Monday, July 30, 2012

Revisit your favourites: Izakaya Fujiyama

Recently there has been a lot of publicity around the restaurant industry and the difficult period restaurateurs currently face. There really is no better time than the present to get out and into your favourite restaurants to support them. Not only is it the owners’ livelihoods that could be lost, it’s essentially our collective eating-out livelihoods too.

The combination of a prolonged economic “recession” and the more cautious consumer discretionary spending habits associated with it; the MasterChef effect; rising living costs; a changing consumer and diner; and quite honestly some overambitious plans should not herald any end to the vibrant dining scene we have in Sydney. The current state of flux is an evolution of the industry that will take its course – if not tomorrow, next month or next year.

Asazuke - salt pickled mixed vegetables from Izakaya Fujiyama, Waterloo Street, Surry Hills
Izakaya Fuijiyama in Surry Hills is one of my favourites. It recently celebrated its first year anniversary and its menu has expanded and matured along the way.

It’s a great drinking and eating venue on the quieter side of Surry Hills and has really developed a niche in its sake range. All I know is that I picked sake #77 (name forgotten, but lovely and dry) and there were more than 77 on the list.

We started on Japanese pickles which have more of a salty aspect compared to various other Asian and non-Asian pickles, which often have more sweet and sour elements. But all the better to drink with, which is the precise idea of an izakaya.

This bowl was predominantly juicy Chinese cabbage and cucumber, with some grated carrot gracing the salty jumble.

Orion beer
It was my first time seeing Orion beer, ordered from the extensive drink specials menu. An easy-drinking beer from Japan’s Okinawa, it’s touted as an American style beer; and not half bad.

Three bean salad with sesame dressing
It is all too easy to get carried away with the exciting proteins and deep fry action on the menu so I make a conscious effort to order vegetables.

A vision of green, the three bean salad is worlds away from the tinned stuff, featuring snow peas, green beans and sugar snap peas all in fantastic states of crisp freshness. The nutty sesame dressing was pretty full on, adding serious weight to a bowl of greens.

Kingfish nuta with tortilla
One of my favourite dishes from every visit has been the kingfish nuta, which has evolved with the restaurant to its present spicy form served on a plate.

Our fears that there weren’t enough deep fried tortilla segments were unfounded, especially when the raw, miso-dressed kingfish is best piled on liberally.

I have to say I prefer the non-spicy version, but this one packs a flavour punch that makes one glad they drink beer.

Sashimi platter
It’s impressive that Izakaya Fujiyama does the quality of sashimi and sushi that it does, as your average izakaya in Japan is unlikely to dabble in raw fish at all.

The platter of ten generous pieces features five impeccable varieties, presented so alluringly that sharing amongst three is a slight problem.

Sashimi platter
The tuna was lean and light, while the kingfish got my vote of the platter. The skin-on bonito didn’t have any overriding fishiness while the finely-scored squid makes for a pretty sight aside the creamy salmon belly.

Kenji's fried chicken
As much as I try to resist fried chicken, it’s near impossible. Chef Kenji Maenaka’s fried karage chicken is as juicy as you’ll get; the thigh chunks covered in a golden batter that’s enhanced ten-fold with creamy Japanese mayonnaise and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Crispy pork belly
The crispy pork belly off the food specials menu arrived as three strips: perfect for sharing among three but a little difficult to handle with chopsticks.

The blistered, burnished skin wasn’t quite at crackling state, but close, lined with a layer of fat and fall-apart soft cross-sections of meat.

The lemon was a lifesaver of the dish; being rather crucial in cutting through the fatty mouthfuls and overall richness while the paste-like yuzu pepper added a zingy kick.

Teriyaki beef kalbi
The teriyaki beef short rib is an epic-looking dish that chopsticks, again, struggle with – although I have no issue with picking up and gnawing off bones.

The multiple dips into teriyaki sauce while being grilled probably have a lot to do with the appetising caramelised edges of the beef rib, which was succulent and still a little pink in the middle.

It’s quite the rich serving so the green chilli relish went some way in ensuring that beef overload didn’t hit too soon – though it definitely has some punch of its own.

Vanilla ice cream with Japanese vinegar
Depending on your food choices at Izakaya Fujiyama, you may or may not end up gorged and unable to contemplate dessert – as I was. However, it didn’t stop me from having a taste of the vanilla ice cream with a curious Japanese vinegar sauce.

A little like a caramelised balsamic vinegar, it wasn’t overly weird as it may have sounded initially but it also probably won’t make my list of favourite ice cream toppings.

It was another thoroughly enjoyable evening of food and drinks at Izakaya Fuijiyama and I definitely don’t want it to be my last, so I’ll be making sure to revisit this and my other Sydney favourites soon.

