132 Darlinghurst Rd Darlinghurst, NSW 2010
|Opening hours||Lunch (ramen only) Wed-Sun noon-2pm; dinner Tue-Sun 6pm-10pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9380 2145|
There was a moment when I could have made more money by not writing this review, than by writing it. "How much is it worth," one Gaku regular asks, "for you to forget you have ever been here?"
Being offered a bribe to stay away is a first, but it can't be done. Some places just deserve to be on everyone's radar, not kept as private members' clubs.
When Gaku Robata Grill first opened on the former Fishface Darlinghurst site in April 2018, it was more Gaku ("enjoyment") than Robata. What with one council approval or another, it didn't actually light its first log of tosa (white) binchotan charcoal from Kouchi prefecture in its gleaming Okutsu charcoal grill until April 2019.
In the meantime, co-owners and chefs Haru Inukai (Blancharu and Ikkyu Ramen) and Shimon Hanakura, formerly of Aria, won a militantly loyal following for their benchmark ramen at lunch and their sushi and izakaya-style offerings at night.
Now, Gaku and Robata have fused, and the tiny 24-seat restaurant wouldn't look out of place on Tokyo's Piss Alley, with its hole-in-the-wall cosiness, squeezy high-low seating and rough-hewn red gum counter.
The menu is surprisingly long for such a minnow of a place, while the deluxe day's specials – white asparagus one day, Spanish truffles the next – are seen at a glance resting on the front counter.
If there are Pacific oysters, have them grilled in the shell until plump and warm ($6 each), dressed with a rich yuzu miso cream; all smoky acid sweetness. If there is Australian wagyu rump cap with a marble score of seven, have it grilled to medium-rare, sliced into fingers and served with little bowls of black pepper sauce, wasabi, an amazingly delicious smoked soy, and sea salt ($28 for 100 grams). Pair it with a complex, juicy Taturry Mosselini Vineyard Pinot Noir ($75) from the Mornington Peninsula while you're at it.
Everyone who works here has a special "secret sauce". Sake sommelier Otowa Tomioka will turn his hand to a perfectly crafted cocktail; the imperturbable Hanakura san stands by the robata with its three tiers of grills and ceramic pots filled with unguents and sauces, and Inukai is the watchful ringmaster.
Special mention goes to the DIY hand rolls, which are immaculately conceived and executed; the sheet of nori crisp yet wrappable, the rice sprightly, the fillings inconceivably rich, from bejewelled tuna tartare ($7) to grilled sea eel ($10).
Prepare for more richness, with a luxurious daily special of nigiri, topped with lightly scorched Ora King salmon, sea urchin and bottarga ($12 each), or a trembling chawan mushi ($18) topped with crab and truffle. Robata-grilled beef tongue is almost always tough – here, it's thickly sliced, and tender; unlike a serve of smoky, dry-aged duck breast with peanut miso ($32), that's a difficult chew.
From the pernicketiness of the natural wine list to the insistence on luxury ingredients, to the fun of the cherry-blossom ice-cream inside the very Japanese monaka (moulded rice wafer biscuit, $6 each), there is a lot to take in.
But this is why we fall so hard for Japanese food in Japan, when one thing is done so well, so obsessively, so precisely. The fact that several things are done well in this little treasure-box, is even better. How much do you reckon it would take to forget you've read this?
Gaku Robata Grill
Vegetarian Lots on offer, including five robata vegetable dishes.
Drinks Sought-after Japanese spirits and sake, and a snappy, erudite natural wine list selected by Andrew Guard.
Go-to dish Robata-grilled Australian wagyu rump cap, black pepper sauce, wasabi smoked soy, sea salt ($28 for 100 grams).
Pro tip Check out the newly arrived malt whiskey from acclaimed Japanese distiller Inchiro Akuto.