Would you describe yourself as someone that suffers from menu envy? Y'know, that heartbreaking feeling when you see your dining companion’s dish come out and immediately wish you ordered it? Yep, we hear you. That’s why we’re completely in love with the Japanese concept of izakaya.
Eating and drinking are equally important at izakayas and share plates are the name of the game. Nibble at a bit of this, sip on a bit of that – it’s the perfect place for those who find trouble committing to one dish.
We drink and dine our way around Sydney’s best Japanese restaurants to find the best izakayas this city has to offer.
Cho Cho San
When the staff line-up includes alumni from Billy Kwong, Apollo and Bodega, you can see why Cho Cho San is one of Sydney’s best new(ish) restaurants. But hungry diners lining up outside aren’t here for the CVs – they’re here for the food. Make a beeline for the crisp-as karaage chicken which will buy you some time as you study the menu. The silken tofu with tomato dashi look beautiful and delicate, and tastes just so and you can round out your meal with more substantial offerings, too – give the Japanese bolognese a go. As well as the traditional liquid accompaniment of sakes and beers, there’s a cocktail menu that changes seasonally.
Nom is located in a Darlinghurst terrace house, betwixt two other Darlinghurst terrace houses making it like some sort of delicious sandwich. The folks at this Sydney Japanese restaurant have really taken the izakaya ‘small’ dish concept and run with it. This place is tiny, so take a companion with whom you don’t mind getting close and personal. There are nibbles that veer from standard izakaya fare – for example, the mentai potato salad with fish roe, which every table seems to order (and for good reason). Sake drinking is, of course, essential, and you get to choose your own sake glass from a tray they present to you – fun! Sure, Nom is tiny, but it packs a punch.
Lantern by Wagaya
Karaoke and izakaya – the two totems of Japanese culture so populist, so kitsch... And now so together, at last! Down and out after blaring Bohemian Rhapsody? At Wagaya, you can refuel to your heart’s content, before offering up your rendition of Livin' on a Prayer that nobody asked for. For those who walk on the mild side, the dinner-only optioned is pimped up with touch screen menus. Get finger-happy, and order some yakitori from the grill or more-ish lotus root chips. The Wagaya chain is home to the sushi roulette, a schadenfreude game where one hapless diner selects from a plate of nigiri, where underneath the salmon lurks a massive glob of wasabi.
Here’s another one for those who like to sing for their supper. Mizuya Restaurant and Karaoke features 24 private karaoke rooms decked out with black pleather couches and mini chandeliers – it’s akin to singing in a classy BDSM dungeon (or so we’d imagine). The restaurant section features rows of private wooden booths, complete with touch screen menus. There’s something about touch screen menus that brings out the red-cordial kid in everyone. Sometimes you make sensible, informed choices, like grilled chicken or beef skirt kushiyaki on skewers. Other times, you make more bizarre choices like Japanese-style smoked salmon pizza, and miso cheese oysters. Whatever you do, make sure you wash it down a Kirin lager. And in case you’re wondering, yes, it does come in a 3 litre beer tower.
Bar seating is the sadistic specialty of the Sydney restaurant scene. No one has ever looked sexy teetering on a bar stool, and as such, its been shunned as second rate seating in restaurants. Not so at Izakaya Fujiyama – it’s where all the action is. Head chef Kenji Maenaka and his staff churn out mod-Jap plates with impressive efficiency. Front-row diners will catch the swiftest of glimpses as Maenaka slices his knife through a fish fillet, and curls it onto a platter brimming with a super-fresh assortment of sashimi. Seared bonito with popcorn and hummus is a deft exercise in fishy and nutty flavour-combos that sounds odd on paper, but works crazily well together. And believe the hype, the KFC (Kenji Fried Chicken) is worth writing home about. Finally, don’t you dare leave without sampling from the expansive list of rare and imported Japanese whiskies, though you may have a hard time sliding off that bar stool elegantly after a few.
My Zakaya is more ‘low-frills’, rather than ‘no-frills’. It lacks the quirky pomp-and-circumstance of trendier Japanese restaurants in the Surry Hills area, but makes up for it with faithful recreations of izakaya dishes. Anything from the kushiage grill is a must, and look out whatever protein-on-stick features on the specials board. The wagyu tataki is beefy-rich and ponzu-tangy, so good luck fighting for the last piece. Deep-fried cheese is just what your doctor never ordered, so self-diagnose with a serve of camembert tempura – it’s only a matter of time before it steals the fried-cheese crown from fried haloumi. Navigating through the small-but-solid sake selection is a breeze if you know your sentyuhassaku from your otokoyama. Otherwise, waitstaff are only too happy to help. From the service to the food, My Zakaya is no-friller, all killer.
The famous circle pit in Chinatown, aka the Prince Centre, houses some pretty mean handmade noodle houses. But venture upstairs and you’ll find this hideaway izakaya. Inside, Daruma is a den full of beer-and-cheer. The menu kind of shouts at you in all sorts of different fonts and colours and as for the meal combos.... We say, go with your heart. Prices here are unbelievably affordable, from sushi-things to noodly-things to fried things, and importantly, drinky-things.
Image credit: Anita Wilhelm