The phone lines at Sashimi Shingengsumi open to the public just six times each year. In a frantic, one-hour timeslot on a Monday evening, the tiny Crows Nest restaurant manages to book out their quota of twelve seats for every single Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evening in the next two months. After being thwarted once, I upped the ante by using a team of callers, including a friend’s daughters who are well-versed in securing K-pop tickets.
Success! A table for six is obtained in the tiny restaurant run by Shinji Matsui and his wife Tomoko. It’s a strictly BYO, cash-only business, so after warning each of my five guests to bring booze, mineral water and their $80 tithing in cash, I cross off the days until my omakase adventure.
Anticipation is a big part of dining, and the difficulty of securing a table here really adds to the excitement. We arrive early and mingle outside on the quiet street. Peering inside I can see two high, science bench tables surrounded by six bum-shaped stools. The rest of the undecorated space is taken up by a small kitchen and takeaway sushi fridge, where Tomoko will store your drinking supplies.
All six diners face the board where Matsui-san will perform his magic, his time divided equally between the two groups. It makes the pacing of the 15-piece meal just about perfect.
We kick off with a pre-made appetiser of dressed oyster, grilled salmon, and an octopus tentacle topped with yamaimo (mountain yam) that's almost impossible to pick up with chopsticks. It works to shut everyone's stomach up because we all arrived hungry.
The main event is an almost non-stop procession of seafood, served piece-by-piece on beautiful, room-temperature koshihikari sushi rice. Exactly what seafood is dependent upon what has caught Matsui-san’s eye during his daily visits to the fish market. Some of the sushi, like our opening kingfish, arrives topped with little pieces of extra fish. There’s no use for remainders in such a tightly formatted business.
Unlike the omakase by Tomoyuki Matsuya at nearby HaNa Ju-Rin where condiments are strictly controlled by the chef, most of these nigiri pieces are served unglazed. This leaves the application of shoyu (soy sauce) and wasabi in the hands of the diner. I’m nervous about stuffing it up across creamy raw scampi (tenaga ebi) and a tiny mound of rice enveloped by a carefully cleaved scallop (hotate).
By the time we get to a piece topped with layers of cooked sweet prawn, the tension is broken by one of my dining companions asking if it’s okay to mix their wasabi and their soy. There’s no look of abject horror from our chef, so we relax into our grouper topped with glistening yellow herring roe, adding wasabi, shoyu and pickled ginger as is our wont.
Each piece, like the trevally, is prepared in front of us and placed by hand on our personal eating board.
By the time we hit aburi salmon, kissed by the blowtorch at our table, my branded eating board is splattered with soy and littered with prawn tails. It makes me miss the attention to detail I’ve experienced at restaurants like Shiki, where diner untidiness during the omakase is impeccably handled. The gently torched fish is accompanied by a bowl of miso soup, accentuated with burdock and offcuts of the various fishes - nothing is wasted here.
Presented to the table as lustrous deep red slabs, tuna is handled reverently by our chef, who pauses to allow us to appreciate its majesty.
Our whole table coos over sea urchin roe (uni) briny and delightful without any need for accentuation.
The blowtorch comes out again for twice-cooked saltwater eel (anago).
Served glazed and wrapped around the sushi rice, it’s a unique presentation that’s fun to pop straight into your mouth.
With the three types of sake we brought starting to make me a more forgetful photographer, we move into our tenth piece. Japanese otoro – tuna sourced from the fattiest part of the fish – is given the tiniest hint of caramelisation through the application of fire. There’s snapper with shiso and seaweed then aburi imperador (alfonsino) a firm-fleshed red fish that isn’t so popular in Sydney, so Matsui-san points it out on the fish chart to be sure we know what we’re eating. I suspect there was some torched fatty kingfish belly in there too.
With all eyes on his knife skills, Matsui-san makes short work of garfish.
He used their shiny skin to make them into bow-like masterpieces set off by pink boiled prawn floss.
One of my favourite pieces is the triple-decker squid topped with salmon roe. The elegant cuts make the squid creamy and tender, as it tickles all corners of your mouth with tentacle-like precision.
While I’m hitting my limit with yellowtail cut like crocodile-skin, one of my dining companions gets Matsui-san to hit us again with a salmon and cucumber handroll.
Luckily tamagoyaki takes a bit of time to make, so I’m more than ready by the time Matsui-san has finished pushing his egg omelette around with wooden blocks. It’s the first time it’s been cooked in front of me, and served hot, though it still doesn't unseat Raku’s squid-ink coloured tamagoyaki as my champion of this dish.
We say goodbye over a bowl of matcha (green tea) ice cream. While Sashimi Shinsengumi might not be the best omakase meal in Sydney, I conclude the meal very grateful that their rigid booking process pushed me into sharing an excellent evening with friends.
Food experiences are best shared, and I felt lucky to share a table with Look Mum No Hands and his talented wife, even if he is funnier than me, and takes better photos. Check out his impressions of our shared meal HERE.
Shop 5, 7-11 Clarke Street, Crows Nest
Ph: (0468) 357 161