I love Japanese food, and when I heard about the recently opened Saké Restaurant and Bar at The Rocks in Sydney from my sister Jaded and her hubby JM, then drooled over the restaurant menu online, I really wanted to eat there.
Here in Perth, Japanese food is plentiful – from the “cheap eats” food halls and takeaway lunch places that have sprouted up everywhere to sushi train and more upmarket restaurants. I love my takeaway bowl of Japanese curry with chicken katsu, potato and carrot on rice – a comforting, tasty lunch on a relentlessly stressful or frustrating work day – but it’s even more wonderful to dine out at a leisurely pace in a busy, noisy trendy restaurant, where the food is exciting and more adventurous than the standard teriyaki chicken bento set, has been prepared and presented beautifully by chefs clearly proud of their creations, every bite bursting with freshness and tasting absolutely delicious.
My brother-in-law JM works for the company that owns Saké (see note at the end of this post). Last year at the curry puff making and pie eating session at my parents’ house when Jaded and JM visited Perth, JM told us about Saké and I made up my mind the next time I went to Sydney, I would definitely eat there. So when I got the invitation to the Tetsuya’s event, the first thing I did was contact my sister to say: “I’m coming to Sydney! Can we go eat at Saké?”
We had dinner there on the Friday night I was in Sydney. After an absurdly long taxi ride due to bad traffic made slower by heavy rain, Jaded and I met JM for a much needed drink in the bar, where we sat on elegant wooden benches and munched on wasabi peas before proceeding to the counter for dinner. I’d eaten a big breakfast that morning (blog post to come) and skipped lunch in anticipation of this dinner, and the wasabi peas only made my tummy growl louder. I couldn’t wait to start eating.
“I got us seats at the counter,” JM said, “So you can watch the chefs at work.” This proved to be an excellent idea – I had a great time watching the chefs cooking and assembling the dishes throughout the evening in the open kitchen right in front of me. I love watching anyone doing a job with skill, creativity and passion, and watching chefs work is no exception – they could be making chocolate mousse quenelles, butchering steaks off an enormous hunk of beef, or delicately garnishing a platter of sashimi with such care and concentration you can’t help but watch with fascination and admiration. I couldn’t always see everything the chefs were actually doing with their hands, but watching their facial expressions it was clear they were busy but enjoying their work. The people sitting at the restaurant tables behind us looked like they were having a great time, but I loved being at the counter where I could watch the busy kitchen. I’d be tempted to sit at the counter again, should I return for another meal in future.
On one of the walls of the restaurant as you walk in is a striking display of hand-painted saké barrels, and of course, at a restaurant and bar named Saké you can try all kinds of saké. The staff are knowledgeable and happy to make recommendations for a drink at the bar, pre-dinner drinks or to match the dishes you have ordered for dinner. I’m a non-drinker but had to try saké at least once (how could I not, at a restaurant named Saké?) – I must say I liked it more than wine made from grapes. It’s very strong though, and I would’ve had to lie down for a sleep had I drunk much more! I was firmly focused on my goal – I was here to eat, eat and then eat! And take lots of photos!
I’d already drooled over the menu – multiple times in fact – back in Perth before this trip. But now, as I sat at the counter, unfolded the menu and thought about what to order to eat tonight, I felt very excited. After a little discussion, we ordered a number of dishes to share. I was sitting in the middle, Jaded on my left, JM on my right. I was in the prime spot for eating and photographing each dish as it was placed before us.
My sister couldn’t believe I hadn’t eaten soft shell crab before! First to arrive was the spider maki sushi, made with fried soft shell crab, cucumber and mayo, garnished with spicy tobiko (the bright orange flying fish roe generously studding the outside of the sushi), chives and ponzu (AU$10 hand rolls, $17 cut rolls – we chose the cut rolls).
Almost at the same time came the salt and pepper tofu (AU$11). The deep-fried cubes of tofu were crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, garnished with finely sliced spring onion and wispy tendrils of roasted chilli.
I enjoyed the chewiness of the battered soft shell crab in the seasoned sushi rice, a joy to eat with the crisp fresh cucumber and generous splodge of creamy mayo that goes so well with any deep-fried foods. I’m soft shell crab’s newest fan, and I’d definitely have this sushi again. The tofu was a perfect mouthful, but so hot I had to eat it in two bites for fear of burning my tongue before I’d barely begun.
