47 Reservoir St Surry Hills, NSW 2010
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri 5.30-10pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9281 2228|
This place is crazy. Duck in under the noren curtains hanging over the front door, and get hammered by a wall of sound, as grill chefs shout loud welcomes while hovering over long line-ups of Hakata-style kushiyaki skewers.
Everybody piles in, elbow-to-elbow, around the central grill counter, on a large communal table, in a booth or on lounge furniture, drinking too much sake and Suntory draft beer.
It feels like a rollicking end-of-year office Christmas party just before it gets totally out of hand and you tell the boss what you really think.
Owned by Japan's Goryon-San, and operated by North Sydney wagyu yakiniku restaurant, Rengaya, Goryon-San brings the neon-lit back-alley madness of Tokyo to the streets of Surry Hills.
It's a typical kakurega, a casual, pub-style izakaya that prides itself on being a place to hide away, relax and have fun.
It's not a place to get all uppity when the sweet, iPad-toting waitstaff bring the wrong order, don't bring an order at all, or tell you that the three things you were dying to try are sold out.
All these things happen, and may well continue to happen, but you're better off just ordering another lightly bitter Japanese lager (Hitachino Nest, $14) and not worrying about it.
You can, of course, order stuff that isn't on a stick. Goma salmon ($19) is a hearty dish of big fleshy furls of raw salmon teamed with green leaves, edible flowers and nori seaweed, scantily dressed with sesame cream. But really, Goryon-San is all about the sticks.
Hakata, on the island of Kyushu, is where pork belly meets kushiyaki – and what food on a stick could not be improved by being wrapped in pork belly?
But somehow, the tightly packed lettuce wrapped in pork belly ($6.50), the bacon-wrapped scallop ($7.50) and even the buta bara of cubed pork belly ($5.50) are all plain old bland.
There's none of that straight-off-the-binchotan sizzle, and little of that salty, savoury, lip-licking savouriness that makes kushiyaki and yakitori such great drinking food.
The best orders go beyond pork belly, such as tsukune ($8 each), the chicken minced to a smooth, fine paste and formed into an elegant torpedo, with raw egg yolk for dipping.
There's a lightly spicy, house-made pork sausage ($5.50) that's worth a nibble, and a "sukiyaki" skewer ($8.50) that cleverly wraps enoki mushrooms and chrysanthemum leaves (shungiku) in a too-thin strip of wagyu, brushed with sukiyaki glaze and grilled with a log of spring onion.
Then I sleuth the culprit: it's the grill. Not charcoal, and not even gas, but electric.
Head chef Akihito Marui, formerly cooking with charcoal at Haberfeld's Yakitori Jin, works hard, intently focussed on rotating and fanning, but he's never going to be able to fly without binchotan for wings.
So my go-to dish isn't off the grill, it's the Hakata taki nabe hotpot ($19/$35) of sweetly vegetal, house-made pork gyoza dumplings served in a seething, bubbling lava of rich, mouth-filling pork bone tonkotsu broth. Add excellent ramen noodles ($5) and dive in.
With its cheery atmosphere and hustle-and-bustle, Goryon-San is definitely a good-time joint – although, why the taste profile is so shy and retiring when everything else is so stand-up and shouty beats me. Like I said, crazy.
Vegetarian: Bit of a struggle – a handful of salads and vegetable kushiyaki.
Drinks: Sangria, Suntory beer on tap, full range of Japanese Hitachino Nest craft beers, much sake and shochu, and well-priced NZ and Australian-led wines (most bottles under $70).
Go-to dish: Hakata taki – gyoza in rich tonkotsu pork broth, ($19) with ramen noodles ($5).
Pro tip: For the full experience, try for a seat at the grill counter.