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, recently opened in the CBD, is bringing 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). Start with the palate-cleansing hiramasa kingfish served with pickled daikon, a little truffle oil and the citrusy spike of Japanese ponzu sauce. And order a bamboo jug of cooling morikuni utouto junmai sake to balance all those bright flavours.
We’re seeing a lot of steak tartare on menus across the city right now, and the offering here is among the best. A little bird’s nest of finely chopped steak is hidden beneath crisp shreds of Greek kataifi pastry, fried capers to add texture and salt, and a quail’s egg yolk crown. Mix it all together (you’re going to feel like Attila the Hun destroying such beauty, but it tastes better this way) and scoop it onto the puffy rice crackers served on the side.
The honey bug nigiri is one of the most delicious things you will ever eat. A little rectangle of white rice lays the foundation for soy and dashi jelly, a piece of raw, buttery honey bug (like a smaller version of a Moreton Bay bug) dabbed with truffle oil and a generous topping of grated foie gras. The jelly and foie gras melt in your mouth, making for a major umami party – it's tempered only by the creamy bug and sticky rice. At $24 for two pieces, it's not cheap. But we’d come back and blow our dinner budget for this dish alone.
Skip the salads (the soba and king crab offering is underwhelming) and opt for the robata options instead. The black cod marinated in saikyo miso is a reinterpretation of Nobu’s signature dish, and there’s a reason why so many restaurants add it to their menus. The cod arrives on a wire rack suspended over a dish of hot coals, all blistered and blackened from the robata grill. The flesh, just marinated for up to three days in fermented soybeans, is super-tender, and falls apart into fragile, juicy fragments. The creamy miso sauce on the side feels a little like gilding the lily – the fish is so full of flavour it barely needs a garnish.
For dessert, the lighter offering is a green tea frozen yogurt with strawberries, but we're suckers for the warm chocolate fondant. Despite fancy accompaniments like chocolate soil and salted sesame ice cream, it still tastes like a Ferrero Rocher – its gooey, praline-infused centre collapses out of the cake when you cut into it. It looks posh, but actually it’s a bit daggy, and is all the better for it.
At this early stage, the service at Tokonoma could use some work – despite a practically empty restaurant we were rushed through our dinner (everything came out within an hour) and staff lingered to clear our glasses before we’d finished our wine. These are not techniques designed to put diners at ease. In contrast, the interior is very calming – all pale timber and golden sandstone. Maybe it’s a yin/yang sorta thing?
The service, we hope, will improve, but the food doesn't need to – it’s already excellent. Tokonoma is not the place for rushing through dinner like you do your pre-movie okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake). Go there for a date or a special treat with friends. And don’t forget to try that nigiri – it might just change your life.