Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Role playing at Monkey Magic

I grew up watching, and indeed playing, Monkey or what we called ‘Monkey Magic’ – the Japanese TV series from the 1980s hilariously dubbed into English for our Australian ABC television viewing. The fight scenes were my favourite to watch, especially any which involved Monkey magically turning his tiny staff into a full sized one.

Role playing at home back in the day, I was lumped with being Sandy while my brothers took the roles of Monkey and Pigsy. We’d run around the house, up onto the couch or anything that would elevate us to simulate Monkey’s flying cloud. I miss those young, innocent days.

Go-Shu sake at Monkey Magic, Crown Street, Surry Hills
While I no longer identify with Sandy, it’s as we’re reliving more innocent times at a birthday dinner (late twenties – prime for the Monkey cult phenomenon) at Monkey Magic in Surry Hills. A large group means we’re allotted the set menu, which seems reasonably priced and covers a number of Japanese menu favourites.

The sake menu consists of four Japanese and one Australian brews. Requested warm to hopefully diffuse the effects of a cold, we start with the Aussie stuff, which is kind of drinkable.

Amuse bouche - Cauliflower soup with curry
I’m not sure what or who Monkey Magic is trying to be when an amuse bouche arrives. A creamy cauliflower soup sprinkled with curry says nothing of restaurant’s direction nor the modern, bare brick chic look with exposed ceilings, wooden floors and browns all round.

It also says little about the ability of the kitchen, though perhaps it was just my cold-affected tastebuds that found the amuse bouche more like a bland glass of cold cream that had cauliflower and curry powder waved over it.

Edamame with pink salt sprinkles
The edamame are a huge improvement on the earlier amusement, as well as the soy beans in general. These, sprinkled with pink salt flakes, have a firmness that is so pleasing against the common expectation of soggily-cooked edamame.

Shared between four-to-five people, the bowl of discards rises quickly against the ‘kampai’ of our little sake cups.

Assorted sashimi
The sashimi platter is portioned for three, featuring salmon, tuna, kingfish and a daikon-rolled salmon topped with salmon roe. The tuna wasn’t spectacular but the others faring reasonably better.

Soft shell crab roll
The inside-out roll of soft shell crab, serving four, is a winner, especially the end bits with battered and fried crab legs hanging out. With the rice rolled in tobiko flying fish roe and a spiced mayonnaise within the roll, it was fresh, full-flavoured and downright delicious.

Chilli soy cuttlefish with mizuna, bean sprout, coriander, white onion vinaigrette
This take on salt and pepper squid is most appreciated, given the rarity of cuttlefish on Sydney menus (though I did have a very good spiced version on the specials menu at Izakaya Fujiyama more recently than my last visit).

Cuttlefish is much like squid, but the flesh is thicker and in this instance, more tender and sea-sweet too. The white onion vinaigrette is an interesting addition to flavours while the vegetables add a necessary healthy aspect to the dish.

Chicken-prawn shu mai with fresh bamboo, water chestnut, ginerg, miso-mustard sauce
and lychee berry
The shu mai dumplings aren’t the prettiest sight. A little flop-sided and looking as if they were steamed within inches of their little dumpling lives, they weren’t revolutionary in the slightest but with a pleasant ginger fragrance. The miso mustard sauce was subdued while the sweet soy dipping sauce helped as much as it could have.

Pan seared ocean trout with green pea ragout, Asian green and black pepper sauce
There’s a choice of three mains as part of the set menu: ocean trout, pork belly or beef sirloin. There is little Japanese about any of the three mains – as they arrive, I could have been easily transported to any average, suburban restaurant trying for a modern Australian bent.

The fillet of ocean trout has pleasingly crisp skin and is well cooked with a rare centre, but is otherwise unexciting. The black pepper sauce is particularly pungent and probably much more appropriate paired with beef while the peas have me thinking about pies.

