The best Japanese restaurants in Sydney
At Izakaya Fujiyama, pristine sashimi and sushi is made from many more of the fishes that swim in the sea; the familiar standards supplemented by the less-usual likes of sardines and the special of gurnard, the angriest-looking fish you’re likely to come across. Fujiyama on Waterloo Street is a simple fit out with an open kitchen, long bar, crimson paint and a wall of sake in a hard-surfaced high-ceilinged box of a room.
When this glitzy, casino-based Japanese restaurant first opened a couple of years back, we dismissed it as rich kid disco sushi – big flavours and easy-to-understand hand rolls that still taste good after a sweaty session with Redfoo at Marquee. But if it was once true, now it ain’t necessarily so. There’s more going on here than first meets the chopstick. Chefs Chase Kojima commands the most impressive sushi counter in Sydney. The only challenge is landing a seat.
The delicious is in the detail at Juan, the compact Japanese diner in Redfern where there are only four main meals to choose from. Go with a friend and you’ve tried 50 per cent of the menu – a stat that allows little chance for food envy to kick in. Each bowl is an elaborately constructed meal for one, with more flavour layers than a lasagne, accompanied by the kind of meticulous presentation normally reserved for minor dignitaries.
Sushi at Fujisaki is an experience in edible art rendered in jewel tones. A plate of pristine kingfish, suedey tuna and creamy salmon comes with a tiny flower carved from a radish, a carrot butterfly and cucumber fringing. Your dinner sings and dances like Disney on rice. In fact, all your raw seafood is treated like a diva on tour at Fujisaki.
Behind the scenes at Cho Cho San you'll find Sydney’s dining dream team. Ex-Billy Kwong, Bodega and Rockpool chef Nic Wong heads up the kitchen with help from Jonathan Barthelmess, who co-owns the joint with Sam Christie. The menu is pared-back with a Japanese feel. Inspired by the izakayas of Japan, where Barthelmess and Christie have both spent a good deal of time, it has plenty of snacks, raw options and meats cooked over coals, and the drinks list is as impressive as the food.
Gogyo comes from the same people who brought Japanese ramen juggernaut Ippudo to Australia. They specialise in a kogashi (which means ‘charred’ in Japanese) ramen, which sees a pan heated to a smoking-hot temperature before a dollop of miso paste is added and then it's deglazed with chicken broth. The resulting ramen is underpinned by a distinct smokiness that’s intense in flavour and appearance.
At Bang Bang Izakaya they serve a tebasaki tower: a soy and peppery stack of 15 fried wings that come with a basket of latex gloves. Bang Bang, we’re told, is designed to mirror Japan in the eyes of a gaikokujin (foreigners, like us). Like a proper izakaya, it excels at affordable small plates. At almost every table are plump katsu sliders or bronzed triangles of yaki onigiri (grilled rice balls). Dishes from the robata are a highlight.
You want heart pipes? Liver? Gizzards? Gristle? They’ve got 'em, along with plenty more protein that isn’t quite so gutsy. The meats are grilled over white charcoal and served over piles of roughly chopped raw white cabbage. By the time you’re done with your juicy, salty chicken thigh or crisp folds of strangely sweet chicken skin, that cabbage will have turned into a well-seasoned side of its own. On Monday evenings and lunch times you'll big bowls of ramen and also make sure you ourder the sizzling gyoza.
Behind a small sushi counter at the back of HaNa Ju-Rin restaurant, Kuririn, aka Tomoyuki Matsuya, is a performance artist. He works solemnly, with precision and economy of movement – deft hands forming vinegared rice; the smallest, most elegant wrist gesture as he pulls a svelte Japanese knife through a piece of fish; a neat tilt of his head as he places the sushi on your plate. If you’ve chosen his multi-course, multi-hour omakase menu (chef’s selection) you've got one of Sydney's most thrilling dining experiences in front of you.
