August 12th, 2008

Does My Bomb Look Big In This?

Review - Azuma

We all have idiosyncrasies about things. One of mine is that I prefer to go to what I call 'stand alone' restaurants and shops. You know the sort - where you can park outside the restaurant, and enter straight into it. So I was a little predisposed to not like the setting of Azuma, inside the Chifley Tower. It seems though that once you step inside the restaurant, you are effectively transported somewhere else, particularly on the walk to the bathrooms, past the sushi bar, and the private dining rooms (which seat around 6-8 people per room). It does feel like a small slice of Japan hidden inside Chifley Tower.

Even from our table, the views of the outside world (ie Chifley Tower's food court) were nicely frosted. Apparently the restaurant is here by invitation - they had an existing restaurant in Crows Nest, and were asked to open up by the tower's management. We attended in the quieter evening time (they're busy at lunch time with the office crowd), and even on a Monday, there were quite a few diners, and tables around us even turned over while we dined.

Chef Kimitaka Azuma presents traditional yet innovative Japanese cuisine. If you aren’t familiar with the cuisine, the Omakase Degustation ($110/head) is the way to go – ten wonderful courses, immaculately presented as works of art, on plates that are themselves works of art by ceramic artist Mitsuo Shoji.

We started with an Azuma Cocktail ($13) - it was made with Kara Sake, Limoncello Liqueur and Lime Juice. I found it highly acidic, but fresh and it felt preparatory for the onslaught of flavours to come.

The wine list is superb by the way - everything from respectable to divine, an expansive collection of French and Italian wines, and reasonable markups (around 100%). There's also a GREAT collection of half bottles (aimed at the business lunch crowd) ranging from $29-$198, which is a great way to try some top end wines that would be very expensive by the whole bottle. It’s possible to drink well at a variety of price points, and of course, it is possible to drink very, very well.

Our first course was a beautifully balanced oyster served with potato starch jellies which are made from a potato powder imported from Japan. They were served with a great miso and vingear dipping sauce.

The next course, the Azuma Style Japanese Amuse Bouche was one of my favourite courses. The Nanohana Greens in a sesame based sauce in the square bowl were a highlight. The waitress seeing me struggle with spelling her explanation going and writing it down for me, was the first inkling of the exceptional service this restaurant provides. I never once looked for a waitress, as you raise your head they miraculously appear, without hovering.

To me, five star service is giving every diner the dining experience that they want, regardless of what that is. Azuma has this down pat – for my table, our waitress was knowledgeable and friendly; for our neighbours, she was deferential and graciously allowed the customer the ‘inside scoop’ on which sashimi was fresh. Actually it all was fresh; check out the amazing striations on the Blue Fin Tuna Belly above, presented with Salmon and Kingfish! I also appreciated the wasabi presented as a flower.

I loved this course - a sample of the Azuma Unique Sushi ($20/ 5 pieces). We tried an especially wonderful piece of Seared Salmon Belly, and the mirin and soy Marinated Tuna.

The most challenging course was the Steamed Savoury Egg Custard with Prawn, Scallop and Shitake. It was strange to taste a totally savoury custard, sort of like it was custard sitting on stock.

The Assorted Seasonal Tempura course demonstrated clean oil, and a lovely potato tempura slice which I enjoyed.

The Wagyu Sirloin Steak with Garlic Soy Sauce was amazing, but I was very, very full by this point. It's about at this point in the meal that we notice Tetsuya Wakuda sitting and dining at the Sushi Bar, with a very content expression, patting his belly. A trip to the toilet (each) to take in this vista is well worth the effort, and he looked as happy with his meal, as I was with mine.

I was a bit scared of another savoury course - but interestingly, it wasn't 'bigger' than the Wagyu, it was a step back. To me this is the mark of a sophisticated degustation - playing the diner, rather than just building, and building until we all cry ENOUGH. The dish is Seared Tuna with Daikon and Citrus Soy, and it was lovely.

