Brought to my attention in the popular 2011 documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Jiro Ono's 10-seater sushi-only restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, has stayed in my memory ever since. Over the course of the last two years, Raita Noda has essentially proven at Raita Noda Chef's Kitchen, that such a restaurant model not only translates to Sydney, but that it’s sustainable too.
The parallels between Noda’s tiny restaurant and the film don’t stop there. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is also the story of a father and his son - master and apprentice. As you make your way into the modern 8-seater Darlinghurst restaurant, Raita Noda’s son, Momotaro Noda, will direct you to your well-padded bar stool.
Between them, the two men take care of every function in this tiny eatery. Working in tandem in an almost silent dance, they eliminating the need for floor staff by passing dishes and drinks over the counter directly to diners.
A gleaming hunk of tuna is the first thing to catch my eye. "I don't order tuna, he sends it to me when it's good," Raita explains when I ask him how supply of whole fish works in a restaurant this small. He’s in the process of wrangling a gleaming silver hairtail that’s over a metre long, making quick work of turning it into two perfectly shaped fillets for use later in the evening.
While you’re not provided with a food menu in this chef’s choice (omakase) only restaurant, you can choose your own drinks. With some of my favourite labels - Bindi, Ochota Barrels, Kooyong and Tolpuddle - on the list, you’re pretty much guaranteed to pick a winner. “It's mostly a special occasion restaurant so the wines have to be special," explained Raita.
Raita is an experienced connoisseur of both wine and sake, and unlike you, he actually knows what dishes are coming up next, so theres something to be said for leaving both your 10-course Omakase Menu ($150/person) and your Matched Beverages ($100/person) in his capable hands.
Raita’s matches on this evening covered beer, wine and sake, with my most exciting match being Nick Spencer’s first eponymous 2016 Tumbarumba Chardonnay since leaving Eden Road Wines. I was only reading an article about this wine the week before, so it was exciting to drink it against a trio of Paradise prawns from New Caledonia wrapped around nicely dressed savoy cabbage, and topped with finger lime. The prawns have been lightly poached by a spoonful of super-hot Alto extra virgin olive oil poured over each of them, and the aroma of this cooking has us salivating before they’re even passed across the counter. The wine will still feel familiar to those who love Tumbarumba, a place where Spencer has been making chardonnay for the last ten years. This chardonnay drinks more smoothly, more gently and is less austere than any of his previous Eden Road wines.
The menu begins with Sydney rock oysters. We learn more about spherification by watching the chilli vinegar pearls being made right before our eyes. The pearls sit on little green rafts in a sea of Yamazaki-infused froth, and burst on the tongue in a mouthful that is at once hot, fresh and briny.
Nutty and refreshing on-tap Suntory Premium Malt beer is the perfect match for tacos. Stuffed with crisp soft shell crab in crisp dumpling skin taco shells, this Japanese taco harks back to Raita’s Ocean Room days.
You’ll also see Raita’s cheeky humour in his own-brand can of tuna, a dish you'll eat directly from the can.
Presented with a spoon of roasted natto (fermented soy beans), when you open your can you’ll see finely diced tuna, various flavourings and a quivering white sphere of liquid mozzarella. Mixed together it’s a crazy-good can of yellowfin tuna tartare.
Dobin mushi – which means teapot steaming – is your soup course. The earthenware teapot contains more Paradise prawns, long transparent glass noodles, and shimeji mushrooms. You can pour off tiny cups of the soup itself to consume by itself. It’s dashi made from imported Japanese kombu (seaweed) and bonito flakes, and is particularly lovely.
The tuna and locally caught hairtail we saw Raita processing earlier in the evening both appear in the sashimi course. Under a smoke-filled glass dome there’s fatty Saikou salmon from an alpine areas in New Zealand. It's rich, mouth coating and intensely smoky. The lightly scorched hairtail impresses; as does the texture of bar cod; and yellowfin tuna is always a favourite; however it’s lightly seared bonito that wins the platter. Aged for three days, this bonito is softer and gentler than other bonito I’ve tried, heightening this (often-maligned) fish’s elegance.
For our two main courses, we move onto red wines. The standout is the 2016 Fikkers Pinot Meunier from the Yarra Valley. It’s a varietal I’ve never drunk outside of a blend, and it’s juicy and wet, with a decidedly Chesterfield leather note. It’s a beauty against a disc of thrice-cooked pork belly with soy-marinated sancho peppercorns, and Japanese mustard. The pork isn’t much to look at, but its texture is sublime after a pan sear, some time in the pressure cooker, and then a grill. More picturesque, the Blue Mountains Wagyu rump cap from Suzuki-san is cooked only in salt and pepper.
We watch as it is coloured on the grill, finished in the oven, and given a sufficient seven to ten minutes to rest. Lime, salt and wasabi allow you to season your own beefy adventure, accompanied by leek.
Watching Raita Noda dance his way through five individually prepared pieces of nigiri sushi is the highlight of my evening. It’s the juxtaposition of this modern chef wearing a silver-glitter embellished chef’s jacket and funky white glasses using traditional ways to shape the rice he’s clasping lovingly between loose but precise hands that makes me grin.
We start with the creamiest cuttlefish seasoned with salt and lime – it’s tender but my tongue can barely feel the fine cuts Raita has employed to make it so.
We move through tuna, glistening from soy applied by atomiser, to save you from applying your own with too heavy a hand; then hairtail with squid soy glaze.
We end on flame-seared salmon belly, with its texture in some liminal zone between raw and cooked. I’m well sated but not stuffed.
As we wait for dessert – a chestnut bon bon with soy caramel sponge – we sip on Chateau Latapie Armagnac from Cannes and matcha green tea with digestive-aiding bitterness. Our eyes light upon Raita’s knife rack overhead and we spy that the bottom two items are actually light-sabres not tuna knives. Raita explains they’re both in Luke Skywalker’s colours – blue and green from after his hand is chopped off. This moment pretty much sums up the best part of dining at Raita Noda’s Chefs Kitchen – getting to know this quirky, interesting chef. Both Raita and his son Momotaro show great generosity with explaining technique and supplier information across the meal.
"When they leave they make a booking for next time," says Raita, by way of explaining why weekends here are booked up a few months in advance. He does let slip that you can probably get a weeknight meal with a couple of days notice. I file that away for next time.
Raita Noda Chef's Kitchen
Shop 1, 222 Riley Street, Surry Hills
Ph: (02) 8093 9807