There is a distinct sense of intimacy to dining at Darlinghurst’s new Gaku Robata Grill. Just twenty-odd seats and curve-backed counter stools fit inside the postage stamp sized space.
However in choosing his wooden furnishings, Chef Harunobu Inukai, has not skimped on size or quality; leading to some entertaining moments of restaurant Tetris.
It’s the first time I’ve seen this chef since Blancharu, nearly a decade earlier, and I’m excited about eating Haru-san’s particular blend of French and Japanese cooking again. When his face peeks over the glass cabinet showing off their cha-shu, tuna and fish collars, I find it hard not to grin.
Despite the restaurant’s diminutive capacity, service here is slow and deliberate. The slow wheels of bureaucracy mean they’re still awaiting council approval for their robata grill, but the kitchen isn’t short on ideas to lure in diners in the mean time.
By day, that is forty bowls of ramen - be warned, they sell out quickly. The standard Chicken Tonkotsu ($15) is made using free-range chicken bones. The soup has a lovely, syrupy, collagen-rich texture that coats your mouth without outstaying its welcome. The full flavoured broth isn’t overly salty either. It’s served with ramen (wheat noodles), greens and a generous amount of tasty cha-shu pork rounds, before being garnished with shallots (negi), radish slices, half an ‘umami’ egg, and a handful of crisp burdock sticks.
By night Gaku is more of an izakaya, with cocktails, sake and small plates. Gari Gari Ginger ($14) helps us combat flu season with Scotch and four types of ginger swirling around in a highball.
We move onto warmed Masuizumi ($17/$34/$133), junmai ginjo sake brewed in the Toyama prefecture on the west coast of Japan with our first dish. It's Wagyu Bresaola ($9) air-dried beef slices with Brussels sprouts, buttermilk and a dusting of shichimi (Japanese seven-spice) that quickly gets our palate invested in what is about to follow.
The specials menu, populated with locally blue fin tuna from the Ulladulla region, proves too hard to resist. 3-Kinds Sashimi ($36) presents toothsome pale pink otoro, marbled chutoro and akami tuna, all cut from different parts of the same fish.
If happiness has a flavour, I suspect the Negi Toro Hand Roll ($7) with the Sea Urchin ($3) addition would be it. Here the blue fin tuna is presented as tartare with shallots on a papery sheet of crisp nori. An orange lobe of uni is balanced on top with baby shiso leaves. You pick it up, wrap it gently together, shove it in your mouth and then die a little bit inside because food is rarely this perfect, and it's already over.
Wagyu and Sea Urchin ($8) nigiri sushi made me feel super white and awkward. A blanket of thinly seared wagyu beef obscures the rice entirely. It’s glistening with sweet soy, and topped with tiny sea urchin lobes and a ball of wasabi. I have no idea how to even approach eating it, but Haru-san and his team provide some over the counter encouragement with a minimum of mirth.
Burying my nose in a lidded earthenware pot of Chawan Mushi ($15) gives me time to ease my burning cheeks. In this tasty version, the savoury egg custard offers up spanner crabmeat, seasonal fresh truffle and truffle sauce. I want to eat it more slowly and savour every bite, but with two experienced chefs in the kitchen - Haru-san is joined in the tiny kitchen by Shimon Hanakura (ex-Aria) – and so few seats, everything comes out rather quickly.
Chinese-influenced Nasu Nibitashi ($12) gives you tender, marinated baby eggplant with Sichuan pepper oil and ginger sauce, and is a perfect drinking dish.
There’s something about Haru-san’s return to simplicity, captured in Saikyo Yaki ($24), a crisp toothfish collar with Brussels sprouts and lime that really appeals. At Gaku they are cooking exactly the type of food I want to be eating: here, today, now, in this present time.
Gaku Robata Grill
132 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst
Ph: (02) 9380 2145