This Sydney trip was particularly memorable for me, not just because of the amazing food I ate, but because of my personal “sashimi revelation”. Regular readers will know I’ve mentioned many times that I am not a big fan of sashimi. I never order it, never eat it. For me, it’s never been the idea of raw fish that put me off; its the texture of raw fish that I haven’t liked. I was served kingfish sashimi at Tetsuya’s the night before – it was the first time I’d eaten sashimi of kingfish, and I was surprised – I liked it and ate the whole serve.
We ordered a sashimi selection, and this is what we received: back row L-R – kingfish, tuna, salmon; front row L-R – mackerel, scallop, squid, snapper. Three pieces of each kind of seafood, for the three of us. So here’s the thing – I think I actually quite like sashimi if it’s been sliced thinly, which the kingfish and the snapper were. I ate a piece of each of those and thought they were delicious. The sashimi that is most plentiful back in Perth is tuna and salmon, which are usually quite thickly cut compared to the kingfish and snapper, and I’d based my judgement of sashimi on my dislike for tuna and salmon sashimi. So there you go! I’m a fussy sashimi eater who prefers my sashimi thinly sliced. Oh – but one beautiful exception to the thin/thick sashimi theory: scallops! The scallop I ate was fleshy, moist, soft, sweet and absolutely heavenly.
The panko rice balls (AU$10) were served freshly deepfried, poppingly hot and irresistibly crunchy, with a deliciously velvety bitey wasabi aioli for dipping.
In the tasty sushi rice filling beneath that crunchy coating were bamboo, bright green pieces of soy bean, and tiny but flavoursome bits of shitake mushroom. Once again I had to resist eating this deep-fried morsel in one bite, as it was so fresh and mouth-burningly hot. It’s funny to think that wasabi mayo can cool anything down, but it did, mostly because of its creaminess (but yes, with a wasabi-hot finish!).
The menu offers six different varieties of kushiagi, panko-coated fried skewers – and as a lover of all things crumbed and deep-fried, they all sounded appealing to me: pork and onion, salmon and avocado, chicken and spring onion roll, prawn, and even the plain and simple asparagus. But as soon as I saw the magic words – lotus root – I wanted to try the lotus root and minced prawn kushiage (AU$5 per two skewers). I love lotus root, but it’s rare to find it on a menu when dining out as so few places use it, whether as a main ingredient or even just as a garnish. The lotus root and minced prawn kushiage were served on skewers like lollipops (but even better – savoury, crunchy, lotus root lollipops!), drizzled with barbecue sauce, with a (sorry, I have to say this – though thinking this didn’t put me off at all!) a plump cat poo-like blob of hot mustard, garnished with a sprinkling of finely chopped fresh chives. Maybe I’m strange, but the mustard’s strong resemblance to one of my favourite game characters, Poo Poo Santiago, made me smile and like the presentation of the dish even more – lollipops and cat poo mustard giving me something like a naughty child’s secret pleasure.
The minced prawn had been cleverly stuffed into the holes of the lotus root. If you haven’t eaten lotus root before, it doesn’t have a very strong flavour – you’d be hard-pressed to pick out the flavour of lotus root in a blind taste test – but the pleasure in eating it, and what you’ll remember about it, comes in its texture. The closest thing I could compare the texture of the deep-fried lotus root to would be water chestnut, though it’s not exactly the same – I don’t think lotus root is quite as crisp as water chestnut. When I was a child, my grandma used to make soup with lotus root and pork ribs, and in soup the texture is slightly different again. Sometimes you’ll find lotus root sliced thinly and deep-fried like chips and used as a garnish, and again, in that form it is completely different in taste and texture. All are worth trying, especially if you, like me, gain a great deal of pleasure in the feel and texture of the food you eat.
We also ordered a serve of miso-butterfish (AU$25) – a filet of butterfish, marinated in miso, then grilled and served with pickled radish. The fish came with a spoon, which we used to serve ourselves pieces of the fish. The outside of the fish was coated in the savoury-sweet brown miso glaze (with more glaze splashed tantalisingly across the platter) that would’ve been plate-lickingly good, had I been alone. It’s quite a salty glaze and would go very well with steamed rice. The flesh of the butterfish was radiantly white, soft, moist and meaty. And who could resist, who could not fall in love with a fish with a name like “butterfish”? (I would also probably fall head over heels in love with a fish named “baconfish”). JM told me the butterfish was specifically chosen not only because it is delicious, but because it is a sustainable fish. Sustainable, delicious, and with a name featuring the word “butter” – what’s not to love? There is also a hot starter dish on the menu that sounds divine and cute at the same time – butterfish lettuce cups (AU$12).
