Monday, November 14, 2011

Sokyo: Sydney meets Tokyo at The Star

There's been a flurry of restaurant openings in recent months and by all accounts, they're game changers. New perspectives on how we view restaurants and eating out are refreshing, and the latest offering at The Star works to a similar theme of bringing a new point of view to Japanese dining.

You don't need to go through or even around the casino to get to Sokyo, which is set in The Star's new five-star hotel, The Darling, accessed via Union and Pyrmont Streets. Opened just over a week ago, the restaurant entrance features an expansive bar that faces the hotel lobby, greeting both diners and hotel stayers with an inviting Asian-styled space for tippling.

Dining area inside Sokyo, The Star / The Darling, Pyrmont
We started with drinks at the bar as a precursor to dinner and at our reservation time, we were led into the restaurant by one of the hostesses; passing an open cold kitchen where young head chef Chase Kojima presides over dishes heading out to the informal, texture-filled dining room. With years at Nobu restaurants around the world, Kojima most definitely puts an innovative twist on modern Japanese.

Although the restaurant is on street level, it's disguised well with rope designs obscuring views in or out, while my view is of the bright, staff filled kitchen where diners line one side in sushi bar style. The crowd itself is a mix of stylish young groups on a night out, post work corporates and somewhat older (probably) hotel patrons.

Dining areas in Sokyo
The dining room is buzzy, but not too loud, with the occasional odd song choice seeping into our laughter-filled table conversation (yep, we were probably that loud table that was having far too much fun at dinner).

High touch, attentive service started from the very beginning with the menu explained in fair detail. Sokyo's dishes are for sharing and to be followed in the order of the menu; that is, starting with sashimi, then tempura, grilled goodies from the robata section, mains, soup and salad, and finally nigiri and sushi rolls.

I'm fairly sure at every other Japanese restaurant I've ever been to, one starts with sashimi and sushi as the raw, cold start and then moves onto the more substantial cooked food, so I was keen to see how the meal would develop and progress.

Between three people, we were advised to pick two dishes from each section, which we mostly followed. There is also an omakase option where upon guiding the waiter towards likes/dislikes and allergies, the kitchen sends out its own choices of dishes for the table.

We munched on a bowl of firm edamame sprinkled with salt flakes as we deliberated over the extensive menu, with several choices to be made at the turn of every page.

Thankfully we'd chosen sake first, a big flavoured, sweet and floral Ibaragi "Pride of the Village" Sudo no Honke, served cold, and which seemed to partner well with every dish we had. Serving size was a choice between a carafe and a full 1.8 litre bottle - I can't wait to order the latter one day.

Moreton Bay bug sashimi
There was no going past the Moreton Bay bug on the sashimi menu. The mayonnaise calligraphy of Japanese hiragana characters spelling out 'Sokyo' was pretty impressive but I was more blown away by the petite, creamy white pieces of raw bug.

With a velvety mouthfeel just like scampi sashimi, the flavour of the Moreton Bay bug is cleaner and less cloying, even with the mayonnaise which is dusted with shichimi chilli spice powder.

The finishing flourish of Vegemite croutons is much fun: the tiniest, crunchiest croutons you'll ever see; that taste heavily of butter and lightly of Vegemite, just the way I like my Vegemite toast.

Seared salmon sashimi
The seared salmon sashimi is a little more pedestrian than our first plate; with fanned slices of lightly seared salmon in a dressing of ssamjang Korean spice paste.

There was a refreshing tartness to the dressing, and I probably should have tried the salmon together with the green Japanese mountain peach, which was as cute as it was sweet and furry.

Baby capsicum relleno tempura
Tempura time found us with baby capsicums stuffed with king crab and feta cheese cooked tempura style, and then topped with a dice of tuna sashimi in a spicy mayonnaise and served with yuzu soy. We're definitely not in traditional Japanese land, Toto.

In the one mouthful, the yuzu hits first followed by the creamy dice of tuna and then through the tempura batter and sweet capsicum, the crab flesh slowly reveals itself in its full glory. The complex melange of flavours and textures in the baby capsicum relleno really works for it; if only I didn't have to share.

