It was probably one of the first times ever that The Sister and I had made a drive from the North Shore into the city during peak traffic in less than half an hour, meaning that we arrived very early for our booking time at Saké Restaurant & Bar. We were very excited for our first visit, as being avid fans of Japanese cuisine, we had been meaning to come here almost two years ago.
We were here for the $35 dinner special for the launch of ArgyleXchange – the combination of four establishments in The Rocks: The Argyle, Saké Restaurant & Bar, Anana’s Bar & Brasserie, and The Cut Bar & Grill. When I stumbled across their advertisement on Facebook, I was horrified I had never heard of it before, then realised it was the first time this was happening. I also noticed that it sounded sneakily similar to the March into Merivale deals that the Merivale Monopoly have. What a perfect time to visit!
There had been some slight confusion when arranging our booking a week before. When I first called, I was told the earliest they could fit us in was 8.00 pm. Then The Sister called and a different person told her the $35 dinner was only available before 6.00 pm. Then when she called them the third time, a different person said that the $35 dinner was only available before 6.30 pm. So we grabbed that opportunity and went for 6.30 pm. A bit of a rocky start to our night, but we were happy to receive our desired time slot in the end.
We parked over at Quay West and walked along Harrington Street, and when we arrived I couldn’t help but laugh. I discovered that on those Saturday evenings I had been waiting in line to get into the Argyle, I’ve been standing right outside Anana’s! All four of the ArgyleXchange restaurants were next to one another!
We were greeted by the maitre d’ and a chorus of “Irasshaimase”s from the open kitchen when he led us to our table in the middle of the dining floor. The Sister inquired about the sunken seating, which we had requested during the booking, and he disappeared briefly before returning with a broad smile and saying that he ‘used his charm’ and got us a traditional table with sunken seating.
The service was very much like that throughout the night – extremely friendly and approachable, but also respectful at the same time. I was surprised that most of the waitstaff were quite young, and while they had the well-trained manners of much more experienced waitstaff I’ve interacted with at other restaurants, they were also very easy to talk to and knowledgeable about the menu. For example, our young waiter sat down at our table so he wasn’t looming over us while we read out the very long list of dishes we wanted to order, and then later on I noticed him squatting down low beside the table of an elderly couple when taking their orders.
The interior of the restaurant is very art deco and modern, yet somehow manages to not only retain the essence of the heritage building it’s in, but also channels a traditional Japanese atmosphere. The warm panels of wood everywhere soften the modern feel of the restaurant, however because of a lack of muffling material and the high, exposed beams, the noise level in the main restaurant did become very loud at peak dinner service. There was also techno music being played, which seemed a little at odds with the more traditional nature of the interior. While maybe some more classical Japanese would have suited the interior architecture just as well, the music suited the, I guess, trendiness of the place and its target audience.
We had deliberately strategised to have three people in attendance tonight (The Sister, The Sister’s boyfriend and myself), so we were able to try the whole three-course dinner menu, sans the hand rolls, because you simply cannot share a hand roll. Hand rolls and sharing, yeah, no deal!
The Kozaemon Honjozo Kyoukai saké arrived a little messily. While it was just a shot’s worth in a standard glass, it appeared to have been sloshed around a fair bit. I’m not sure whether this was when it was moving from the bar to our table or when it was being poured, but it looked like a wet glass.
It was cold saké, which is what the restaurant specialises in. I had a smell of it and tried a sip, but unfortunately saké still does not agree with my palate! Oh well, maybe it will take some time. I had hot green tea instead, which came in a little cast iron teapot
While the cast iron teapot was attractive in an antique-chic way, I couldn’t really see the practicality of it. The tea remained very hot to start with and made the teapot too hot to touch, and then cooled down to stone cold very quickly. Our waitress struggled with our teapots and was trying to hold the burning-hot teapot in one hand to pour into our cup on the tray she was holding in the other hand, and ended up spilling a fair bit on the tray.
Anyway, it’s about time we get onto the food! We started off with Edamame, which was seasoned with sea salt flakes and still deliciously warm. It was an absolutely huge bowl of edamame – I’ve never had that much! It seemed never-ending; we almost wondered if they had come and re-filled it.. Perfect healthy snack food!
When we ordered, we had asked for all of our food to come out at once rather than having to wait in-between each of our courses, as we were sharing the dishes. And the speed at which it all came out! We had about six dishes on our table in the middle of our meal. At one stage I went to use the washroom and had a peek at other diner’s tables, and was surprised to see that people were only getting one or two mains and then sharing them. What greedy fools we must have looked like
The first dish to arrive at our table was the six pieces of Sashimi resting on a bowl of ice – Salmon, Tuna, and the white fish we couldn’t quite identify. I was a little wary of such thick slices of sashimi, as I’ve only had raw Salmon either as nigiri or carpaccio. I tentatively tried a slice of the salmon though, and was astonished at how deliciously silky and fresh it was – definitely some of the best sashimi I’ve ever had.
Our Wagyu Skewer Anticucho was next to arrive. We had the choice of teriyaki or anticucho, and upon inquiring about it with our waiter, he said that the anticucho was a spicier sauce. Deciding to be adventurous, we tried it and the anticucho turned out to be a lovely combination of garlic, vinegar and other spices that complemented the juicy wagyu skewer perfectly. The waygu was smoky and charred on the outside, tender and pink on the inside and not a single bit of gristle. With a beautifully even distribution of fat, it was absolutely amazing wagyu, and the shredded daikon on the side was a perfect accompaniment to cut through any remaining oiliness at the end.
