It's been dubbed Little Japan, and it's easy to see why. There are enough moody lanterns, brightly lit signs and choruses of irrashaimase to excite any Tokyophile in this newly renovated section of Regent Place. Remember the dark and rather mysterious entrance to Azuma? It's barely recognisable now with new tenants Yebisu Izakaya, a Japanese tapas-style bar serving sake, sushi and snacks from the grill.
The entire Azuma trio -- Azuma Restaurant, Azuma Patisserie and Ton Ton ramen -- have been replaced with Yebisu, Chanoma (serving green tea soft serve and hot dogs) and Tenkomori (a ramen and self-serve deep fried snack canteen of the Mappen and Oiden family).
If you squint a little, you can probably recall the layout of Azuma Restaurant. The bar and kitchen remain untouched. You can still see the room dividers that led into the private dining area. What interior designers Giant have done, is remove all the frontage, creating an open and informal dining option that is fun and accessible for the passing public. The Giant design company were behind the interiors for Yebisu, Chanoma and Tenkomori.
Touch screen menus at the counter
We stop by at lunchtime when the restaurant isn't quite so busy. Mounted iPad screens act as touchpad menus, although you can ask for a laminated menu if you don't want to scroll.
Counter stool seating
A seat at the counter gives you a view into the kitchen, but most larger parties are seated in the main dining area.
Yebisu Izakaya interior design by Giant Design
Assorted fries lunch set with sushi, anyone?
The lunch menu is smaller than we expect, with options mostly spanning lunch sets ($13.80-$29.80) or sushi. There are no yakitori or grill dishes listed, much to our disappointment.
Teriyaki salmon lunch set with sushi $15.80
The teriyaki salmon lunch set is more like a three course meal, a multi-course banquet that allows you to dip into miso soup, curls of fresh sashimi, a dressed salad, disc of slow simmered daikon, rice and a hefty slab of sweet and salty teriyaki salmon.
Tuna and salmon sushi with sashimi
Chirashi sushi lunch set $18.80
I've opted for the chirashi lunch set, a favourite order of mine because of its casual simplicity of fresh fish on top of vinegared rice. At $18.80, it's not a cheap lunch but the chirashi sushi is one of the best I've had. It's a seafood wonderland of salmon, tuna, kingfish and octopus crowned with glistening pearls of ripe ikura salmon roe that burst on the tongue.
It's the Japanese attention to the aesthetic, too, that so often transforms a meal into a memorable experience. Soft pillows of salmon are pushed gently into a bowl that looks like a bamboo cutting. Finely diced pickles are served in a gold-tipped saucer that looks more like a flower.
Ikura salmon roe on the chirashi sushi
Chirashi sushi often makes use of the off-cuts of sashimi - those end pieces or straggly bits that aren't pretty enough for nigiri sushi. But here the fish is so firm and fresh, the unevenness only adds to the textural experience. The rice is plump and well-vinegared without being soggy, and the salmon roe is like icing on the cake.
Main dining room
I'm so keen to try the grilled elements of the menu that I return that same night with a few Stomachs Eleven members in tow. At 6.45pm on a Thursday we're told that it'll be a two hour wait for four people. The place is heaving. There's a happy bustle to the place and the dining room is full.
Marinated octopus kimchi $5.80
We finally snag a table after 90 minutes. Marinated octopus kimichi sets the scene - it's actually ika or squid that's allowed to ferment with its own guts, creating a slippery and chewy snack that delivers on heat.
Homemade tofu $6.80
Homemade tofu is vastly different to the commercially produced version most of us are used to. The snow white mounds are delicate with a slightly grainier texture in the mouth. A heap of finely sliced shallots and grated ginger add freshness and zing.
Chicken skin yakitori $2.80
The yakitori menu is long and varied with a few unusual vegetarian inclusions like avocado with sweet miso ($4.80) and cherry tomatoes with asparagus ($3.30). We head straight for flavour land, loading up on calorific grilled chicken skin, ribboned on skewers and cooked over charcoal until the fat renders and the edges caramelise.
Wagyu beef yakitori $5.80
Wagyu beef yakitori is a bit of a splurge but one cube of this juicy succulency, and I dare you to not sigh with unbridled happiness. The beef is soft and and yielding, with a tenderness that comes only from marbled perfection.