Cuttlefish tempura
The generous pile of lightly fried cuttlefish tempura was sprinkled with dried chilli and served with a ponzu dipping sauce. The chilli on the crisp batter had very little impact, if any at all, while the cuttlefish was tender and rather sweet, quite possibly naturally so.

Grilled baby corn
With the robata menu items was our first sighting of vegetables amid our seafood-oriented choices. Japanese food tends to have a subtle delicacy and this was anything but.

The spears of baby corn may have been subtle, but drenched and grilled in butter and soy, they were probably the most luxurious serving of corn ever. The sweet corn puree was almost unnecessary while the shichimi lifted the corn out of potential butter coma zone.

Grilled king prawn
This prawn must have been a monster given it produced three fairly decent sized pieces, and its texture wasn't too far off that of lobster.

I adored the salty, thin and crispy pancetta that was tightly wrapped around the prawn, which in turn encased a gathering of enoki mushrooms; all slightly infused with a char flavour from the binchotan Japanese white charcoal fired grill.

Lamb chop maple miso
We decided to go with just one main as at the time of ordering I was rattling off more dishes than I felt comfortable doing without seeming entirely gluttonous. And we needed space for dessert.

The lamb cutlets ended up being a good sharing choice with one cutlet each and soft, cooked baby eggplants beneath the meat. The tender lamb was cooked well although the sauce didn't quite live up to its maple miso name.

We spent a good few minutes intrigued in what was wrapped around the cutlet bone - it looked like a bandage or at least fabric, but were advised that it was Japanese gourd - edible but probably not enjoyably.

Bonito tataki nigiri
At the very beginning of the meal, the waiter pointed out our dishes for soy sauce and the dispenser at the table, and then proceeded to tell us it was not needed nor recommended for use.

The bonito nigiri was a slice of the fish on rice with shallots and some grated ginger, with sticks of pickled young ginger served alongside. Popped into my mouth in one go, the ginger and shallots were familiar flavours that worked in a new setting, but I confess I would have liked a drop or two of soy sauce however fresh the fish.

Ocean trout nigiri
A more convincing nigiri for sushi without soy sauce was the ocean trout, topped with marinated sweet kelp and a thin, clear jelly of the same (I think). Again in the one mouthful sans soy sauce, this was a little different as the jelly seemed to be sweetened and thus adding a new dimension to the sushi and gorgeous ocean trout.

Spicy tuna roll
The spicy tuna hosomaki thin sushi rolls featured jewel red tuna, juliennes of cucumber and a flavour-packed spicy mayonnaise that somehow infiltrated the entire roll - this definitely did not need soy sauce.

Sushi at the end of the meal means more of the subtle, lesser impact flavours at the finish when you're close to being satiated. As a lead on to dessert I think it makes some sense, but without dessert I think it means a plateauing end.

Green tea ice cream
Luckily, we were suitably enticed by the dessert menu which had a great range of Japanese inspired sweets. You can't go wrong with green tea ice cream - here, three small, strongly flavoured scoops served with red bean paste and what I think was crunchy puffed roasted rice.

Calpis cheesecake
The Calpis cheesecake was a more elaborate, deconstructed affair. The quenelle of Calpis flavoured cheesecake was subtle on both counts of Calpis and cheese, but the moussey texture had a refreshing appeal eaten with the crumble 'base'.

The blueberry compote contributed the big flavours while the tuile was a fruity work of wonder. I suppose the Calpis granita adds to the overall Calpis theme, though perhaps a heavier ice cream would work well given the cheesecake's lightness.

Goma Street
With the help of the waiter, I picked a winner with the playfully named 'Goma Street' (goma is Japanese for 'sesame'). I started with the melting ice cream which sat atop a biscuit-y crumble. The toasted sesame flavour was a highlight, with sesame overall seeming to match very well with chocolate. Two sheets of chocolate held a white chocolate mousse, sprinkled with smashed bits of black sesame candy that was dotted with white sesame seeds.

The dessert worked best with a bit of everything on the spoon, including the striking black paint stroke of sesame paste, for a mouthful of varying textures and harmonious flavours. The citrusy tones of the Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling (the only sticky by the glass) managed to cut through the dessert's sweetness rather well.

