I can't help it.
One look at the spider roll, the nori slices sheathed in a gossamer-thin scroll of daikon, and my mind immediately wanders to comparisons with prophylactics. The phallic-shaped mound of wasabi doesn't help either.
"It's like safe sex sushi," I whisper to Billy, whose eyes widen in alarm.
"Don't say that!" he protests, trying to preserve a sense of innocence during his meal, but I can tell - it's already too late.
Yet that's half the fun of Iiza, one of the latest crop of restaurants to burst onto the Newtown dining scene, a welcome addition to a strip still entrapped by a Thai restaurant stronghold. Modelled as a modern izakaya, or Japanese tavern-style eatery, the menu offers a whirlwind of choices that go beyond the predictable sushi, tempura and teriyaki chicken template.
Soy sauce vessel
Iiza, on the site of the former Lucky's Pizzeria, is decked out in stylish Japanese minimalism. A parade of paper lanterns hang over timber tables, the bar is lined with sake bottles and a striking banner of Japanese calligraphy dominates one wall.
Sauce bowls and individual plates
Little touches like tea pot-shaped soy sauce vessels and striking blue square plates on every table are all appreciated. The waitstaff are dressed immaculately in kimonos, wrapped and tied at the back with colourful obi sashes. Their shuffling footsteps may transport you momentarily back to Japan until you look down and realise they're not wearing geta but hot pink thongs, because yes, that's right, you really are in Sydney.
Aburi sashimi salmon $14
Eight pieces of flame-seared sashimi
topped with saikyo miso dressing and dried garlic miso
A selection of photographs in the menu provide some visual clues to a comprehensive menu which includes both Japanese translations and a detailed English description. The photos are what lead us to crave the renkon hasami age, an impressive-looking entree made from tempura lotus roots sandwiched around chicken mince and green tea soba noodles.
Alas it's not meant to be. They've sold out of the dish even though it's barely 7pm on a weeknight. We make do with aburi sashimi salmon instead, thin and sweet slices of fillet that are topped with a salty crumble of dried garlic miso. A dressing of saikyo or white miso adds a refreshing zing and we both end up half-eating the accompanying lemon slices too.
Our only quibble? The chopsticks are a little too thick in width and their clumsy handling of the food intrudes on the delicacy of our dishes.
Camembert tempura $14.50
Camembert cheese fingers served with teriyaki sauce
Camembert tempura arrives encircled around a tea cup of teriyaki sauce, dusted with flecks of ground seaweed. The tempura batter is a little heavier than I'd expected, but that's easily countered by the strong flavour of the camembert cheese, gooey but not quite molten.
Spider roll $14.50
Six pieces of crispy soft shell crab sushi rolls
wrapped with finely sliced seasoned daikon radish
Prophylactic jokes aside, the spider roll is a winner. Whilst the sheath is a little hard to bite through neatly, its silky coolness against the vinegared rice and the crunch of soft shell crab does another element of texture to this dish. There's not a lot of soft shell crab but there's sweetness in the fine julienne of cucumbers, carrot and Spanish onion.
Japanese gyu-suji nikomi $18
Tender wagyu beef tendon
braised overnight in miso stew served in clay hot pot
We conclude our mains with gyu-suji nikomi, a rich wagyu beef tendon stew that's presented in a cute terracotta pot over a tea light burner.
Beans and wagyu beef stew
The wagyu beef is ribboned with fat and cooked overnight to a heady tongue-coating unctuous decadence. The beef is incredibly soft and falls apart easily. It's the kind of winter stew best eaten with huge bowls of rice, although here it seems incongruously paired with two fat slices of toasted garlic bread. We relish the blanched stalks of bean, squeaky green and crunchy.
Kokutou brulee $7
Creme brulee infused with Japanese brown sugar
The dessert menu includes a chocolate fondnat, green tea ice cream and annin tofu (an almond dessert) but we order what we consider the two most intriguing items: the kokutou brulee and the kinako cheesecake.
We crack through the rink of toffee on top to find a smooth custard that has a distinct taste of Japanese brown sugar.
Kinako cheesecake $7
Cheesecake baked with toasted soybean powder
Kinako cheesecake is more of an acquired taste - the ground toasted soybean can catch in the throat if you're not careful but I like the nutty sweetness of this tantalisingly cool powder.
A soup spoon of macerated fruits balance the sweetness of both desserts and we can find no fault in the plating, simple and elegant with a sprig of leaves for colour.
Lucky's Pizza may be gone but its replacement Iiza good indeed.
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184 King Street, Newtown Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 8095 9260
Monday to Sunday 6pm-11pm
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3/17/2010 02:31:00 a.m.