Izakaya Fujiyama on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dear Diary: Today I went to The Rum Diaries

I used to keep a written diary filled with inane schoolgirl ramblings: homework, friends, boys, social outings, family. It turned philosophical at a point in my late teens but was rarely more than rambling. Good thing there wasn’t rum in my life in those days.

And good thing there is rum in my life these days. It’s taken me a while to appreciate dark rum (though not as long as it will take for whisky) and a place like The Rum Diaries in Bondi is perfect learning (and drinking) grounds.

Heating a Hot Buttered Rum at The Rum Diaries, Bondi Road, Bondi
The small bar revolution has well and truly taken off in Bondi which is lucky for the locals who don’t have to contend with parking and random breath tests. In this block on Bondi Road alone there’s The Flying Squirrel and The Stuffed Beaver, in addition to The Rum Diaries.

One of the earlier small bars in Bondi, the aptly named rum-focused bar has a 1920s mansion feel to its interiors and looks like the kind of place that murder mysteries take place.

The Rum Diaries introduced a new, more serious dining menu earlier this year by head chef Gerald Touchard (ex Astral). So now, to go with your rum cocktails is a concise menu of shared nibbles, entrées and main meals that, Touchard tells us, has reduced restaurant food wastage from their earlier share platter days – win-win, I think.

Knickerbocker cocktail
The substantially-sized, leather-bound drinks menu, named ‘The Cocktail Diaries’, is something to behold. Rum-based cocktails are listed chronologically, starting from the 1500s with the pirate drink of Bumbo.

A little story and history lesson accompanies each drink in the cocktail menu, such as my sweet pink Knickerbocker of 1852 – featuring Appleton V/X rum, Cointreau, house raspberry syrup and lemon juice – which is touted as an early Tiki style drink of the mid-19th century.

All the rum cocktails you’d expect are on the list: from the Rum Old Fashioned of the 1800s to the Rum Blazer of the 1850s, the Daiquiri of 1905, the Mojito of 1931, the Mai Tai of 1944 and the Pina Colada of 1954.

Hot Buttered Rum
On a chilly Sunday night, nothing warms quite like a Hot Buttered Rum (circa 1700s; likely developed from a Hot Toddy; appropriate for “relaxing in the evening, before retiring or as a restorative after-exposure to cold”).

Featuring Angostura 1919 rum, spiced butter, cloudy apple juice and topped with fresh grated nutmeg, the warmed fruit and spice aromas bring Christmas cake to mind, but in a much less cloying fashion.

It’s a great cocktail to introduce the flavours of rum to the palate and is the perfect hot cocktail for the cooler weather.

Tempura zucchini flower stuffed with haloumi, pine nuts & pomegranate vinaigrette
Of the food menu, which arrives rolled up like a scroll, the recommendation is to choose a dish from each of the shared categories between two – not an easy task given the many mouthwatering descriptions.

Deep fried zucchini flowers are an easy crowd pleaser, arriving to reveal soft haloumi cheese innards. The sweetness of the pomegranate vinaigrette was a pleasing match with the savoury cheese.

Kingfish ceviche with grapefruit mojito gel, crispy white radish
The untraditional presentation of the kingfish ceviche was rather refreshing, as were the raw bits of uber fresh kingfish. However, the pretty pink grapefruit mojito jelly strip contributed more bitterness than anything else.

Piling the ceviche onto sourdough crisps made for a fabulous mouthful of crunch and silky, soft fish and though I like more zing in my ceviche, there was no faulting the overall result.

Chicken liver parfait with Pedro Ximenez jelly, orange puree and crisp bread
The night’s special was an entrée of chicken liver parfait: three smooth, fleshy pink quenelles topped with strips of a punchy Pedro Ximenez sherry jelly, thin fruit bread crisps and orange puree blobs on a slate board.

I must be upping my liver tolerance because I actually really enjoyed this particularly creamy parfait which was so rich and smooth I almost forgot it was liver. The sweet accompaniments hit all the right notes, particularly the fruit bread of which an additional order was sorted with ease.

Seared scallops with yuzu lemon puree, edamame bean and nashi pear salad
I’m not sure why it’s been so long since I had a fantastic scallop dish, but it made The Rum Diaries’ rendition all the more enjoyable. Six plump, perfectly seared scallops sat on little, bright yellow puddles of yuzu and lemon gel, singing the sweet, juicy notes typical of my favourite mollusc.

The salad of nashi pear sticks, peeled edamame beans and crunchy black-hued crackers, possibly of nori seaweed, was unique but sensibly let the spotlight remain on the gorgeous scallops.

Tenderly cooked duck with sauté wild mushrooms, autumn vegetables and mandarin jus
The very generous shared main dish of duck was quite the autumnal affair, with a thick puree of chestnuts, and buttery sautéed enoki and chestnut mushrooms amid a mound of spinach, pumpkin and shredded duck salad.