Sitting back chatting a while after dessert, we'd seen at least a couple of sittings in the restaurant over the duration of dinner but never felt rushed nor uncomfortable sitting there for a good few hours. The carafe of sake served 2.5 drinkers well after cocktails in the bar and though we easily could have gone another, it was nice to let the food really feature.

I really like that The Star is changing the dining game to have it feature almost as much as the gambling den. I like that Sokyo essentially has no physical connection to the casino and I like what Kojima is bringing through his take on Japanese. After all, a new perspective is as good as a holiday.

Disclosure: Food, booze and shoes is acquainted with staff at Sokyo.

Sokyo on Urbanspoon


joey@forkingaroundsydney said...

What beautiful presentation, especially the salmon sashimi; the decor looks great too. So many Star restaurants, so little time!

Anonymous said...

Excellent presentation, and I'm sure the flavour was great too. I love the hiragana calligraphy detail on the plate, so unique.

Dumpling Girl said...

The food looks lovely, thanks for getting this up so quickly. Lol, love the play on Sesame Street. Can't wait to try this place out soon.

OohLookBel said...

I like how the food is a bit different (presentation and taste-wise) to the usual Japanese stuff. Nice atmosphere, too, by the sounds of it. What are the prices like?

sugarpuffi said...

wow all the dishes look amazing! love the mayo caligraphy!

Vivian - vxdollface said...

The restaurants in Sydney are definitely stepping up their game. Everything looks great, so much detail has gone into prepping the dish! Really want to try the tiny vegemite croutons!!

Flick Your Food said...

Im glad the Star has really up its game in dining.
We are now giving melbourne a run for thier money in the best state for food :)

Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said...

Vegemite croutons have me intrigued but it's the modern interpretation and styling of the desserts which has really captured me.

betty said...


john@heneedsfood said...

I walked past the entrance on Sunday. Love the decor! Impressive food as well!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

This place looks like fun-Calpis cheesecake reminds me of my time in Japan!

Laura said...

luckily i live right near here, i'm dying to try their sashimi

Tina said...

Hi joey - There's no rush ;)

Hi lateraleating - Yeah, definitely some fabulous flavours among those dishes!

Hi Dumpling Girl - The dessert definitely ended the night on a high!

Hi Bel - Uniqueness comes at a price, apparently ;) They're not cheap (almost Japanese fine dining), but they're certainly not Momofuku Seiobo price region either.

Hi sugarpuffi - Glad it wasn't just me loving the mayo! Seems everyone's impressed!

Hi Vivian - They were real cute, but presentation was pretty spesh too!

Hi Flick Your Food - Yes, well our casinos are certainly competing on much more level ground now (but we have Momofuku)

Hi Rita - Sweet tooth? ;) It's all refreshingly different to most Japanese places. Vegemite's just the icing on the... sashimi.

Hi Betty - That's OK; feel free to show your excitement :)

Hi John - The bar is pretty amazing, I thought. One glance from the lobby and you'd go running in, I reckon ;)

Hi Lorraine - Food, sake and company were most fun on the night :)

Hi Laura - Yeah, their sashimi is unlike any other place. I mean Moreton Bay bug? Beef short rib? :P

Juji said...

Oh damn, I really wish I had read your post while I was in Sydney! We visited The Star, but didn't see Sokyo.

You had me at Moreton Bay Bugs.

Looked like a great meal!

Phuoc'n Delicious said...

Awesome! I walked pass this restaurant the other day and made a mental note to visit it one day.. After reading your post, I think that day has to come sooner! Every dish looks fantastic.

Tina said...

Hi Juji - Yeah, it's in The Darling which is not really near the gaming floor at all. The menu had me at Moreton Bay bugs...!

Hi Phuoc - And that's not even a quarter of the entire menu! It's pretty hard to choose a dishes - they all sound so good.

Anonymous said...

looks amazing - can I ask how much your meal cost? it looks like you had alot.... :-)

Tina said...

Hi Anonymous - It's not the cheapest Japanese dining experience out there, but a great experience nonetheless :)

eric said...

There's an undeniable love for Japanese food in Sydney I can attest to that! It's always good to see new places that are this impeccable for quality and presentation AND taste opening up!


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