It’s three weeks now to my Japan trip and every time I experience something in Sydney that’s remotely Japanese I tend to do a little (or a big) squeal of excitement. It’s every-day things like stirring the instant miso for my afternoon pick-me-up or picking up two sushi rolls after my dance class on the way home. I’m so excited for Japan!! – I would shriek. Of course, if Night Owl is present we have a little squeal-fest together like two teenage girls over a crush. Japan is a significant deal for the both of us: she has never been, while I have been once on a guided tour (hardly the best way to appreciate a country) and back then did not get to appreciate the food Mecca that it truly is. It is also the first time I will be going overseas with a significant other (cue wide eyes) and the first time we’ve traveled overseas together (and hopefully there shall be many more).
We had heard about this place through the grapevine as being “the most authentic Japanese dining experience you will have in Sydney”, and upon doing some further scouting, we got more and more excited when we saw the menu and read the reviews. Originally Night Owl had tried to squeeze us in for Valentine’s Day, but upon calling on Friday for the Sunday of Valentine’s Day, we were sad to receive the news that they were booked out. Not to be deterred, I made a booking three weeks in advance for our first year anniversary dinner, and I think the gentleman who answered the phone seemed very dismayed at how far in advance I was reserving. If you do book way ahead of time, they do remind you the day before via text message and request a confirmation of attendance. There are two seatings: one at 6.00pm, the other at 8.30pm, and there is a minimum spend of $50 per person. We opt for the 8.30pm sitting as we don’t like being rushed, and are more than fine with the $50 per person minimum as we were planning on choosing one of the degustation menus with some sake.
The original restaurant is in Cammeray (the other in Crows Nest) so we jump into an Uber at St Leonards Station for an eight or so minute drive over. There’s a little wait as they clear the tables from the 6.00pm seating, and then we are greeted with a traditional bow and smile. The place is absolutely tiny and cramped but warm and welcoming at the same time – the bar barely seats four, while the main floor probably could seat a maximum of twenty. I think there may be an outdoor courtyard but I didn’t go out to scout.
The waitstaff outnumberthe number of chefs (three to two), and the kitchen is completely open so I point out to Night Owl with amusement the stove top and little yakitori charcoal burner, where everything is covered with aluminium foil for ease of cleaning. After we are seated it takes a little while to get menus as everyone for the 8.30pm seating all arrive at once, but we soon get hand towels and the regular menu as well as the specials for the day.
There’s so much choice it’s overwhelming, so Night Owl and I decide to leave the decision to the chef, opting for the Sushi Omakase ($65 per person) and select the sake of the day, a “Koigaryu” Junmai Daiginjyo Super Dry (180ml for $25). For those new and unfamiliar to sake, I find that it’s simply a cleaner-tasting, sweeter version of wine. As delicious as it is, you also don’t feel the need to guzzle it down as quickly or as much as you would a wine – although the Japanese are known to have it as shots! It’s a wonderful palate cleanser between courses as it is so refreshing, and doesn’t leave any residual sourness on the tongue as I find wine often does. If you order one of the larger bottles of sake, I’ve heard that you can select your own patterned sake cup for the meal, which is cute.
The advantage of ordering a degustation is not only that you get a preview of the chef’s signature dishes, but also that it comes out incredibly fast. Our Kingfish and Jalapeno Carpaccio with yuzu soy sauce comes presented on a beautiful, simply painted plate – which of course makes me more excited to visit Kappabashi in Tokyo (the kitchenware district).
I have had kingfish japaleno a few times already in my life, but none quite measured up to this. Tang, heat, fresh, savoury, umami, butter, warmth – so many textures and flavours all at once with one delicate slice of fish. One bite and Night Owl and I were rolling our eyes at each other in pure pleasure. It was the perfect dish to open up your palate and start the meal.
The next course was a curious dish: Kaori Oven Baked Savoy Cabbage with truffle oil sauce.