Slow cooked pork belly - soy braised pork belly, apple -lime puree, spicy kimchi, salad
of pickled vegetable
We all immediately note, with distress, that the pork arrives skinned; just a bare, pale layer of fat topping the well sized portion, covered in a rich brown soy sauce. Only then realising it was a braised pork belly, one still feels pretty cheated – as if someone had stolen the crackling off your pork.

The tender pork wasn’t too bad, with a rather traditional Western apple sauce contrasting with kimchi and Asian-style pickled vegetables.

Rangers Valley sirloin with confit cherry tomato, roasted white onion and 'goma' sesame sauce
The pre-cut sirloin probably looked the most promising of the lot, cooked to the requested medium-rare and mostly tender.

It was served with a single ‘confit’ cherry tomato, a small wedge of white onion and more of that pepper sauce, and wouldn’t have looked too out of place at a steakhouse or even local pub.

Salted caramel semifreddo with crunchy meringue, yuzu stewed apple
Desserts are not included in the set menu but we definitely had stomach space for a few selections. The salted caramel semifreddo was my pick of the lot, though I wasn’t expecting the slice to look so much like a Thai custard.

The creamy texture of the semifreddo could not sway me from thinking it tasted exactly like caramel YoGo from childhood. The pretty meringue which supported the semifreddo slice was the highlight with an impressively crunchy shell, and pleasant with the stewed apples.

Yuzu trifle with yuzu lady fingers, mango and raspberry
The yuzu trifle was a pretty construction of cream and subtle yuzu sponge fingers, with a lust-worthy dice of mango drizzled on top. Surprisingly light in texture and flavours, I think a bigger hit of yuzu was needed to justify the dessert’s name.

Our group didn’t get kicked out for another group event, as we were told to expect, but the dining room wasn’t entirely full for the Saturday night anyway. Modern Japanese in Surry Hills is a tough gig with the ultra luxe, high end of Toko up the road on Crown Street, and cheap and cheerful Sushi Suma on Cleveland Street.

But perhaps there is a middle ground – indeed, perhaps there is still a bit of room in our lives for Monkey Magic, jumping on couches and being innocent again.

Monkey Magic on Urbanspoon


Squeak said...

We really enjoyed our meal at Monkey Magic....your post has reminded me that we need to get back there soon.

greenbeen said...

looks like you sampled quite a variety of dishes...certainly looked tasty altho pics can do that...sad it lacked in some ways tho. dayle

gastronomous anonymous said...

Still haven't been to Monkey Magic, but it looks worth the visit! hmhmhm sashimi....

Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said...

I'm still undecided about trying Monkey Magic or not, but I suppose I should expose myself to the delights of Toko first?

And, what on earth is "green pea ragout"?

Monica ^o^ said...

pork belly with no crackling !?!?! shock horror ! *o*

sugarpuffi said...

wow the pork belly and the yuzu trifle looks amazing!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

It sounds like there were a few misses with the meal. But pork with the crackling would feel a bit like it had something missing!

Tina said...

Hi Squeak - Perhaps a la carte is preferable to the set menu then...

Hi greenbean - I supposed that's a pro of the set menu, though it didn't reach great heights.

Hi gastronomous anonymous - Yeah, nice for a meal with drinks and lots of conversation ;)

Hi Rita - I still don't know. Looked like peas in pepper sauce to me...

Hi Monica - It was quite the shock to see the bare, naked pork belly...

Hi sugarpuffi - Yeah, the trifle wasn't half bad; pretty too.

Hi Lorraine - Yes, certainly missed the pork crackling, or even just the braised skin...

Julie said...

pork belly aren't pork belly with out the crackles :(

hollypop said...

eww naked pork belly!

i used to love toko and would have agreed about the lux thing. but did you know they use FROZEN scallops? :O and recently the sushi has been real bad. SAD because we had some good times!

Tina said...

Hi Julie - Just not the same, is it?

Hi hollypop - I always enjoy my visits to Toko. I don't think Aussie scallops are the same as the chunky Hokkaido scallops though...


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