The slow roasted duck breast, finished in the pan for a still-pink middle, was a textbook example of juicy, tender duck as it should be. As much as I love chestnuts, the puree didn’t quite do it for me but I was swooning over the freeze dried mandarin segments, which gave the dish a clever duck a l’orange makeover.

We also had a side of truffle mash potato which was topped with finely grated black truffle. The thick, buttery mash was already amazing and the truffle just tipped it over the edge to ‘best side dish ever’ status. A glass of pinot noir capped off the perfect winter main.

Banana cream with smoked salt caramel, spiced pineapple tapioca and ginger beer jelly
Lately, banana appears to be the dessert poster child so I was more than happy to try the banana cream dessert. The airy blobs of cream were almost more banana in flavour than actual banana, and were tropical heaven eaten with the gooey salt caramel and the freeze-dried pineapple segments.

As a sago lover, the spiced cubes of pineapple with creamy sago/tapioca could have been a delectable dessert on their own, but was even better with the mild ginger beer jelly and banana cream for quite a mind-blowing dessert.

I’m embarrassed to say that I completely pigged out and got into the regional and imported cheese board that followed, and was scraping the last of the oozy Gippsland camembert off the wooden board before I remembered – I’d forgotten to take a photo.

It wasn’t even the buttery, smooth Plantation Rum, recommended served neat, affecting me; cheese does these sorts of things to me. So imagine a very generous board of three cheeses, fig and port chutney, thinly sliced Granny Smith apple and dates sliced lengthways, accompanied by warm thins of crunchy walnut bread.

The Swiss hard cheese, gruyere perhaps, was particularly nutty but combined with the sweet, jammy dates, took on a chocolatey-coffee characteristic that was addictive. It was difficult, however, to not call the Old Telegraph Road blue cheese my favourite, with the fig and port chutney for offsetting sweetness.

Some of the rum selection at The Rum Diaries
It’s impressive what the little kitchen at The Rum Diaries can pump out. Not only are the rum cocktails designed to knock your socks off, the food and presentation match the experience as well. So too the interiors, and if you get a chance to visit the back private room, there’s a surprise in there so great I don’t want to spoil it.

I might have to put that particular secret in the diary but as for The Rum Diaries, well, the secret’s out.

Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of The Rum Diaries, with thanks to Re:Love Group.

The Rum Diaries on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 23, 2012

Japan times - part 3: Harajuku and Shibuya, Tokyo

I recently spent two-and-a-half weeks in Japan, eating and drinking my way through a destination I've wanted to visit for more than a decade. This is the third of several posts of food, booze and sights in Japan.

Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine complex, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
Having decided to check out Tokyo’s Harajuku one Sunday, we took the scenic route via Yoyogi and the forest that comprises the Meiji Jingu Shrine complex.

Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine complex, Shibuya
Whatever one might expect from Harajuku and Shibuya, Meiji Jingu is probably the opposite: verdant, tranquil, restorative even. It’s a green haven in the middle of a busy city, reflecting both Japanese history and religion.

Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine
Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, and is today used as a place of worship and traditional Shinto weddings – the latter of which we were lucky enough to be witnesses to. I now realise that tourists taking photos of random weddings is a worldwide phenomenon.

Prayers left at Meiji Jingu shrine

Inside the Meiji Jingu shrine compound

Shrine gate
The surrounding area of Meiji Jingu is essentially a forest, with trees donated from all over Japan as well as overseas when the area was first established.

Other than the refreshing greenness of the forest, there’s an area with large history-telling billboards, showing among other things, images and insights into Japan’s early relations with the Western world.

Wine barrels

Donated wine barrels
These relations include a collection of wine barrels from wineries in Bourgogne, France which are donated to the shrine.

Facing the wine barrels are wall of decorative sake barrels; also donations to the shrine from sake brewers from across Japan with the sake used at the shrine during Shinto festivals.

Donated sake barrels

Sake barrels
The southernmost exit from Meiji Jingu brought us directly to Harajuku station, which was busy but quite pedestrian considering my expectations. Not far from the station was the main shopping strip, teeming with weekend shoppers.

Harajuku Street, Harajuku, Tokyo

Takeshita Street, Harajuku
Harajuku turned out to be more of a shopping destination with the main street lined with designers brands, back streets filled with vintage clothing stores and just one group of students dressed in what I had in mind was ‘Harajuku style’.

Restaurant entrance
In some of the backstreets, however, we did stumble upon lunch when we spotted a serene, garden-path entrance to a soba buckwheat noodle restaurant.

