With George Street still an ongoing disaster zone from the Liberal Government’s overtime and over-budget light rail fiasco, it’s a tough ask getting into Izu Village. However, once you have dodged the luminous orange Coates Hire barricades, and taken the claustrophobic rat run up the narrow fenced off pavement, if you climb the stairs, you’re in for a nice surprise.
The orderly, 130-seater Japanese restaurant seems worlds away from the chaotic mess downstairs.
Blonde wood panelling divides the space into a series of more intimate spaces.
Window-front tables bathed in natural light are treated to clever wooden screening that lets in the trees while neatly hiding Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s light rail disaster down below.
Highlighted with a warm, golden glow, pretty tiled roof tops sit over a row of secluded booths, each dressed up as an intimate dining room for your private Japanese dining adventure.
You’re here to eat a timed Japanese Hot Pot Buffet ($68/person), and you have 90 minutes to do it in. The timer starts once you place your order with the plentiful, smartly clad floor team. A nicely illustrated menu gives you some idea of the options available but doesn’t really explain the process all that well, so I’ll try to give you some idea of what to do...
First you need to select what kind of broth you’d like in your hot pot. Make one side sukiyaki, a slow-cooked vegetable and marrow bone broth. It will come with a fresh beaten egg dip that’s particularly creamy and delicious on thinly sliced meat.
We opted for Japanese-style super spicy broth for the other side, though in retrospect I’d go for the miso soup because it comes with an even tastier hot miso dip.
You’ll also be offered a sashimi platter, but this is a one-off affair. Everything else in the menu can be ordered again as you see fit. Like most hot pot style meals, everything arrives as an avalanche, making you wonder if you’ve gone too far.
We kick off with the sashimi – a nicely presented selection of tuna, salmon, tender ark clam and scampi in the shell all served on ice. A gloved-up waitress quickly arrives to peel the scampi, getting our eating underway.
While your hot pots are getting up to the boil, assuage your hunger with sushi. There are six types, so you can either fight over who gets what, or order them in pairs. Remember: your favourites can be re-ordered.
Vegetables come in two different ways. Firstly, there is a whole menu page of seasonal appetisers, which you can order at will. We liked the Japanese mushroom salad, the thinly sliced pickled cucumber and crisp mustard radish, as they all represent nice ways to clear your palate between forays into the steaming hot soups.
You can also visit the Vegetable Bar with the black bowl you’ll find on your table.
More than just vegetables, it’s stocked with many of the same ingredients you’ll find in a malatang joint. This includes crab claws, cheese fish tofu logs, lobster balls, and awesome little cheese and sticky rice balls that I’d never tried before.
Just trying two of each item gave us a brimming bowl of ingredients to try out in our duelling soups. Don't neglect actual vegetables - wood ear fungus, enoki, shitake and mini king oyster mushrooms, and little sections of juicy corn, all come up very well in the lightly spicy soup.
To get the best value for your spend, you’re going to want to include meat. There are four options available – wagyu chuck, wagyu shoulder, pork shoulder and lamb. Kick off with one of each, and see what you like best. “Just ten seconds to cook the beef, ten seconds. It’s very tender and juicy,” our sweet and patient waitress advises. The wagyu chuck comes up best in the sukiyaki broth, cooked exactly as she recommends, then dragged through the raw beaten egg.
My other surprising favourite is the lamb, done exactly the same way, then given a bit of kick with miso chilli dip.
I’m told one tiny female diner once ordered and ate thirty-six stackable boxes of thinly sliced meat, setting a restaurant record. Most diners stay well under the twenty boxes it takes for the house to lose money on your meal.
Non-alcoholic drinks are included with your set meal spend. You’ll find everything from wintermelon tea to my favourite spicy food relief drink, Calpis, to apple juice displayed in shiny silver canisters. If you want the harder stuff, order it from your waitress – there’s beer, umeshu, Japanese whisky, wine and sake.
We kicked off with Chokyu Kinokuniya Bunzaemon ($20/300ml) a delicate fruity sake with a clean dry finish, perfect for drinking with sushi and sashimi. Later we move onto the Okonu Matsu ($16/300ml) that’s a little bit spicier, but still fruity and accessible. With our desserts we drink a light yuzu sake recommended by the friendly manager.
From the picture menu, my dining companion selects a little raindrop cake, stuffed with a super salty flower, flavoured with roasted soybean flour (kinako) and sweetened with brown sugar syrup (kuromitsu).
For me it’s a bowl of matcha mein mein ice (similar to shaved ice but not as sweet) topped with savoury red bean. It’s our waitress’s favourite, and easy to like if you’re not after a super-sweet finish to your meal.
While the process I’ve described might seem a bit bewildering, it’s smoothed by friendly, helpful staff. My own dinner proved it's entirely possible to complete a decent meal within the ninety-minute time-frame. A quick visit to the bathrooms on the way out will see you armed with enough complimentary mouthwash, extra hold hairspray, sunscreen and cocoa glow to do battle again with Gladys Berejiklian’s light rail disaster zone once again. That election can't come soon enough...
Izu Village Japanese Restaurant
Level 1, 630 George Street, Sydney
Ph: (02) 8288 9035