Only locals know about Nithsdale Lane, a shortcut through the backstreets of Surry Hills. It's about to get a whole lot more foot traffic, with the opening of Restaurant Sasaki, the first solo restaurant venture by Cafe Cre Asion owner and chef, Yu Sasaki. It's a restaurant concept that's been a long time coming. Sasaki, whose CV includes stints at Marque, Universal and French Laundry, had been wanting to open a restaurant for several years. When the space behind Cafe Cre Asion became available - it was once the office of an architecture firm - Sasaki jumped at the opportunity.
The laneway entry feels just like an alleyway in Japan, complete with noren curtains hanging in the doorway. The interior has been designed by Sasaki and Natsumi Yawata, a young Japanese architect who is also Sasaki's cousin.
It's also tiny. There are just 25 seats, including 9 stools around a u-shaped counter.
Table setting with washi paper placemats
The look is clean and uncluttered, designed to feel like a Japanese tea house. I half expected to find an onsen bathhouse next door. Much of the decor and crockery, including the tables and chairs, were imported from Japan. The placemats (made from Japanese washi paper complete with embedded hay) explain the Sasaki philosophy, one that encourages customers to appreciate the beauty and design in everyday objects.
Trevally, chive and wasabi $19
The daily changing menu reads more like a shopping list of ingredients, grouped under sub-headings of meat, seafood, vegetables and side dishes. Staff do explain most dishes, and will happily answer any questions you have, but it's probably worth checking Instagram before you dine, unless you're happy wih surprises.
We start with the trevally served sashimi style, thin slices dipped in the accompanying soy sauce and garnished with your choice of toasted sesame seeds, wasabi and deep fried garlic chips. The garlic is particularly crisp without any of its usual harsh pungency.
Veal, witlof and shiso $16
Veal tataki is a fine dice of seared veal dressed with shiso and soy. The veal is soft, sweet and tender, served in little boats of crunchy witlof. This has to be one of the most elegant finger foods you can eat in Sydney right now.
Shaving bonito for the takimono
Order the takimono for a bonus display of tableside theatre. A wooden box grater is brought over that staff will use to shave a large hunk of dried bonito. The smell of dried tuna is intoxicating. After grating, a little drawer at the bottom is removed so its wispy contents can be transferred to your bowl of takimono.
The takimono is a mix of cooked radish, carrot and mushroom. The addition of the shaved bonito adds both umami and textural contrast. You can also see in the picture above how narrow the chopstick ends are - ideal for precision eating.
Egg and crab $11
If you like chawanmushi, you'll love the egg and crab. This quivering huddle of silken steamed egg is packed with generous chunks of crab. It's served straight from the steamer, forcing you to wait patiently until its scalding hot contents cool to an edible temperature.
Mushroom, egg and cheese $21
Mushroom, egg and cheese yields a surprising assembly of panko-crumbed pine mushrooms coated in a fontina cheese foam. At the bottom we find a surprise onsen egg. Dip the crunchy fried mushroom into both the cheese and the stickily rich egg yolk for an eye-closing moment.
Prawn, apple and coriander $17
Prawns are served ceviche-style, dressed with a mild apple vinegar and garnished with a fine dice of apple and baby coriander sprigs. The sweet prawns, or ama ebi, have a lush stickiness. Make sure you get all the meat out of the heads for a flavour jackpot.
Pork, salt and daikon $26
The pork chop is baked in a salt crust, cracked open to reveal juicy pork pieces. The salt crust, our waiter explains, took many hours of testing, as it needed to be strong enough to withstand the pork juices without leaking. The disc of daikon on the side almost steals the show though, a simmered disc of almost translucent daikon topped with a glossy paste of mustard and miso.
The rice is takikomia gohan, a traditional mixed rice that changes its ingredients daily. Today its mushrooms cooked into the rice seasoned with soy and dashi. The best bits are the crunchy shards of rice scraped from the bottoms and sides of the pot.
Sardines, onion and chive $19
You'll want to save some of your rice to have with the sardines, butterflied whole and grilled with a teriyaki-style sauce. It's a sticky and sweet contrast that works well with the oily fish.
Turnip, cauliflower and miso with sourdough toast $18
We finish the turnip, cauliflower and miso soup, not a universal hit around the table but one of my favourites of the night. There's a layered complexity to the thick soup, from the earthy tones of turnip to nutty cauliflower to the savoury back notes of miso. The sourdough toast is worth marvelling over too, a brittle lattice of crunch that is both refined and elegant.
Genmai and ginger $4
with sencha yuzu $12
Drinks include Japanese wines, sake, shochu and fruit sake. Beer is by The Grifter. There's a broad selection of specialty sencha teas including a yuzu sencha that's zingy with lemony citrus. Matcha green tea is also available, prepared in the traditional style with a chasen bamboo whisk.
Desserts are in the style of hitokuchi gashi, designed to be eaten in one bite. The genmai and ginger sable cookie is one that's also available at Cre Asion, crumbling into a short and buttery sigh.
Apple, custard and puff $8
The apple custard and puff combines stewed apple with frozen custard. Tiles of caramelised puff pastry across the top are incredibly brittle and delicious.
Caramel and nuts $8 each and
potato and butter $4 each
Potato and butter is a flashback to one of Sasaki's favourite childhood treats. It's a carb lover's sandwich of sweet potato chips around a ball of sweet potato mash. The caramel and nuts is the clear winner in the dessert section for me, a duo of mixed nuts in soy caramel with caramel cream in a monaka wafer shell.
We spent about $70 per head on a meal that was exciting and interesting. Service staff were still (expectedly) finding their feet on day three, but we still emerged feeling calmer and more at peace with the world. Definitely worth investigating.
21 Alberta Street, Surry Hills, Sydney
(Entry via Nithsdale Lane behind Cre Asion)
Tel: +61 (02) 9068 9774
Bookings are strongly recommended
Monday to Saturday 5.30pm-9pm
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4/16/2017 08:21:00 pm