Sydney's new wave of Japanese restaurants as a launching point for fun dining, with a Tokyo twist.
We're talking kushiyaki, izakayas, touch screens, whisky highballs, frosty beers and karaoke.
All the great stuff, with none of the sushi. Well, maybe a little.
Yakitori – AKA Things on Sticks
Grilled meats on sticks, big cold Japanese beers, hilariously named cocktails, Japanese whisky: brand new kid on the block Tokyo Bird has taken the Sydney yakitori game to the next level with a smart bar offering to match the snacks. The idea here is casual biting and drinking. Thumb-sized pork sausages filled with hot cheese 'splosions, juicy hunks of chicken thigh, livers and hearts (if you're up for them) are all grilled over hot coals. There are pickles, too, for a palate pick-me-up. Drinking is all about those massive icy Japanese beers (there's Asahi on tap) or cocktails from Yoshi Onishi (you might remember him from Victoria Room). The Tina Colada is an ode to co-founder and blogger Tina Wong (she's the bright young funster behind Food Booze Shoes) – rum, pineapple, grapefruit and calpis (that Japanese soft drink that tastes kinda like Yakult). Or maybe it'll be a straight Japanese whisky – there's something in the vicinity of 16 available behind the bar right now. Kanpai!
226-228 Commonwealth St, Entry on Belmore Lane, Surry Hills, (02) 8880 0788. . Mon-Sat 4pm-midnight
If you want to talk advanced stick action, it's extremely hard to look past this super-popular Darlinghurst yakitori restaurant, where every seating arrangement is set up with a stick tin so diners can dispose of their empties. This is the place to explore the wide world of heart valves, skin and wind pipes. Or not – chicken liver tataki and gizzards on sticks certainly aren't for everyone. Maybe it'll be a few dumplings and a little steamed bun filled with soft-braised pork belly instead, or edamame grilled over white charcoal and a few sakes. The snug, dimly lit room with its low, communal tables packs out fast – there's remarkable economy of space here, though. Be prepared to squish in with your neighbour, whether you know them or not. That's all part of the fun at this well-loved neighbourhood gem.
238 Crown St, Darlinghurst, (02) 9007 8352. Mon-Sat 6-10.30pm
Fried is as fried does here at this bite-sized izakaya. The open kitchen is all systems go, serving up fried chicken cocooned in a tight, slightly glutinous batter and popcorn shrimp – bits of chopped up prawn in a crisp batter captured with the odd soy bean. Nasu dengaku, slow-braised eggplant with dark and sweet soy, really needs a beer to cut through the salt. Luckily, they have a very decent selection of Japanese crafts (that intensely syrupy Kujukuri Ocean pale is almost a dessert beer) and Suntory on tap, for easy smashing refreshment. The best approach here is to treat the snacks as a side order to the beers. Nothing on the menu is going to blow your mind, but there are plenty of tasty treats to get down with. Give larger, meatier dishes like wagyu tongue on an individual teppan and a very strange-tasting savoury Japanese pancake a miss in favour of the airy, vegetable tempura plate, and the sweet tempura prawns. The best bit? It's a mere shuffle down the hill to Italian wine bar 121BC for a few natural wine cleansers. How's that for Frankenfusion?
208 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills, (02) 9690 2424. Tues-Sat, 6pm-11pm
"Our izakaya menu is not entirely traditional but encourages a traditional approach to sharing." True, that. This is one of those rare times you actually want to listen to the message on the front of the menu. Owner-chef Kenji Mayanaka was one of the first cabs off the make-a-fun-Sydney-izakaya-that-serves-really-delicious-food rank. The chef comes with an impressive resume, having spent a number of years working at Bodega when it was freshly hatched. Izakaya food is beer food by its very nature. Edamame and pickled cucumbers are BFFs with a Sapporo on tap. Raw kingfish dressed with lime flavoured miso scooped up with a big, oily tortilla crisp is altogether untraditional but utterly worth ordering for that fatty acid hit – especially when chased with a Japanese single malt whisky. It's a loud mix of fat beats, good eats and the general hum of happy punters here. Surry Hills Japanese at its best.