Chef Dan Hong calls this ramen 'The Chronic' and after the first spoonful, you'll know what he means. You'll find the stall at the far end of the Eating World. There's no phone number, no menu except what's on the board. It takes seven days to make the pork stock for the tonkotsu ramen and three ingredients: water, miso and 120kg of pork bones. This incredibly collagen enriched noodle soup is so thick, rich and porky that one between two is enough. Yowza.
Where can you go to fix up your motorbike, grab an excellent coffee and eat kickass Japanese food in between? Rising Sun Workshop in Newotwn. Order the Prison Bento – it's more delicate than its name suggests. On the day we go in there’s a pile of sticky rice with sour, salty pickled umeboshi plum, silken tofu with shoyu, a selection of crunchy pickles (radish, cucumber, daikon and carrot), tamagoyaki (dashi rolled egg omelette) which is light and not as sweet as that which you get in Japan, yogurt sprinkled with nigella seeds that the waiter tells us he ate in Tokyo and a piece of just-cooked Ulladulla albacore tuna ($5 extra).
In an area more known for its beer swilling than cocktail drinking, Saké stands out. And it should – there’s some excitement to be found in this Japanese restaurant and bar. Bar snacks are bite-sized and pack a tasty punch. Salty and often deep-fried, they are perfect accompaniments to the long and potent drink’s list. A hungry group should make a bee-line for the chicken karaage (crunchy crisp-fried pieces of chicken) or the renkon chips – lotus roots that have been lightly fried, sprinkled with coarse rock salt and served with edamame dip. If you’re rolling two deep, opt for the melt-in-your-mouth teriyaki burger balls.
In Sydney we’ve grown accustomed to speedy Japanese food – sushi rolls for lunch; gyoza snacks; and rich, creamy tonkotsu ramen when we’re hungover. But what we don’t have in abundance is refined Japanese cuisine. Tokonoma brings a new round of high-end Japanese food to central Sydney, and you’re going to want to get in on the action. Much of the food at Tokonoma has a Euro-twist, so don’t be freaked out if you get feta with your dashi or truffle with your sashimi (if you’ve eaten at sister restaurant Toko in Surry Hills before, you’ll know the drill).
Ryo’s fans swear this is some of the best ramen you’ll find in all of Sydney. Duck your way past the traditional Japanese noren curtains hanging out the front and you’ll think you’ve been transported straight to a Tokyo noodle house. The lemon yellow walls are plastered with a dizzying number of banners in Japanese script. Everywhere you look it’s heads down, as diners hoe into steaming bowls of soup filled with crinkly ramen noodles.
Are we in a back alley in Tokyo or a basement eatery in North Sydney? Put away your passport because, lucky for you, we’re talking Sydney. A small set of stairs from the street will lead you to Taruhachi, a cool little find that will make you feel you’ve been teleported to Japan. It’s not just the smiley Japanese staff peering out from the tiny kitchen, but the handwritten blackboard menu, the self-serve dispenser of hot and cold water, plus the humble neatness of a dining room decorated quirkily with all things Dr Seuss.
“Once you order it cannot be cancelled." So says the Dymo label on the top of the iPad bolted in place on our table. You’ve got to wonder how many people get touch-screen fever and end up with a bunch more food than they bargained on. For maximum fun-per-second, you need to take a crew. It’s all about ordering a fistful of beers and a jug of frozen Margaritas and loosening your tie. On the flipside, it’s also a good place to take kids (there’s peach Fanta and white fizzy grape juice!), provided you’re happy with letting them take charge of the screen.
This little sushi joint on the southern fringe of Surry Hills has the makings of a winner. Chef RK Tamang has traded his time among the Sydney sushi glitterati – Soyko, Flying Fish and Saké at the Rocks, where he was executive chef – for his own little shop with a pared-back, low-key feel that’s more suburban haunt than hatted resto. On a weeknight, Tamang is the sole chef in the open kitchen, calmly moving between the sushi bar and deep fryer, turning out elaborate maki rolls filled with fresh prawn tempura and tuna tartare.