April 13, 2009

Azuma

I've been looking for good Japanese food in Sydney for a while. Friends of ours had recommended Sakana-Ya in Crows Nest, and indeed it was good, and of course there's the excellent Tetsuya's Restaurant, but Tetsuya's isn't exactly what I would consider a traditional Japanese restaurant.

We had heard that Tetsuya had a restaurant he liked to relax at, Azuma Restaurant by Kimitaka Azuma. When Azuma opened a new kushiyaki restaurant near Town Hall, that provided the impetus we needed to try them out. We first visited the new place, Kushiyaki Azuma located on the ground floor of Regent Place Shopping at 501 George Street in Sydney.

Kushiyaki or "skewer grilled" food, is often called yakitori or "grilled chicken" after one of the most popular kinds of kushiyaki. Kushiyaki Azuma serves a selection of kushiyaki, but in addition they serve otsumami, a "snack" or "tidbit" - small dishes traditionally served with alcohol.

We ordered a few traditional kushiyaki, one of my favorites - beef tongue, some otsumami including squid shiokara which is squid in salty fermented squid innards, some abalone braised in sake, and a sake sampler.

Kushiyaki Azuma has a nice sake list, with some daiginjo and ginjo by the glass as well as a larger selection by the bottle. We tried a flight of four - Toyo Bijin, Suishin, Raku, and Garyubai. I've had the suishin before and find it a fine slightly light bodied sake. The Garyubai was billed as being aromatic and pungent, I had hoped for something reminiscent of Kakunko but the Garyubai is a slightly more balanced Shizuoka style sake. Very satisfying, we ordered a carafe of it after the sake flight.

The kushiyaki were all excellent, my only complaint would be that they don't have a wider selection! I want more dammit! The abalone was beautifully prepared, soft as butter but with all the delicious abalone flavors, served back in an abalone shell.  Highly recommended, we've been back already and will be back again.

Azuma's flagship restaurant, is on level 1 in Chifley Plaza - 2 Chifley Square at the corner of Phillip and Hunter Streets in the heart of the CBD. It's a lot fancier, more expensive, and harder to get in to (bookings recommended) so our expectations were correspondingly higher.

We talked a bit about the menu and what we should do. On the one hand there were a lot of interesting dishes, and we had a pretty good idea of what we were looking for. On the other hand, in a restaurant where we've established a relationship with the chef, we almost always order omakase or "we trust you" style - which is to say we let the chef decide. In a new restaurant that's tricky - you have no idea what their style is, and they have no idea what your preferences are. However, Azuma had a pre-set omakase that they also called a "degustation" and we decided to try that.

The amuse-bouche was raw oyster and ikura or salmon roe in ponzu, and three different flavor "sheets" with a dipping sauce. The oyster was excellent, briny and set off nicely by the ikura. I didn't realize at first that the sheets were intended to be dipped, and instead ate them by themselves. They reminded me a little of shojin-ryori or Buddhist vegetarian temple style cooking, each of the three sheets seeming to be an agar base with a subtle flavoring in it.

Next was a grilled fish served with a goma-ae "sesame dressing" side of what I believe was broccoli rabe. The fish was tender and moist and well prepared, but the fried accompaniment had been let to sit too long in my opinion. The goma-ae on the other hand was excellent. Tasty dressing, and the use of broccoli rabe was a nice touch instead of the more traditional blanched spinach.

The sashimi was a straightforward tuna and salmon combination. It was fine sashimi but pretty pedestrian. I had hoped for something a little more interesting or creative. Next up was "Azuma's Unique Sushi" which were nigiri composed of seared or tataki style fish. Good, but from the build up I had expected something more unusual.

Next was chawan-mushi or "tea bowl steamed" egg. This is a traditional dish of a steamed savoury egg custard usually with seafood and a ginko nut. Azuma's was made with with Prawn, Scallop and Shiitake mushroom, and the scallop was particularly excellent. Tender and sweet not tough at all -all it would have taken was leaving the dish to sit a few seconds too long - very satisfying.

After that came an assortment of tempura. Tempura is one of those iconic japanese dishes that every restaurant is expected to do. Bad restaurants make a heavy or greasy tempura, while a great restaurant will serve tempura that is as light as a cloud, delicate and crispy. I'm sorry to say that Azuma's tempura while entirely adequate did not rise above the ordinary.

I had some reservations when I saw that the degustation included a wagyu steak course. I don't know if it was because I was getting tired of wagyu this and wagyu that every where we went (our corner pub serves a wagyu burger for example) or if I thought a heavy beef course was inappropriate for a fancy japanese restaurant, but I was concerned. I have to say that while the course wasn't as heavy or overpowering as I had feared, neither did it allay any of my concerns. It was a fine piece of good beef, and seared nicely, but I would have prefered a grilled fish.

Next was a tuna tataki served with daikon and ponzu. This was a traditional "half-cooked" seared fish, though served with daikon instead of pounded ginger. Comforting, tasty, but again somewhat pedestrian for such a fancy place. The last savory course was a tanuki udon thick wheat noodles in a shoyu based soup garnished with fried tempura bits, green onion, and seaweed with a shaker of togarashi on the side. Another warm comforting homey dish.

The desserts on the other hand were quite innovative a small cup custard, a cube of chocolate cake drizzled with a sauce, and a fruit sorbet. I find Japanese desserts in general to be unappealing, not being a big fan of an (sweet bean paste) or glutinous rice. Azuma instead uses more western desserts - a welcome decision.

My conclusion was that ordering the degustation was probably our mistake. I've had a similar problem in other fancy Japanese restaurants, where the pre-set omakase is uninspired and designed to appeal to non-Japanese who want a chance to sample everything the restaurant has to offer. The omakase ends up being made by rote, with very little creativity since the restaurant turns out dozens of them in an evening, all of them exactly the same.

I think I'd like to come back at least twice more. Once to sit at the sushi bar, where we can interact with the chef and discuss what they have on offer, what we've tried in the past and liked, and to start to develop a rapport with the kitchen. Then come back and either order a la carte, or arrange a personalized omakase in advance.

So we were disappointed, but we're willing to try again.
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