After this, a bowl of the best Udon Noodles I have tried - silky yet firm, and I wished for the appetite to finish them! They were especially good with the chilli salt they served with them.

Dessert was the only course I was not so excited by. There was nothing Japanese about it, and frankly that was the drawcard about the menu for me - learning more about Japanese food. That said, I wasn't hungry anymore by this point anyway, and again, it looked pretty on the plate. You're seeing a creme brulee, a ball of mango sorbet and some chocolate mousse.

At this point, things got a little surreal. As we left, we were farewelled by every member of floor staff, culminating in a chat with that famous fellow diner - the esteemed Tetsuya Wakuda whose own restaurant is ranked in the world’s top ten. Tetsuya thanked us for dining at Azuma and told us it was a good restaurant. Then the Azumas presented us with gift bags containing two bottles of their house branded wine. I giggled all the way to the car like a little girl, it was a foodie's dream meal.

The wines we received were a Pinot Noir, a Shiraz, a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc. I really liked the Azuma branded Chardonnay ($12/glass) by Sergio Carlei - he makes a sterling blush pink Pinot Gris which I liked at Sobo too.

If you're interested in Japanese cuisine, and/or good wine, this restaurant is well worth a visit. Theatre buffs should ask about their well-priced Pre-Theatre Menus ($55/ 2 courses, $66/ 3 courses).

Level 1, Chifley Plaza, 2 Chifley Square, Sydney
Ph: (02) 9222 9960

Azuma on Urbanspoon
Does My Bomb Look Big In This?

Review - Ocean Room

Please also see updated review HERE.

The Overseas Passenger Terminal at West Circular Quay houses a number of top-end restaurants. Ocean Room is not the first of them I have dined at, but each time I dine at one, the view still gets me. This restaurant sits nearly opposite the Sydney Opera House, so ferries and river catamarans passing by have got up a bit of speed, so there's a sense of motion and the world passing by as you sit and soak it all up.

Ocean Room is one of those restaurants where my dining companion's nicotine addiction didn't bother me one iota - who could complain as they looked at the view I was absorbing, with a glass of lovely wine in hand?

For that matter, my smoking companion wasn't complaining either - while many restaurants relegate the smoker to propping up a telegraph pole on the street, at Ocean Room they give smokers pride of place with a million dollar view. I was even compelled to take a wander out there myself.

But I have got ahead of myself. Let's go back to the very beginning... as you walk in, the restaurant announces that they have a seafood focus (in case the name didn't give it away) with live tanks (or aquariums as one waiter called them). I'll just say, to me, if I am to eat it, it's a live tank, if I am to admire it, it's an aquarium. It's not a criticism, it's just a way of not finding 'cute' that which I am about to consume. It works for me to keep things in their place.

My photo does it no justice, but the restaurant itself is a beautiful space. Think contemporary, with lots of empty space - which makes their well-chosen music sound great! After all, space is luxury, and this empty void is used to great effect with lights that look like crocuses hanging down in cream, and drooping tulips in red... there was an element of spring having sprung, and my is that something I am looking forward to!

Executive Chef Raita Noda is somewhat of a style king in the kitchen, and ‘styling’ is just the right word for the dishes that come out. The cuisine is contemporary Japanese fusion – it’s colourfully plated, fresh and imaginative. At the chef's request, we were there to dine on his Tasting Menu ($90/head).

The first dish was a duo Fresh Oysters ($4/each) - a rock oyster from Merimbula, and a pacific oyster from Coffin bay, both served with an add-your-own Champagne Vinaigrette. They were excellent.

They also came with an optional rather tasty Brazilian hot sauce. Our straight backed and easygoing waiter/ballerina Tobias Munday (who is an asset to this sexy space) said he's now addicted to it. I can see why!

Next up was a touch of molecular - Anchovies and Tomato Sorbet ($16) - which in my opinion was the weakest dish I tried. Take into account I am not keen on anchovies when I say that. However I do like molecular cooking, so a vine ripened tomato sorbet made me happy - even if it did get teamed with a crouton.

