Gleaming translucent fishes are elegantly draped across hand-formed ovals of vinegared rice, then dressed with toppings so small they appear to be in miniature.
I’m sitting at the sushi bar at Shiki, one of Sydney’s oldest Japanese restaurants, with more than three decades of experience under their obis. I’m dining with a friend who comes here often, so I’ve left him in control of ordering. He’s thrown out menus in favour of leaving our meal in the hands of Shiki’s skilled sushi chef, capping it with a seventy dollar per person spend.
We’re greeted with hot towels, which you place on curved holders for use later in the meal, then our adventure begins with an Amuse Plate ($24) of Japanese appetisers. In one pot, fried tofu and shimeji mushrooms are served in chilled dashi and soy; a second offers boiled horenso spinach resting on a thick pool of white sesame paste; while the third – my favourite - presents barely cooked scallops in vinegared miso with egg studded with bright green edamame. Along with a shot glass of Sunset Akanesasu ($9/60ml) – a junmai sake brewed from organic rice in the Nagano Prefecture, this trio of dishes paradoxically serves to both sate my gnawing hunger while at the same time making me hungry for more.
With a slate tile placed in front of each diner, it’s clear we won’t be waiting long. The slate remains at the top of the counter, and you use your chopsticks to collect the procession of nigiri.
Unlike many Japanese restaurants where this would be fraught with peril, the rice mix here has the perfect balance between delicacy and functionality. No pieces crumble upon touch – and when a twisted conger eel (anago) nigiri unwraps slightly, it is immediately discarded and remade.
And before you go looking for soy sauce, they’ve cleverly removed it from diner control, with the chef applying it himself as required. He’s also putting a putting a dab of wasabi inside the nigiri sushi, though you’re able to add more from your slate tile directly on top of the fish if you’d like. We work out way through scallop (hotate), salmon belly nigiri, and two presentations of tuna.
One is served plain with finely diced chives; the other is circled by a thin band of marination and topped with black and white sesame seeds – they interest your mouth with texture as well as flavour.
Crustaceans here are a particular pleasure – gently kissed by the heat of a blowtorch, the aburi prawn nigiri is topped with a tiny pat of melting butter.
A gleaming scampi nigiri arrives with a tiny crown of flying fish roe (tobiko) and is the epitome of delicacy and sweetness, while a cooked prawn provides your mouth with more toothsome pleasure.
We break the rhythm with a diversionary snapper shabu shabu hotpot that recharges our palate without filling us too much, before returning to the slate for some more nigiri sushi.
After a stunning and silky block of slightly sweet egg (tamago), made using the house’s special dashi, and a gunkanmaki (warship roll) of salmon roe, we’re afforded the opportunity to select our last two pieces.
I opt for another marinated tuna, and a butter-topped aburi prawn, enjoying the delicate balance of flavours in both pieces the second time 'round.
Over a ball of matcha green tea ice cream, I muse that while Shiki is an expensive restaurant, I’d be hard pressed to recall a better Sydney sushi experience. Everything from the sushi rice, to fish quality, all the way to the temperature each piece was served at, seemed carefully controlled.
Seasonal menus give diners one way to avoid cost blowouts; and from the tantilising aroma swirling around the dining room, it seems many guests are enjoying the Wagyu BBQ Special Set ($90/head). This menu includes super premium wagyu cooked at the table on Himalayan pink salt. Despite being utterly sated with sushi, the aroma is enough to entice me to come back and enjoy it myself, ideally with a window table with a view down Argyle Street to the harbour.
Level 1, Clocktower Shopping Centre, 35 Harrington Street, The Rocks
Ph: (02) 9252 2431