The best seat in any Japanese restaurant is always at the counter. It's here that you'll score a complimentary dinner show of all the action in the kitchen. We're talking front row tickets to a performance that includes gleaming knives, pristine fillets of fish and the mesmerising balletic display of the sushi chef's hands as they press and shape rice into petite pillows.
At Hana Ju-Rin in Crows Nest, the principal performer is Tomoyuki Matsuya, a second generation master sushi chef. This charming restaurant is buzzing with locals every night of the week, split into Western-style seating on the street level and traditional tatami mat group dining on the floor below.
A mix of different-sized tables can accommodate small or large groups. You can also sit around the teppan grill complete with spatula-tossing chef (the smells of okonomiyaki cabbage pancakes and seared wagyu makes everyone's mouths water) or the sushi counter.
Sushi chef Tomoyuki Matsuya
Order a la carte or take the easy route and relinquish all control to the chef, an entrusted journey known as omakase. At Hana Ju-Rin, the omakase includes a starter, 15 pieces of sushi and a seasonal clear soup for $88.
Omakase #1: Seared West Australian octopus with truffle oil
We start with seared West Australian octopus, slightly charred and caramelised from the grill, doused lightly with truffle oil and served with salt and pepper. The octopus is incredibly tender.
Charcoal grilled firefly squid skewer $6 each
We add a couple of additional dishes to our omakase. Hotaru ika or firefly squid is worth ordering during its brief season. It's barely cooked over charcoal, retaining its sweet stickiness with each tender bite.
Chutoro tuna belly sashimi $29.80 for 6 pieces
We also spring for the chutoro tuna belly, six firm but yielding slabs of tuna that we savour slowly.
Chef Tomoyuki Matsuya adding yuzu kosho to bass grouper
Our omakase resumes with a multi-course journey of different nigiri sushi. Each fish fillet is freshly sliced, the rice pillow is made before our eyes, and the final assembly presented on our plates mere seconds after completion.
Omakase #2: Bass grouper with ponzu citrus soy sauce and yuzu kosho citrus chilli paste
Chef Tomoyuki Matsuya adding a ginger garnish to sand whiting
Omakase #3: Sand whiting cured with sugar and salt
Omakase #4: Flathead
Chef Tomoyuki Matsuya brushing soy sauce onto latchet
Omakase #5: Latchet
Chef Tomoyuki Matsuya adding ginger to silver trevally
Omakase #6: Silver trevally
Omakase #7: Yellowtail mackerel
Omakase #8: New Zealand king tarakihi
Omakase #9: Imperador (alfonsino)
The imperador, or alfonsino, is one of my highlights of the night. The flesh is delicately sweet, and the blowtorched skin has an incredible smokiness.
Omakase #10: Crystal Bay prawn marinated in prawn dashi with yuzu
Omakase #11: Zuke maguro bluefin tuna marinated with soy
Omakase #12: Chutoro
Beef tongue $13.80
We break from the omakase for our order of beef tongue. This isn't as saucy as I thought it would be, but there's an intensity of beefiness in each piece, slow braised for five hours and then sliced thickly and grilled.
Chef Tomoyuki Matsuya adding finely shaved karasumi dried mullet roe to seared scampi
Omakase #13: Seared scampi with karasumi dried mullet roe
In a supreme display of patience, the karasumi, or dried mullet roe, is made in-house by Chef Tomoyuki Matsuya. The process takes 31 days to salt, dry and shape with a brief 12 hour bath in Japanese sake. The Italian version of this mullet roe is called bottarga.
The gentle saltiness of the karasumi works so well against the smoky sweetness of the blowtorched scampi.
Omakase #14: Scampi miso soup
We're also impressed by the intensity of scampi flavour we detect in the miso soup. More often the scampi head is a mere garnish here, but this really tasted like all the lusciousness in the scampi head had been incorporated into the miso soup.
Chef Tomoyuki Matsuya adding sweet soy to anago saltwater eel
Omakase #15: Anago saltwater eel
Anago, or saltwater eel, is another delicacy we relish. Unlike freshwater unagi, anago is less fatty in the mouth, and has a noticeably softer texture.
Chef Tomoyuki Matsuya adding crispy leeks to seared salmon
Omakase #16: House signature dish - salmon zuke with crispy leeks
The signature sushi here, soy marinated salmon with crispy leeks, is also well-received.
Omakase #17: Fresh wasabi root sushi
Fresh wasabi root is a rare treat too. Here it's grated into mini sushi rolls with shiso leaves. We notice a greater complexity in flavour notes, beyond the sinus-clearing mustard hit we're so used to with horseradish.
Omakase #18: Tamago made with prawn and grated mountain yam
Dessert is tamago, a baked omelette fortified with minced prawn and grated mountain yam that gives it an almost sponge cake-like quality.
Chef Tomoyuki Matsuya glazing nigiri sushi for another table
On the night we dined, we'd been disappointed to miss out on both the tuna head and the tuna collar on offer. We were beaten by several other astute diners who placed their orders faster than we did. Our friendly waitress had promised us she'd let us know when more tuna collars came in, which is why a couple of us return five days later.
Grilled blue fin tuna collar $35 (market price)
Nothing beats the spectacle of a tuna head but the best meat, in our opinion, can be found on the tuna collar. The collar is fattier and has a substantial amount of flesh to pick at.
Blue fin tuna collar
The three of us swoop on the flesh like seagulls. Even the scales have been crisped up so you can crunch through them like a packet of chips. I was struggling by the time we had picked the bones clean. I reckon this would best suit four people, giving you room to have a couple of other dishes on the side. It's a bargain either way.
Stir-fried chicken giblets with garlic shoots $16.80
Deep fried whitebait $14.80
We also snack on a pile of deep fried whitebait, a little drier than what you'd expect to find at yum cha. They'd be perfect alongside beer. We had bottles of sake on both our visits. Choosing your own sake cup is much more exciting than it probably should be!
Steamed egg custard with naruto fish cake, shiitake mushroom and prawn
Chawanmushi is a delicately elegant wobble of steamed egg custard, bolstered with pink and white swirled naruto fish cake, slices of shiitake mushroom and a curl of prawn. The garnish of okra slivers and a spoonful of flying fish roe is an unexpected bonus.
Soft shell crab roll $16.80
And while the others order a repeat of some of the sushi we'd eaten a few days earlier, I go for the soul satisfying splendour of a soft shell crab roll. The tangled crunch of crustacean, the briny squeak of flying fish roe and a blanket of sticky sushi rice doused in mayonnaise presses all my buttons.
Chef Tomoyuki Matsuya behind the sushi counter
Shop 1, 300 Pacific Highway, Crows Nest, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9966 5833
Wednesday to Monday 12pm-2.30pm and 6pm-10pm
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8/02/2016 01:24:00 am