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