day, Spanish truffles the next. If there are Pacific oysters, have them grilled in the shell until plump and warm, dressed with rich yuzu-miso cream. If there is Australian wagyu rump cap, have it grilled medium-rare, served with black pepper sauce, wasabi and smoked soy.
Go-to dish: Regular favourites span from the delicate chawan mushi custard luxed up with crab and truffle to the DIY hand rolls with richly satisfying fillings; lunches are all about Inukai's much-loved chicken tonkotsu ramen.
Shop 2, 132 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst; 02 9380 2145; gakurobatagrill.com.au
Sushi e's spider rolls. Photo: Ben Dearnley
Sushi e (One Hat)
This may be the shy sibling to the more bombastic members of the Merivale family but don't underestimate the raw power of Sushi e. Tucked inside Hemmesphere, the quiet concentration of the sushi chefs isn't broken by the cocktail bar's deep house music. Sit at the counter and watch their knives glide through kingfish sashimi, generously cut yet not too thick to overpower the dressing of ponzu, shiso and sansho oil. Dishes from the kitchen are just as good as the raw stuff. Prawn shumai sees six small, sweet parcels of minced prawn presented in a sleek black wooden box, and pops of bright finger lime and radish cuts through the richness of koji-marinated Patagonian toothfish. When you know what you're doing, you don't need to shout to be seen.
Go-to dish: Start with sashimi then move onto the king crab soba noodles and chargrilled koji toothfish.
Level 4, Establishment, 252 George Street, Sydney; 02 9114 7314; merivale.com
Sashimi with spicy lime vinaigrette at Sokyo. Photo: Steven Siewert
Sokyo (One Hat)
If a restaurant has its own dedicated sea urchin diver (Eli Ravines hand-delivers live spiny boys to Sokyo's sushi chef Takashi Sano daily) you know this is going to be some damn good uni. The unctuous lobes are just one part of what has to be one of the most luxurious (and delicious) pieces of nigiri around, joined by toro (both sliced and in a paste with shio, kombu and truffle) and slices of Manjimup-sourced black gold. You could happily just eat sushi here – each piece is cut with precision, diced with care and incised with passion – but then you'd miss out on the excellent robata and carefully considered mains.
Go-to dish: Order the yuzu kosho-brushed chicken yakitori or the wagyu doused in black pepper sauce from the robata.
80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont; 1800 700 700; star.com.au
Share plates at Cho Cho San. Photo: Nikki To
Cho Cho San (One Hat)
At Potts Point's upmarket modern Japanese diner, chef Nic Wong packs stacks of creative talent and a deft culinary metier that results in a menu that is sharp, focused and downright delicious. A crab fried rice is smoky – that's the bonito – and spicy care of XO sauce, and textured by plenty of fish roe that pop like exploding ninjas. Eggplant miso sticks are kind of like sophisticated Dagwood Dogs – creamy, salty, soft-centred with an Asian twist. Kingfish collars, caramelised with teriyaki and tinged by ame from the hibachi grill, are memorable. There's a decent sake list to discover and you should always finish with the puffy mochi.
Go-to dish: The smoky, fatty, well-charred teriyaki fish collars are a must.
73 Macleay Street, Potts Point; 02 9331 6601; chochosan.com.au
Tsukune – house-made meatball with 62 degree egg at Chaco Bar. Photo: Janie Barrett
Yakitori skewers are the Japanese answer to tapas: bite-sized eats to accompany beer and sake. They're the main drawcard at Chaco Bar, cooked expertly over white charcoal so the edges take on a delicate caramelised sweetness. Savour juicy skewers of chicken thigh, pork belly and spicy lamb shoulder or take the vegetarian route with miso eggplant, okra and onion. The tsukune chicken meatball is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, dipped into the gooey yolk of a 62-degree egg. Check the blackboard for specials like aged Angus tongue and wagyu rump cap steak. The communal table is where all the action is – sitting cheek by jowl with strangers is half the fun.
Go-to dish: Swing by at lunchtimes or Sunday and Monday dinner when the menu switches to ramen, and do order the yakioni rice ball, glazed and grilled to a smoky golden crisp.
238 Crown Street, Darlinghurst; 02 9007 8352; chacobar.com.au
'Caramel and nuts' from Sasaki's hitokuchi-gashi menu. Photo: Christopher Pearce
Even before the first daintily potted, powder blue-glazed plate is carefully placed, Sasaki has small details and subtle textures for you to enjoy. The washi paper placemat – soft like cotton – is from the Shimane prefecture, where chef Yu Sasaki grew up. In Sydney, hidden in a laneway flanked by brutal concrete towers, he applies his heritage and a nod to home cooking using premium Australian produce. Shards of salty anchovy ice-cream melt into the surprising sweetness of raw amaebi prawns. Rare wagyu beef with a gritty chargrilled edge soaks up briny sea urchin dressed in white soy sauce. Plum sake custard, as rich in taste as it is light on the spoon, doesn't disappoint, either.
Go-to dish: Grilled salmon has all the hallmarks of home-style comfort food when mixed with nutty rice and chewy enoki mushrooms.
102/21 Alberta Street; Sydney; 02 8068 9774; sasaki.com.au
Japanese-style breakfast at Cafe Monaka. Photo: James Brickwood
This cute Northern Beaches spot offers a few subtle Japanese takes on classic cafe fare imagined up by Fuminori Bun Fukuda, originally from Japan's Shizuoka Prefecture. But what you really want to come here for is the traditional Asagohan (Japanese-style breakfast), an immaculately presented tray of furikake-seasoned rice, grilled salmon, rectangles of omelette and miso soup, which is served alongside an impressive selection of imported green teas. The coastal cafe setting fades softly into the background as Fukuda pours varying degrees of genmaicha (green tea with roasted brown rice), replicating the serenity and reverence of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Go-to dish: The Asagohan breakfast set is a pretty platter that includes shio-koji-marinated salmon, miso tofu and the option of natto, a traditional dish of sticky fermented soybeans that's somewhat of an acquired taste.
2/24 Waratah St, Mona Vale; 02 9999 0836; cafemonaka.com
Sushi Train Neutral Bay
A sushi train experience doesn't have to be a fast food experience, and there's an ambience here that no other sushi train in Sydney has, helped along with exposed-brick walls and dark wood furnishings. Expect queues for a booth at this North Shore favourite, which offers sushi options that are a cut above your average, like duck nigiri, grilled marbled beef nigiri and a very generous salmon roe ship.
Go-to dish: The eggplant agedashi from the a la carte menu is meltingly tender, but make sure you try their signature duck nigiri with a flash of sweet soy sauce.
306-308 Military Rd, Cremorne; (02)9908-8891; sushitrain.com.au