I’ve never been able to figure out what the red strands are on top of Japanese dishes – an online search tells me it’s dried capsicum strands. I was a little wary of this dish as I’ve spent too many years of my early childhood having my mother cook up pots of over-boiled cabbage to try and get me to eat my vegetables, but as soon as I bit into this still crisp, yet buttery cabbage my eyes widened. Slicked across and tucked into the creases of the cabbage leaves were little pockets of the fragrant truffle-soy sauce – absolutely delicious.
Next course was the Tempura, two prawn tempura and two of what seemed to look like prawn dim sims as they were so big but turned out to be enormous scallops! As Night Owl tends to get an adverse reaction to scallops, I was happy to take them both in exchange for my prawn (but she did let me have a bite). A wonderfully thin, crispy tempura batter coating without the delicate seafood being overcooked in the slightest.
The Yakitori skewers were next, the first being the traditional chicken Tsukune, or meatballs. Chicken mince is seasoned with garlic, ginger, scallions and sesame oil, and egg white and panko breadcrumbs are usually used to bind the meat to allow it to cling to a skewer. While grilling or baking, they are then brushed in a sweet soy or yakitori “tare” – a glaze similar to teriyaki but not. The meatballs are tender and satisfying.
Next up were the Momo (chicken thigh) and pork belly. Both were well-cooked and succulent but could have done with more smokiness and glazing.
It’s at this time that our waitress brings over the main course, the Chef’s selection of sushi: 10 pieces. When we saw this on the menu we had thought it was 10 pieces to share – but it’s 10 pieces per person!! The menu is extraordinary value for the quality of food that is presented. Our table was tiny and as soon as Night Owl saw our plates of sushi she got so excited she almost tipped over her little cup of sake. The very attentive waitress immediately noticed and let out a cry of alarm and once she had put the sushi down, quickly went to fetch a cleaning cloth for the small spillage. We joked that we had been so awed by the beautiful sushi that we were distracted, and our response was greeted with a beaming smile.
The sushi comes with rice and miso soup….if you can fit it in.
Both of us were starting to feel noticeably full by this stage and so were selective about what sushi we started and ended with. I like to leave my favourite pieces last, so mentally saved the salmon, tuna, eel and the scallop before hovering my chopsticks uncertainly above the other varieties of fish I had no clue about. That plate of varied sushi was certainly not like anything I was expecting. I picked a very white, very clean-looking piece of white sashimi layered over rice and was dismayed to taste that while it was very fresh, it was surprisingly chewy and hard to bite through. Another clean-looking white fish had the same chewy texture with a stronger, oilier flavour. I was wary of a piece of darker fish – thinking that it would be strong in flavour – but when I tasted it it was amazingly creamy and buttery. I’m told this is what it will be like when I attend the restaurants and sushi establishments around Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo; there’s no such thing as getting a whole plate of just salmon or just tuna – you’re presented with a variety of the best fish the eatery has bought for the day.
After this, my food baby is about four months along and I can see that I’m not the only one struggling with a pregnancy. We are the only two in the restaurant at this stage as everyone else seems to have ordered a la carte. Both of us are grateful when a waiter brings out our last course, the Green Tea Creme Brulee. Night Owl is thrilled that she doesn’t have to share!
I think the ice cream on top is black sesame at first, but upon tasting it I’m astonished that it’s actually roasted green tea – not a flavour I’ve ever sampled before, and it’s incredibly delicious. The brulee burnt sugar topping is thin and crisp in the small bowl, digging down easily into the green tea custard underneath. The staff are busy cleaning up around us but don’t pressure us in the slightest, so we leisurely enjoy our final course and finish our wonderful sake. We settle the bill and as we head on outside we are bowed out with a hearty chorus of “Dozo-ogenkidei!” (Please take care) from everyone in the whole (tiny) establishment.
It was one of the most beautiful meals I have ever experienced and I would not hesitate to return to Toriciya the next time I have an event to celebrate. The meal has made Night Owl and I even more excited for our trip and for all the food that we will soon be surrounding ourselves in.
Toriciya Japanese Restaurant
18 Cammeray Road
Cammeray NSW 2062
(02) 9904 2277