Tokonoma

Terry Durack
Heritage hero: Tokonoma slips into the basement of a striking 1930s building.
Heritage hero: Tokonoma slips into the basement of a striking 1930s building. Photo: Fiona Morris

44 Bridge Street (Entry via Loftus Lane) Sydney, New South Wales 2000

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Opening hours Tue - Fri 12:00 – 3:00 PM 5:30 – 11:00 PM, Sat 5:30 – 11:00 PM
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Degustation, Gluten-free options, Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Romance-first date, Events
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Sunil Shrestha, Hao Chen
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 9251 8185

Why don't restaurants give you chopstick rests anymore? After 1500 years of faithful service, they appear to have gone to that great chopstick resting place in the sky.

Almost everywhere I go, I'm left holding my choppies in my paw as plates are cleared or replaced. Leaving them on the table would be hygienically dubious. Resting them on the little bowl of soy is fraught with peril.

But apart from not supplying chopstick rests, those behind the launch of the new Tokonoma have spared little. Set up as a city branch of Surry Hills' 15-year-old Toko by owner Matt Yazbek, Tokonoma slips into the basement of a striking heritage-listed 1930s building, under Ross and Sunny Lusted's The Bridge Room. The long, narrow, counter-lined room mixes blonde woods and sandstone, ending in a curved wall of faded murals based on 19th century artist Ando Hiroshige's ukiyo-period paintings.

'Crusty' robata-grilled lamb cutlets with spiced miso.
'Crusty' robata-grilled lamb cutlets with spiced miso. Photo: Fiona Morris

The modern Japanese offerings on the menu channel those time-honoured dishes originally popularised by Nobu Matsuhisa, from miso black cod and popcorn shrimp, to soft shell crab maki. Toko regulars settle in instantly, ordering edamame, miso cod, and a stock exchange worth of sashimi omakase while checking their smartphones and sipping draft Asahi. The menu seems as familiar to them as their Facebook page.

If that's the case, then I'd definitely "like" the half dozen Wallis Lake Sydney Rocks on ice, with a touch of tosazu rice vinegar dressing ($30), and "friend" the kingfish maki, small neatly formed nori rolls of fresh fish and avocado topped with a crisp dehydrated slice of blood lime for extra snap.

The day's selection of eight nigiri ($26): "like". A somewhat limp salad of king crab and soba noodles ($24): "unlike". I'm inclined to "block" the tempura of avocado ($12) altogether - not for the execution, nor for the dashi dipping broth, but because the idea of deep-frying rich, creamy wedges of avocado upsets something deep in my psyche.

A half dozen Wallis Lake Sydney rock oysters on ice.
A half dozen Wallis Lake Sydney rock oysters on ice. Photo: Fiona Morris

An over-the-top honeybug nigiri ($24), flavoured with truffle and showered in micro-shaved frozen foie gras has me stranded somewhere between like and un-like. Same with the popcorn shrimp with shichimi mayonnaise ($18), due to the fact that the tempura prawn nuggets (let's call them by their real name) don't taste of anything much.

"Crusty" robata-grilled lamb cutlets ($32) on a smear of spiced miso is a definite "follow", because they taste more of lamb than of sweet miso.

The snazzy cocktail list and useable sake selection, with six available by the glass are a definite "share with friends". Share, too, the well-judged, surprisingly expansive wine list that includes a fresh and juicy Torbreck Juveniles GSM from the Barossa ($70), clearly made with lamb cutlets in mind.

Smooth green tea frozen yoghurt ($8) served with a refreshing dice of strawberries and adorably squidgy little pebbles of mochi (gel-like Japanese rice cake). Liketty, like, like.

Tokonoma isn't doing anything particularly new or ground-breaking, but there's a lot to be said for the speedy service and nice staff attitude under manager Philippe Conry, and for giving people what they want. Well ... almost everything. Until such time as restaurateurs return chopstick rests to their rightful place, I pass on several alternatives. 1) The bridge of a pair of sunglasses. 2) A lipstick, if you have one handy, although there is the roll factor to take into consideration. 3) An upturned fork (nice cross-cultural thing going on here). 4) The chopsticks' own paper wrapper or a business card, concertina'd into a fold.

You're welcome.

THE LOWDOWN
Best bit
Asahi beer on tap, cold and creamy.
Worst bit You guessed it – no chopstick rests.
Go-to dish Robata-grilled lamb cutlets, spiced miso, pickled eggplant $32

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.