Monday, September 23, 2013

Toko: A Surry Hills stalwart

I remember my first visit to Toko, at least five years ago, where a couple of girls and I dropped more coin on cocktails at the bar as we waited for a table than on food in the restaurant itself.

Located at the very 'in' section of Surry Hills' Crown Street, the no-bookings policy remains for dinner at the modern Japanese restaurant, which spawned the market for contemporary, high-end peers like Sake and Sokyo.

Toko, Crown Street, Surry Hills
As a Surry Hills stalwart now, it was pleasing to see that Toko was pumping on a recent Monday night – not so much the dim, moody bar but the sushi and robata counter seats full and most of the communal table seating.

The (relatively) old girl has still got it, with both occasion and out-of-town diners mixing it with Surry Hills locals. The Monday night vibe was not unlike a regular Thursday or Friday night vibe, such was the atmosphere and sophisticatedly simple interior.

Spicy edamame - fried soy beans, chilli sauce
I don’t normally drink on Mondays but rules were made for breaking on special occasions, so it was the Uragasumi Zen Junmai Ginjo Miyagi sake in a Riedel O glass for me.

Served chilled, the gently dry sake went down easy, especially with the spicy edamame soy beans which were liberally tossed in a hot, garlicky chilli sauce.

Sake no miso tarutaru - salmon tartare, wasabi miso, lotus root chips
With a typically large izakaya style menu, it's a task to choose from the small plate, tempura, sushi and sashimi, and robata grill sections of the menu.

I can see why Toko's tasting menus would be popular choices, but I persevered with a la carte selections like the salmon tartare; a petite bowl of diced raw salmon in a wasabi and miso based dressing with just the right amount of bite.

Crispy, starchy lotus root chips were used as delicate, hole-ridden crackers to carry the salmon tartare, becoming a textural contrast and delight.

Further adding to the satisfaction was that the salmon tartare is Toko's 'OzHarvest seasonal dish'; an initiative where $2 from every tartare sold is donated to not-for-profit food rescue organisation, OzHarvest. That's feel-good eating at its finest.

Tai no sashimi to karikari buta - thinly sliced wild snapper, truffle oil, pork crackling
The snapper sashimi was a contemporary interpretation of the raw fish dish, served as thin slices with drops of truffle oil, baby shiso sprigs and tiny nuggets of puffed pork crackling.

While the pork crackling brought additional textural and flavour dimensions to classic sashimi, the truffle oil somewhat overpowered the delicate white fish.

Wagyu no nigiri - seared wagyu beef nigiri, eschallots, chives
Next were two pieces of nigiri sushi topped with thin rectangles of just-seared wagyu beef, garnished with a fine dice of eschallots and a chive section.

Presented with a light brush of soy, we weren't afraid to add more soy and wasabi to the beef which, in this format, I had expected to be more buttery soft that it was.

Watari-gani no karaage - crispy soft-shell crab, wasabi mayonnaise
Soft shell crab has become a pretty stock standard order in Japanese restaurants these days, although the rendition at Toko stands out with its superbly crisp tempura batter.

I noted that our whole tempura crab had soft-shelled, edible claws, which is probably the first time I've ever seen them despite many a soft-shell crab consumed.

Shiitake no hachimitsu fuumi - Japanese mushroom skewers, soy honey butter
After a pause we moved on to the robata grill items where, seated directly in front of the grill shielded by glass, we could see our selections being cooked and plated. Here we could see that the skewers of shiitake, Swiss brown and King Brown mushrooms were one of the most popular off the robata grill all evening.

For each serving, two skewers of the assorted mushrooms were grilled at relatively low heat, then brushed with soy and honey butter, served with zingy, seasoned and grated daikon white radish topped with chives. Not simple by any means, but a dish loved by omnivores and herbivores alike.

Tebasaki - chicken wings, Java curry salt, lime
The salt-grilled and kind-of butterflied chicken wings are one of my favourite yakitori styles with the skin charred and crisp from the grill. The lime addition was appropriate although I wasn't sure the flavoured salt was entirely necessary.

Negima yakitori - skewered chicken, spring onions, shichimi pepper
Toko’s version of the classic negima yakitori was heavy on the chicken and light on spring onions, and came with a light sprinkling of shichimi chilli pepper mix.

The densely-skewered chicken wasn't dry nor juicy; hiding beneath a surface of deliciously caramelised, sweet yakitori sauce.

Yaki onigiri nasu miso zoe - barbequed rice skewers, eggplant shiitake miso
The presentation of the yaki onigiri grilled rice cake was quite novel, like grilled rice lollipops topped with a miso-strong, mushy dice of eggplant and mushrooms. Despite looking tiny, the crisp surfaced rice pops were quite filling, as intended.

Sake no aburi yaki - smoked miso king salmon, house pickled ginger
Both the fish options from the robata menu were cooked by sitting on the lower temperature part of the grill for extended periods, so the smokiness of the grilled king salmon shouldn't have surprised me.

It was fish perfection with crisp skin and fatty salmon flesh flaking softly to combine with the creamy yellow miso puddle, while the thin slices of house pickled ginger were the perfect foil for the rich, fatty fish.

Amiyaki ro-su niku no wafu sauce - scotch fillet steak, wafu sauce, garlic chips
We ended the savoury choices on a heavy note - the scotch fillet steak which arrived pre-cut into cubes, showing off the perfect medium-rare state. Garlic chips and a light soy-vinegar dressing were the only partners to the beef, which lacked a bit of flavour, though granted that's characteristic of the cut.

Coconattu pannacotta - coconut pannacotta, strawberry, coconut foam
I couldn't bear a look at the dessert menu after all our dishes but was happy to taste just a spoonful (or three) of the coconut panncotta – a small serving in a cup, balanced on a masu wooden box filled with ice.

Coconut pannacotta
The velvety coconut foam on top was delightful and could have been dessert alone for me, but it was a surprisingly good combination matched with diced strawberry and what seemed more like crème brûlée than pannacotta. Indeed, there was even a burnished layer of toffee beneath the strawberries and above the custard.

The robabta grill
It's the complete experience at Toko. Years on, it's still on the pulse of Sydney's oft-labelled fickle dining scene; doing its thing for an appreciative crowd. And despite recent internal business issues, Toko has demonstrated the staying power that makes it one of few Surry Hills stalwarts.

Toko Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon


Tina @ bitemeshowme said...

Absolutely love the names of the dishes! Very clever!

chocolatesuze said...

i freaking love grilled rice!! there's just something about it that's so addictive

Tina said...

Hi Tina - A knack for Japanese?

Hey suze - It's such an unusual texture, isn't it? I always get them stuck in my teeth...

Sara - Belly Rumbles said...

Do love the food at Tokyo and is nice to see some of my old faves still on the menu. Now only if they took bookings.

Surry Hills Skin Clinic said...

It’s been so long since we've ventured back to Toko at Surry Hills, there is so much to see and the food is always amazing. Reading your blog made me ask our girls at Skin Clinic for a quick food trip! Love your pictures by the way!


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