102 21 Alberta St Sydney, NSW 2000
|Opening hours||Sun Closed ; Open Dinner Mon-Sat 5:30–10pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Wheelchair access, Degustation, Private dining, Romance-first date|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 8068 9774|
We all know Tuscany in Italy, Provence in France, and Mendoza in Argentina. But Shimane, in Japan? Sorry, never heard of it. When I say as much, Yu Sasaki smiles. "Nobody knows my home," he says. "Nobody has been there."
So it's fitting that Sasaki's tiny restaurant in Surry Hills is not on everybody's radar, sandwiched, as it is, into a laneway behind his Cre Asian cafe and macaronerie on the city side of Wentworth Avenue.
Pretty much everything about the place – the Sodeshi pottery, gyuto knives and washi paper on which the menus are printed, even the architect, Natsumi Yawata – hails from the remote prefecture on the western side of Honshu island.
The spare, intrinsically Japanese interior celebrates the beauty of everyday things. A single shelf for ceramics. A single candle on the wall. A small box on the floor for holding bags, or for those sitting in the antechamber open to the street, knee rugs.
There are tables, but the best seats (hard, Tasmanian oak) are gathered around a small bar. It's such an intimate space that people feel compelled to talk in whispers – even the polite staff, who are a little difficult to understand.
The food also evokes Shimane, with the chef basing each dish on memories of his mother's home cooking.
You'll struggle with the menu, divided as it is into meat, seafood, vegetable, side dish and bite-sized desserts known as hitokuchi-gashi. Is the whiting sunomono? Does egg denote chawan mushi? Kangaroo and ginger ($15), for instance, turns out to be a curiously satisfying pile of rich, shredded, soy-braised sweet meat, served with crunchy jicama and ginger ($15).
As the small dishes emerge from the tiny kitchen, however, it soon becomes clear that they all speak the same language.
There's the sensuality of a silken egg custard topped with generous fingerlings of crab meat ($11), and the nothing-to-hide elegance of sweet, translucent slices of salt-cured whiting topped with a fine julienne of radish ($19), the fish gleaming against the dark plate like moonlight on water.
Briny mackerel is rolled around soft, warm, perfectly vinegared rice and capped with crisp, fibrous lotus stem ($23). Red miso soup ($10) is as chunky as minestrone, gutsy with vegetables, tofu, and gelatinous konnyaku (from the devil-tongue yam).
Just the sort of thing a Japanese mum would give a favourite son who has just trudged home from school in the middle of a Honshu winter.
"Pork, salt and daikon" ($26) is a mystery parcel of pork chops cooked inside a bready salt crust sarcophagus; the pork dry and a struggle to eat. I love the big clay hotpot on the counter filled with rice studded with salmon (takikomi gohan, $12). When it's gone, it's gone.
The miniature sweet treats (what a cool idea) star a fun-times eating experience simply titled "caramel and nuts" ($6); a cherry blossom mould of crisp monaka rice wafer enclosing soy caramel praline nuts and chilled caramel mousse. Squish, bite, smile.
This little gem is simple and almost painfully heartfelt; a unique, nostalgic experience that is a world apart from the circus of teppanyaki or the glamour of sushi. It's not for everyone, which I've come to learn is not so much a criticism, as a compliment.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.
Best bit: The focus on a single region.
Worst bit: The cryptic menu.
Go-to Dish: "Caramel and nuts" from the hitokuchi-gashi menu, $6.