My sister told me the popcorn shrimp (AU$26) was a must-try and I was only to eager to give it a go. Oh my goodness! The bite-sized prawn tempura pieces were coated with creamy spicy chilli mayo and were so moreish I couldn’t stop eating them. Even when I started feeling full, I was couldn’t resist eating another piece, and then another piece… and another, until the bowl was empty. Yes, it was me who ate the last four pieces of popcorn shrimp, one by one, while the others were talking. And not a single salad leaf remained, either – it was all devoured and much appreciated.
My savoury stomach was pleasantly full by the time we got through all of the above dishes, but my sweet stomach was ready for a treat! And boy, did it get something special – spectacular, in fact! Pastry chef RJ put together a beautiful platter for us featuring three of Sake’s house-made desserts (chocolate fondant with white sesame ice cream AU$15; deconstructed russian cream buttermilk pannacotta $13; green apple mille feuille $13). Normally you order each dessert as a single item, but I reckon they should make this dessert tasting platter a regular menu item – it would be perfect for groups, big-eating sweet-tooths and indecisive people (who may or may not be big-eating sweet tooths and dining in a group).
At the left end of the platter in the photo below you see the white sesame ice cream with black sesame tuile, which was the accompaniment to the item in the middle of the platter at the top – the chocolate fondant, served warm and gorgeously gooey in the centre, with a surprise of red beans in its molten chocolate core. The link between the ice cream and fondant was provided visually by a streak of chocolate littered by a trail of chopped pistachio nuts, with a sprinkle of nuts on top of the sesame ice cream. The sesame ice cream went very well with the rich fondant (I loved the combination of hot fondant and cold ice cream), but was also surprisingly refreshing on its own.
At the bottom of the platter in the middle is the very quivery, wobbly and silky smooth deconstructed russian cream buttermilk pannacotta, topped with toasted shaved coconut, with its accompaniment on the right, cubes of raspberry jelly with raspberry sauce.
At the top right corner of the platter, the green apple mille feuille – creamy green apple mousse between layers of crispy super-thin pastry and apple syrup. I loved the crispy pastry and that fluffy light green apple mousse, but I kept returning to the red beans in that warm soft chocolate fondant centre.
The desserts were simply superb. The mille feuille was carefully divided into three and enthusiastically demolished. I couldn’t stop eating the pannacotta and chewing on the toasted coconut (it was right in front of me, and I had a spoon in my hand! How could I resist?), and I made sure that not a single chocolatey red bean was left behind on the plate.
I had a great evening. The food was yummy, and no one (my dining companions as well as the staff) was bothered by my constant photo-taking (my dining companions were especially patient – thank you!). I got to meet some of the chefs, including the head chef himself, Shaun, and restaurant manager Rupert, who were so very welcoming and friendly to this glutton from Perth.
Saké Restaurant and Bar is not a cheap eats kind of place, but if you’re willing to spend the money, the food is top-notch and each dish is presented with pride and care. Go with friends and share the dishes! The fried foods are served poppingly fresh (don’t be greedy and burn your mouth!), the sashimi beautifully fresh and sliced with precision, the desserts lusciously decadent and surprising. The popcorn shrimp is addictive – you have been warned! The wait staff are efficient, friendly and knowledgeable, keen to advise on the food and matching saké, and the chefs clearly enjoy their work. As a non-drinker, I felt very well looked after, with our waiter keen to make sure I was happy with my non-alcoholic drinks as my dining companions were with their saké – I started with a lemon lime and bitters, then a tart and refreshing grapefruit soda and finished with a pot of hot Japanese organic tea as the perfect end to a lovely meal.
Saké Restaurant & Bar
Contemporary Japanese cuisine
12 Argyle Street
The Rocks Sydney NSW 2000
Tel +61(2) 9259 5656
Fax +61(2) 9241 1613
Note: I felt it important to disclose that my brother-in-law works for the company that owns Saké, but I also wish to declare that this review was based on my personal experience and impressions of the restaurant, its food and service the night I dined there. I could see throughout the evening that the plates of food that went out to the other diners looked just as good what was presented to us. I only wish my appetite was large enough that I could’ve tried more of the dishes! Had I been unhappy with any aspect of my experience, I would have certainly mentioned it. I take pride in writing honestly here at the blog, giving credit where it’s due and also providing negative and constructive feedback when appropriate.
See the list of posts from my Sydney trip.