The Pan-seared Ocean Barramundi with sweet ponzu buckwheat salsa won the prize for plating out of all the dishes we had tonight.
I’ve been going through a fish craze lately, in case you haven’t noticed, and this piece of barra matched every piece of fresh fish I’ve had. A deliciously crispy and salted skin, and a perfect flaky and soft white flesh. The buckwheat salsa lent a very nutty flavour and different textural element to the dish. I really enjoyed that you could have it as a tapas-style dish rather than just as a main, as is the norm at other restaurants.
Our second courses arrived in quick succession, starting with the Agedashi Tofu in a Bonito-infused broth with ginger and shallots.
At first I was a bit taken aback at how pale and angular the tofu was – it almost reminded me of polenta chips! When taking a bite into the perfectly-hot tofu, the silken tofu had almost a ‘meaty’ texture in how firm it was, holding its shape incredibly well. As pale as the batter was on the outside, it was wonderfully crisp and crunchy, and The Sister identified it as them having used rice flour in the batter. The bonito-infused broth was extremely salty when I tasted it on its own, but went very well with the plain tofu, as it is supposed to be. It would have been nice to have some more spring onion.
Our Salmon & Avocado Maki arrived with six pieces. With the menu being $35, we had been expecting probably three pieces, four if we were lucky! The sushi rice was very different to anything I’ve ever had in Sydney, and was both sticky and quite heavy on vinegar. Vinegar-heavy sushi rice isn’t popular in Sydney, but the traditional way of making sushi rice in Japan is where they aerate the rice and keep adding vinegar until the rice grains cannot absorb any more.
The pieces of Salmon were deliciously fresh, not like in some other restaurants where they use the off-cuts that can’t be used for the sashimi and nigiri..! Each piece was just the right size for dipping into soy and then popping straight into one’s mouth, saving the tug-of-war when you have one end of the nori in your chopsticks and the other between your lips.
The Chicken Karaage arrived with its spicy creamy sauce which was a startling shade of orange.
While the chicken was a little on the pale side as far as fried chicken goes, it was crisp and crunchy on the outside and the thigh meat tender and cooked well inside. Wonderful with a squeeze of lemon and a dip (more like a generous slather for me!) of the spicy creamy mayo (do I spy Kewpie…?).
At this stage our additional dish off the a la carte menu arrived, as we had been warned our dishes from the $35 menu would be quite small. Lies! I was straining by this stage and hadn’t even had my third courses yet. But you know that I will never say no to soft shell crab!!
Look at those crab legs waving at us! The Spider Maki ($18) came topped with a generous layer of spicy tobiko and chives. The soft shell crab and tobiko on top was so gorgeously moreish that I didn’t even acknowledge that I was eating my not-so-favourite vegetable, the cucumber.
More food?? While The Sister and I normally don’t eat white fish sashimi, we ordered the Kingfish Jalapeño based on the number of ravings I’ve heard about it. Folding over the thin slice of Kingfish with the chilli slice inside, I swabbed it generously with the yuzu soy and popped the whole sliver in my mouth in one go. Absolutely to-die-for. The yuzu had cured the Kingfish slightly so you had the textural element of the meatiness of the Kingfish, leaving behind a lovely citric tang on your palate after it had long gone. This dish definitely transformed my approach to white fish sashimi.
At this stage I’m going to have to hang my head in shame. We had ordered the Mixed tempura but in the mad chaos of having four dishes arriving on our table at once, I completely forgot to take a photo of it! It was a combination of what you usually encounter on a tempura plate, being a prawn, piece of fish, piece of sweet potato, etcetera, however also had some unusual things like a tempura shiitake mushroom and a tempura slice of avocado! The batter was quite plain and definitely needed the light dipping sauce accompanying the tempura.
And last but not least, the infamous Popcorn Shimp!
I’ll admit that what I had been expecting was more, like, well…popcorn chicken (laughs). The shrimps were deliciously juicy and fresh, having been lightly battered and tempura-ed before being tossed in the sauce. The overwhelmingly dominant flavour of the shrimps was lemon though, and I do think that it could have been cut down a fair bit to allow the natural sweetness of the prawns to shine. It was a very generous serving of shrimp and I can only imagine the amount of raw prawns that would have went into this dish to produce what was in front of us. Had I been dining by myself and had ordered this, it would have been too much prawn for me. And how often do you say the words “too much prawn”?
Overall, it was an amazing dining experience and a lovely evening. The decor and atmosphere blew me away, the service was friendly and attentive, and the menu introduced me to beautiful and unusual flavours and textures previously unbeknownst to me. The food is a fusion of both Western and Asian cuisines, lending strong Western flavours to Asian dishes that are traditionally more delicately seasoned.
While I’d definitely return here again after March, I strongly advise you to visit Saké in this last week of March – the $35 three-course dinner deal is an offer that cannot be missed!
Saké Restaurant & Bar
12 Argyle Street, The Rocks, Sydney NSW 2000
(02) 9259 5656