The wine list is solid, but it’s in the hands of a new sommelier, Nigel Gladstone who is finding it a bit hostile. I left my drinking in his hands, and really enjoyed the glass of Perrier Jouet Brut ($22/glass) from Epernay, France with my oyster, and the 2006 Nevis Bluff Pinot Gris ($85/bottle) from Central Otago, New Zealand he chose for the following few courses. So I will reserve my overall judgement (that I suppose would include it being a tad pricy) until he has a chance to make it his own.

The Wasabi Prawns ($18) with bright green flying fish roe, are not to be missed - they were beautifully cooked, and the roe added a delicate, yet lovely flavour. The wasabi was present but not overly dominant, its effect eased by mayonnaise.

Raita's take on Mexican bar food, Soft Shell Crab Tacos ($18) is also a winner. Look at how delicate the batter is! It was a salty snack, that worked perfectly with the ocean trout roe, and contrasted with the bean sprout and eschalot mix stuffed within. All of the courses up to this point worked quite effectively to stimulate your appetite even more. They left us wanting more... a good place to be at this point in a degustation menu.

Jamon Iberico Bellotta ($26) was left unadulterated, as it should be. The price reflects that it is 'gran reserva' and of course, this is the degustation serve, rather than the entree serve, but I am giving you the entree prices so you see where it sits. The green Sicilian olives were a nice contrast.

If you like molecular gastronomy, order the Cured Ocean Trout ($18) topped with Parmigiano ice-cream, more ocean trout roe and preserved lemon salsa. It's a bit chilly on the tongue, but a good combination. In fact, I liked it a lot.

If you’re more traditionally inclined, the Sushi and Sashimi Indulgence ($38) comes with the best Yellowfin Tuna I’ve ever tasted. (Again, this is a degustation portion, the real deal has 10 pieces, and all of their other sushi and sashimi selections have 5 pieces except where otherwise indicated on the menu).

The Marron ($17/100g with average weights 200-270g) are divine - served in a Thai style with fried onions and coriander. We got the whole set of instruments too, despite it not having claws worth much effort - but I tried anyway.

Cod is not a fish I have revisited as an adult often, blessed as I am with horrifying memories of a cod dish my Mother boiled in milk. This dish, Saikyo Miso Cod ($36), has redeemed cod for me. The cod fillet was marinated and then baked in sweet miso, and it was delicious.

At this point we saw the neighbouring table had a great side delivered - Autumn Truffle French Fries ($12) with large visible slices of truffle. If I wasn't so full, I would have been envious. And we must leave something to try when I return (which by now I have already decided I am going to).

The mint-crusted Roasted Rack of Spring Lamb ($39) impressed – but frankly, I’d stay with the seafood here, it’s the specialty. The lamb has an excellent bed of chilli haricot beans, that I enjoy a lot too.

A brief sojourn to the bathroom also proves stylish. I muse that this is definitely a date restaurant, and one where you can seal the deal (or unseal it, as the case may be). However if you're in need of a bit of reinforcement, end with the Ocean Room Assiette ($34 for two). This is the best dessert tasting plate I have tried for a long time, and it suited my dining companion as well (a rare thing with this dining companion, a tad anti-dessert would you believe?) I was also impressed that this restaurant doesn't 'throw away' dessert as so many that excel in the rest of the meal seem to.

Starting at the front right - a seriously amazing vivid green apple sorbet on crisp slices of apple. At the front left, a roasted apple brulee with cream anglais (stewed apple under a more traditional brulee), also excellent. At the back a piece of the best chocolate honeycomb ever, a bitter chocolate brownie, a gorgeous crisp fried mint leaf in a beautiful butterscotchy mousse, surrounded by a caramel crackly edge. We fought spoons over that one... where's the dining companion who doesn't like dessert, I wondered?

This was an excellent meal.

Ocean Room
Bay 4, Ground Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, Circular Quay West, The Rocks
Ph: (02) 9252 9585

Ocean Room on Urbanspoon