When I first came to Sydney in the early 1980s, Japanese food was what I would term “luxury” food at the time.
Despite the abundance of seafood in Sydney, Japanese restaurants were few and far in between. Fast forward thirty odd years later, a neighbourhood Japanese restaurant in Sydney is as obligatory as your local friendly pizzeria or the Chinese takeaway.
Sydneysiders are spoiled with fresh and abundant seafood in every corner of our city. We have come to embrace takeaway sushi as a quick and tasty snack during a busy lunch hour.
Casual as sushi may seem, Mysaucepan and I are with my mum and three of her girlfriends who are in Sydney for a short vacation. We decide on dinner at the once one-hatted Azuma - a Japanese restaurant at Chifley Square in the heart of Sydney CBD.
“We are fully booked tonight” the lady on the phone says.
“But the private dining room is available for a minimum of four people and a minimum spend of $350″ she adds as I try to book a table this Saturday evening.
“I think it should be okay since there is eight of us this evening” I say to confirm my booking.
Located in Chifley Tower just off Macquarie street, the restaurant is geared for ‘business suits’ that live and play around Sydney CBD. Dark tones, wood paneling adorned with intricate Japanese artworks, I could easily mistake this restaurant to be an elegant Japanese massage and spa.
Unlike the private dining room of some restaurants, Azuma’s private dining room is spacious, elegant and of course, very private.
A large wooden dining table, plush seating and a view onto busy Sydney CBD, it is the perfect setting to impress your clients with fresh sushi and seal that million dollar business deal.
I love Japanese style beers because they are characteristically dry and full of flavour.
Edamame sets the tone for a Japanese meal. Using your fingers to squeeze the soy beans from their pods is not unlike using your hand to eat sushi – it is neither rude nor disrespectful in Japanese culture.
On the contrary, picking up a piece of sushi with your fingers and popping the entire piece into your mouth whilst nodding gently to savour its flavour is the highest compliment you can give to a Japanese sushi master.
2009 Azuma Sauvignon Blanc $48
The minimalist label of a 2009 Azuma Sauvignon Blanc from the Yarra Valley resembles elegant Japanese calligraphy.
This wine is crisp with citrus and melon aromas and is one of my favourite matches for fresh seafood.
Japanese style ‘amuse-bouche’ $26
It is rather strange to see the French words ‘amuse-bouche’ on a Japanese menu.
‘Amuse bouche’, literally “mouth amuser” in French are different from entree and appetizers as they don’t usually appear on a menu. These bite-sized hors ‘oeuvre are served free-of-charge to prepare diners for the taste and flavour of the meal. It is also to offer a glimpse of the chef’s culinary art and craft.
A porcelain dome with see-through holes arrives at our table as the first of two Azuma style amuse-bouche which is on the menu for $26.
Once opened, it reveals a small rectangular block of black sesame tofu with yuzu miso.
‘Yuzu’ is a citrus fruit that originated from China and grows wild in central China and Tibet. It was introduced to Japan and Korea during the Tang dynasty and is now widely cultivated in these countries.
Visually, this appetizer looks mysterious. The black sesame flavour is clearly distinctive although I’m not sure the tangy taste of the yuzu miso is a good match.
The second dish of this ‘amuse-bouche’ is a mixture of sake steamed baby abalone, grilled saikyo miso silver cod fillet, braised pork belly and salmon sashimi.
Flavours for this amuse-bouche are not outstanding.
And I have an issue with this dish being called ‘amuse-bouche’ because it defies all the traditions of great French cuisine ~ elegance bite-sized hors ‘oeuvre that excite, that it should not appear on the menu and most importantly, offered complimentary to the diners.
Assorted sashimi $45
There is no question about the quality and freshness of an assorted plate of sashimi.
With so many fantastic Japanese restaurants in Sydney now offering the freshest of Sydney’s seafood, the real question is whether you would pay $45 for a plate of sashimi where freshness is taken for granted.
Seared salmon belly $5 per piece
The smokiness of the seared salmon belly is unmistakable.
The top quality and refinement of each bite is clearly evident and so is the price of five dollars for each mouthful.
Seared tuna with daikon radish & ponzu dressing $20
I have read so much about Azuma’s owner ~ Kimitaka Azuma, a chef who prides his food on the freshest of seasonal produce and the philosophy of “less is more”.
And I have waited a very long time to try his seared tuna with daikon radish & ponzu dressing ever since I watched Kimitaka-san preparing this dish on SBS Food on TV.
For salad and seafood lovers, this is the “must order” dish at Azuma.
‘Seared tuna’ means a delicate one millimetre browning on the surface of the tuna. This obviously calls for a very hot pan and deft timing.
The daikon mash is a natural sponge for soaking up the the ponzu dressing. The occasional bite onto a piece of crispy garlic chip lends textural contrast and a gentle bitterness to a dish which celebrates the simplicity of fresh seafood at its best.
Braised pork belly kakuni $13
Braised pork belly kakuni are chunky cubes of decadence that have obviously spent a fair bit of slow-cooking time in the oven. Small dollops of mustard provide some heat dimension and attitude.
The meat is succulent, yielding and flavoursome with a sauce that is not overpowering yet offers a gentle reminder it there to complement.
Grilled scampi with homemade mayonnaise $32
A platter of grilled scampi with homemade mayonnaise is six halves of three scampi.
The thinly julienne beetroot and alfalfa dressing with a squeeze of lemon juice is a nice complement.
I love grilling scampi at home with my favourite herb and garlic butter sauce but mayonnaise offers more subtlety than garlic and reminds me the scampi is still the star of the show here.
Grilled silver cod fillets marinated in saikyo miso $26
There is something about the combination of delicate and flaky white cod fish with the sweetness of miso that made it such an iconic dish for legendary chef Nobu Matsuhisa.
Smoky aromas are gentle although I would have preferred it a little more brown and black on the outside, this dish is good albeit a little small in portion size.
Wagyu beef sirloin steak with soy garlic sauce $39
Whenever you have wagyu beef cooked Japanese style, it’s a fairly safe bet it will be good.
A wagyu beef sirloin steak with soy garlic sauce is extremely tasty. What’s not to like when salt and fat combines well?
Personally, I prefer the beefy taste of wagyu on its own although I understand the value-add factor of a non-yakiniku Japanese restaurant.
2012 Woodlands Chardonnay, Margaret River, Western Australia $48
A 2012 Woodlands chardonnay demonstrates tinges of grapefruit on the nose and good oak balance. Luscious and buttery, it has some good length too.
The winning formula for Azuma appears to be good quality, traditional Japanese food with good service in a pleasant setting in Sydney’s CBD where business clientele is paramount. However, it is definitely not an affordable proposition for everyday Japanese.
Three Japanese restaurants have secured a ‘one hat’ recognition at the 2014 Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide awards and these newer upstarts are showcasing some cutting-edge, modern Japanese with a similar equation for ambience and service.
Throw in the litany of awesome cheap and cheerful Japanese restaurants offering the freshest sushi all over Sydney where wielding a sushi knife is more important than pure cooking skills, perhaps Azuma may need to ponder its more traditional Japanese food with its serious price tag.
So dear readers, do you have a favourite Japanese restaurant in Sydney that you would recommend and if so, what is your favourite dish in that restaurant that would make you go back time and again?
Level 1, 2 Chifley Square
Sydney, New South Wales
Tel: +61 2 9222 9960
Hours: Lunch Monday – Friday 12pm – 230pm Dinner Monday – Saturday 6pm – 10pm
Azuma’s menu has a minimum charge of $35 per person. Private dining room has a minimum requirement of 4 diners and a minimum spend of $350.