When I go to Japanese restaurants for washoku, I’m generally seeking the perfect harmony of traditional Japanese flavours and beautiful presentation. However no cuisine is stagnant, so it should not be surprising to find out that even what is washoku evolves over time - and that contemporary Japanese fusion dishes can be washoku too.
If you’d like to see this in practical terms, head to Toshiya Kai’s eponymous restaurant on the north side of the harbour. In a contemporary black and red dining room – rammed on the night I dined – he’s dishing up a modern Japanese menu specialising in sushi, deep-fried, and grilled dishes.
And before you start reaching for the soy sauce – I should probably let you know, there isn’t any! Though I reckon where you’d ordinarily be reaching for soy, particularly on dishes like Seared Salmon Roll ($16.50/6), you’ll find them plenty saucy. Your inside-out avocado rolls capped by lightly seared salmon, spicy leeks and shallots, sit on a pretty sauce net of mayonnaise and sweet-soy.
An even better Spicy Volcano Roll ($19.50) turns saucing into a veritable eruption of seared sashimi tartar sauce and feisty teriyaki chilli oil, set around a mound of inside-out prawn tempura rolls.
You’ll also find saucing to be a strong suit on the dishes presented on the hand-written specials menu. Tenderly cooked Pan Fried Scallops ($16) gleam under a sticky, reduced balsamic, soy sauce glaze with a hint of red wine. The saucing is clever, adding a soft, woody earthiness to the intensely sea flavour of the pan-fried scallops, though visually I miss the golden sear usually so appealing on scallop dishes like this.
Covered in condiment, the Salmon Carpaccio ($15.50) dominates the salmon with a pleasant, big sesame taste, brightened by yuzu.
Even lightly seared Beef Tataki ($15.50) is slathered with chilli-coriander sauce, meaning by the time I hit an equally saucy raw tuna dish, my palate is pretty much sauced out...
Yet I'd also worked up a powerful thirst, so once more unto the breach I got on the sauce, this time with the new-to-menu Ryo Junmai Ginjo Sake ($22/180ml). This sake from the Tottori Prefecture is worth ordering, if only for beautiful twisted blue glass bottle.
The sake itself is smooth with subtle bitterness, but perhaps a bit too simple for my taste, though I have no such complaints about the full-bodied Takashimizu Junmai Daiginjo ($17/small). Those who prefer vinous libation will find a well-chosen wine list boasting Chablis, Chenin blanc and other Japanese friendly varietals like Muscadet. Though for me, it’s in the Japanese craft beers that Toshiya’s drinking options shine.
Ishikawa Brewery Bottle Conditioned Aged Pale Ale ($13/330ml) is refreshing, with good natural acid, and its bitterness, malt and hops in good balance. It’s quite the palate-cleanser against crisp gyoza skin Sashimi Tacos ($14/2), filled with juicy, raw sashimi-grade fish.
Ocean Kujukuri Pilsner ($12/330ml) is a bit heavier on malt, so it extends to suiting Soft Shell Crab ($12.50) with spicy leek, shallots, flying fish roe and chilli mayo.
Toshiya helped me to understand what attracts me personally to washoku cuisine - the simplicity and clarity of each key ingredient. What this restaurant does best is put forward an argument for the place of Japanese fusion cuisine; and with a ten-course banquet coming in under fifty bucks, it seems churlish to deny experimental cooking the room for hits and misses.
Shop 1, 283 Military Road, Cremorne
Ph: (02) 8969 6989