Shop G09/52 Waterloo St, Surry Hills, (02) 9698 2797. . Mon-Sat 6pm-late.
Cho Cho San
What do you get when you mix Kirin in a can, squashy katsu pork buns, a whole page of sakes and some racy toilet doors? Why, this sleek, beautifully designed Japanese restaurant and bar from the Apollo's Sam Christie and Jonathan Barthelmess. And Potts Point loves it. The pale marble communal table that runs through the middle of the room doubles as a bar and waiter's station – you either love jostling elbows and playing footsies with your neighbour or you hate it. In the latter camp? Book one of the smaller tables. Everybody, however, should order the snow crab omelette – masses of crab bound with egg and fried until deeply golden and crisp, covered in sticky sweet Japanese curry and an avalanche of finely chopped chives. Egg noodles covered in XO sauce and plenty of bonito flakes may be disappointingly cool and chewy, though there's no getting past the salty crunch of a fried chicken chop or the miso-coated eggplant on a stick, which has a bit of a Japanese Dagwood Dog vibe. The take home point here is beery fun. Take a few pals, and order big.
73 Macleay Street, Potts Point, (02) 9331 6601. . Mon-Thu 5.30pm-late; Fri-Sun all day dining from noon.
There's a queue. There are bells and gongs and yelling and smoke. And there are highballs. Oh yes, there are highballs. What better way to saddle up for a balmy Friday evening than a tall glass of whisky and soda? This is the inner city Izakaya that allows you one and a half hours only. After that, you're out on your shiny behind. Not that you need that long to get the good oil on what's going down here, which is mostly all about the atmosphere and the fun rather than what's on the plate. Because if you cared too much about that, you might be a little sad when the cold braised eggplant comes out tasting, well, like cold eggplant and very little else. But … is that … yes! A sake trolley making its way around the room. Use the tableside iPads to order "soft bone chicken" – deep fried chook cartilage with the odd meaty bit attached – and pan-fried gyoza, which come still sizzling to the table, then dressed with a dash of vinegar. The bill? It's just one screen tap away.
Shop 10, 501 George St, Sydney, (02) 9266 0301. . Sun-Wed noon-11pm; Thu-Sat noon-11.30pm
Karaoke and touch screens!
Lantern by Wagaya Access this level 2 karaoke bar and restaurant through a banged up old lift in a deserted bank lobby. Lantern by Wagaya (the original Wagaya on Harbour Street is home to "sushian roulette" – one piece of sushi in six contains a hidden wasabi bullet) looks the way you'd imagine a Tokyo club in the 60s to look. The private rooms, complete with touch screen food and drink menus (hey there, Japanese hamburger – we'll talk later), are all curved wood, coloured lighting gels and glass table tops. Karaoke not your jam? There's a whole song-free dining room complete with the same touch screens – all the food fun with none of the public embarrassment. They also offer takeaway food, which is vaguely weird, but then it's really hard for us to get our judge on when we're belting out Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart while waiting for our order of wasabi octopus.
Level 2, 591 George St, Sydney, (02) 9283 8828. . Daily 11:30am-2am
The original George Street superstar when it comes to karaoke, touch screens, snacking and boozing. Much like Wagaya, there's the choice of a private room replete with karaoke, or the larger public dining space. We should note here that both pack out early in the evening with post-work karaoke enthusiasts. Best to book in advance. This is the place you can order room service mini-kegs of Asahi, dollar soft serve froghurts and (actually surprisingly good) kushiyaki like salted, grilled quail eggs and beef with garlic shoots. There's your fried chicken and your disco sushi, but then there's a mochi pizza. The karaoke here is… OK. There's a great song selection (200,000 updated regularly and you can make requests for future visits) but it's one of those places where they play the backing track along with the video. That's only ever OK if you're trying to unsuccessfully trying belt out Florence and the Machine. Or attempting to rap. We quite like using the karaoke rooms like a private dining area. For best possible results, add Beyonce.
Basement, 614 George St, Sydney, (02) 9266 0866. . Daily 11.30am-late.