Published in the City Hub and City News.
This week’s guest columnist is Akiko Ganivet, a freelance food writer currently reviewing Japanese restaurants for Sydney Morning Herald’s Everyday Eats. Here are her favourite izakaya hangouts south of the bridge…
I moved to Surry Hills more than five years ago when Toko (www.toko.com.au) opened. As a Japanese expat hankering for comfort food, I rushed to see what the fuss was about at this high-end izakaya. The cocktails, the spicy edamame, sushi, grilled meats and the look-at-me scene were all fun, but for me, it wasn’t what an izakaya was all about. A typical izakaya in Japan is a buzzy, casual boozer serving food to share that goes well with beer and sake. It shouldn’t be a place where getting a waiter’s attention is as hard as hailing down a cab on a rainy Friday!
Photo by Mizuya
Since then, izakaya joints have sprouted like bamboo shoots in every suburb. The too-cool-for-school crowd has spread its wings to groovy hotspots like Sake (www.sakerstaurant.com.au) at The Rocks. So what is the difference between a Japanese restaurant and an izakaya? An old-school izakaya would not normally have a dedicated sushi chef because it’s more like a casual tapas bar. Besides, eating rice fills you up when all you want is beer! But in Sydney where diners like a bit of raw fish action, sushi takes up a chunk of an izakaya menu. Yes, the line is blurred between the two establishments Down Under; in Japan an izakaya joint wouldn’t serve rice/meat/miso soup combos because again, it is a place to drink where food is just part of the package.
Essentially, an izakaya is a cheap(ish) place where you can hang out for a very long time without feeling harassed. Or it’s a place you can just pop by for post-work drinks and go home for dinner. What makes izakayas stand out are their deep-fried options. Recently opened My Zakaya (316 Bourke St, Surry Hills) does the trick well with their juicy kushiage sticks. They are skewered meats ($6/2 pieces) and seafood ($6.50 / 2 pieces), crumbed and fried till golden. There is something primitive about sinking your teeth into meat on a skewer that makes drinking with your mates all the more primal.
A slightly pricier option in the CBD specialising in kushiyaki (skewered grilled meat) is Azuma Kushiyaki (www.azuma.com.au/kushiyaki). What I love about this place is that they have good carbs! In Japan, when we drink, we order a whole heap of savoury dishes to snack on and leave carbs for much later. Azuma Kushiyaki does a mean chazuke (a soul-cleansing bowl of rice soaked with dashi tea) topped with sliced sashimi tuna ($15), as well as a soothing zosui ($15), which is like a risotto without cream.
Photo by Mizuya
Quick service also goes hand in hand with a good izakaya. Mizuya (www.mizuya.com.au) in the city has that method down pat with the touch panel ordering system. The only downside is that you could end up with way too much food by getting too carried away with the screen!
Quick service it ain’t, but my all time favourite is a humble izakaya called Yokozuna (159 Oxford St, Darlinghurst) run by a Japanese couple with decades of experience under their belts. Okay, they are not licensed, but Japanese expats clutching a bottle of BYO sake weep with joy when they see the selection of sake accompaniments ($16) like crunchy deep-fried fish bones and soy-infused John Dory liver (hailed as the foie gras of the marine world). Oka-san also serves brilliant oshinko pickles ($6) and smartly uses shiso (perilla) herbs and pink myoga ginger when seasonal; their dishes remind me of home-cooked meals in Japan.
To me, nothing beats enjoying comfort food with close friends in an izakaya, where relaxing is the main goal.