Wagyu guts $3.30
We're not just here to eat the prime cuts. We want everything else too. The eloquently named wagyu guts is actually intestines, but here the casing has been cooked so long and slow that the fibres have actually broken down so it tears apart like meat. It's unlike any other intestine I've ever eaten.
Eggplant with sweet miso $6.80
Eggplant with sweet miso is conveniently sliced to allow easy pickings at the premium flesh. There's more of a toasted soft char than an oozing stickiness to this dish, but we still end up eating the entire dish, skin and all.
Fried chicken soft bone $7.80
Fried chicken soft bone makes use of the cartilage section from the chicken breast. It's a dish that contrasts the hard crunch of cartilage with the light crunch of a golden batter.
Toasted rice cake $5.80
Toasted rice cake is one of my favourites - marrying my obsession with chewy starch with a smoky char from the grill. It's a tablet of mochi, or pounded rice cake, that's wrapped in nori seaweed and then cooked over charcoal until the mochi becomes soft and stretchy in the middle. There's a light basting of miso, a sweetness to the edges and a crinkle of toasted nori that adds a taste of the sea.
Steamed wagyu and vegetables $12.80
There's a lovely sense of elegance that comes with the steamed wagyu and vegetables, two slices of wagyu beef steamed in a bamboo basket with autumnal accompaniments of pumpkin, sweet potato, zucchini and asparagus spears.
Tsukune chicken meat ball with poached egg $4.80
Tsukune, or chicken meat balls on a skewer, come with a runny poached egg on the side.
Meat ball dunking in runny egg yolk glory
Who doesn't love an interactive dish? It's all about dunking the meat ball into as much runny egg yolk as you can manage.
Flight Sake Airways departing now
We'd been ordering sake from our touch screen menu but soon we realise there's a drinks trolley circulating the room. Just like an airplane! The pretty waitresses - and yes, they're all female and all demurely batting super long eyelashes - trundle the alcohol cart with calls of enticement.
Sake for one?
Ok we couldn't resist either, and actually it's an easy way to check out all the different sake bottles and ask any questions if you have any. When you do nod and agree to order some sake, the waitress rings a bell like you've won a prize. The kitchen rings a bell as well. It's like some crazy big party and heck, by that point, everyone wants to join in. It's a brilliant marketing strategy with the bell going off every five minutes like an alcoholic slot machine.
Sake pouring at the table
The sake is ceremoniously poured at your table, into a sake glass that deliberately overflows into the masu wooden box in which it sits. The sake is deliberately poured so it spills over, as a show of generosity. When you've drunk all the sake in your glass, simply transfer the extra sake in your masu to your sake glass to finish.
Dewazakura ikko sake $9.70
Takara brown sugar umeshu $8.80
We also try the takara brown sugar umeshu, not quite as toffee sweet as umeshu plum wine, with a deeper amber hue.
Aburi scallop nigiri sushi $6.50
We briefly delve into the sushi menu. Aburi scallop nigiri are flamed with a blow torch until charred on the surface.
Soft shell crab roll $14.80
The soft shell crab roll looks unusually wide in circumference and the use of red cabbage seems a little ill-fitting.
Whiting tempura with isobe $7.80
It's easy to rack up a hefty bill here, and some dishes seem significantly pricier than other touch screen restaurants. A single fried chicken drumstick, for example, is $6.80. Three cheese croquettes will set you back $14.80. By comparison, the whiting tempura seems like a bargain at $7.80 for eight whole fillets, the batter mixed through with isobe, or dried green seaweed.
Diners inside the main dining room
It's easy to see Yebisu fast becoming a mainstay for George Street diners. It's quirky but approachable, with easy ordering and a lot of fun. Itadakimasu! Let's eat.
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Shop 7-10, Regent Place
501 George Street, Sydney
Lunch 7 days 12pm-3pm (last order 2.30pm)
Dinner Sunday to Thursday 5pm-11pm (last order 10.30pm)
Friday to Saturday 5pm-12am (last order 11pm)
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4/15/2013 02:13:00 a.m.