Inside the restaurant

Zaru soba and tempura set
Set lunch menus delivered my first zaru soba experience; the perfect summer’s day lunch. The buckwheat soba noodles, cooked then quickly chilled in cold water and drained, were served in a traditional basket dish with a soy and dashi-based dipping sauce, and shallots, wasabi and plum sauce on the side.

You could taste the buckwheat flour through the light dipping sauce, which is a very pure experience. Zaru soba is also the perfect instance to get your slurp on. There’s definitely technique to noodle slurping that the Japanese all seem to manage, from the loud young guys to the more stately older ladies. Me, not so much: my slurping tends to be all noise and no noodle movement.

Vegetable kakiage and hot soba set
The soba was also served in a hot soup version which was similarly pure in flavour, but lost the textural subtleties of the cold-served noodles.

Served with the set menus were fantastically crisp and not oily kakiage vegetable fritters, pickles and steamed white rice. The set menus in Japan are actually quite substantial and balanced servings of food, larger than a normal lunch I’d have in Sydney.

At Starbucks, Shibuya
Later in the day we took a moment's rest from a day of walking at one of the world's busiest Starbucks stores, and probably the one with the most amazing view too.

Street intersection crossing in Shibuya
It's really just a street intersection just outside Shibuya station. What's amazing is the sheer amount of pedestrians that cross the street in all directions every three minutes or so.

Street crossing in Shibuya
It's been called one of the busiest pedestrian street intersections in the world, and it was mesmerising to watch over a green tea frappuccino.

Crossing the street in Shibuya

Bar at The Whales of August, Shibuya
People watching had made us thirsty although it was chance and a large sign proclaiming 'cocktails' that got us downstairs into the darkened cocktail bar.

With the 500 yen table charge explained to us, we sat at the bar to take in the place, bartenders and extensive back bar of the excellently named The Whales of August cocktail bar.

Appetiser from The Whales of August, Shibuya
Common in many small bars in Japan, I suppose the table charge covers things like the hot hand towels upon seating and the appetiser that arrived as we perused the menu. Lightly cooked zucchini, bits of processed ham, olive oil and basil constituted this particular appetiser.

Gimlet (left) and Manhattan (right) from The Whales of August, Shibuya
Classic cocktails are generally executed exceptionally well in Japan and their own concoctions, well, they're an acquired taste.

Sticking to the classics to start, my properly icy cold Gimlet is the product of some serious shaking with the gin slowly warming me up. The Manhattan is a drink I'm yet to appreciate, although my dislike of maraschino cherries doesn't help the cause either.

Whales of August cocktail (left) and whisky (right)
A nip of whisky on ice came with an ice ball, making it look like quite the significant pour. On the other hand I was game enough to try one of the bar's own cocktails; all of which are named after famous movies (much like the bar itself).

The recommendation was the bar's namesake cocktail, which I think had a white spirit base as well as a touch of the near-requisite of Japanese cocktails, blue Curaçao. From memory, it was a lychee flavoured cocktail that didn't change my views on Japanese cocktails.

Late night eats in Shibuya
It had somehow gotten to 10pm before we went to hunt for dinner and at this particular establishment, filled with young drinkers and smokers, we were warned that we only had 30 minutes to put our orders in before the kitchen closed. Given our ravenous, post-drinking state, that wasn't a problem.

Inside the restaurant

Inside the restaurant
The vibe was definitely young, even in the kitchen where the black clothed chefs and waiters alternated between sleeves of tattoos or rock-star long hair.

The izakaya style food offerings seemed secondary to drinking, of which draft beer and oolong-hai (cold oolong tea mixed with shochu spirit) were popular.

Appetiser of young raw garlic
Handed our appetiser in a metal dish, the long shoots of garlic with a blob of miso on the side was rather confronting and unexpected.

While I could see the textural appeal of the crunchy young shoots, the sheer pungency and heat of the raw garlic was too much after several attempts, not even considering the subsequent garlic breath.

Potato salad
Luckily there was respite to be found in the potato salad - Japanese style, of course, constituting creamy mash and chunks of potato, thins of pickled cucumber and carrot rounds.

Fried chicken
I didn't expect the main game to be fried chicken, but it most certainly was. With a thin, crunchy, golden batter, these chunks of juicy chicken thigh were dressed in a tart soy-based sauce with fried-up garlic, ginger and chilli, among other scrumptious ingredients.

Yakisoba - pan fried soba noodles
The yakisoba fried noodles ended up being our filler dish and it wasn't too bad a version. Tossed with plenty of pork slices and cabbage, the saucy noodles were finished with common toppings of aonori seaweed and red pickled ginger strips.

Streets of Shibuya by night
Shibuya and Harajuku didn't end up at all like I had anticipated, which wasn't at all a bad thing and not the last time Japan was going to surprise me.

Plenty more Japan posts to come. See more photos at my Facebook page.


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