Ocean Room, Sydney restaurant review

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Amanda Mclauchlan

Meet Ocean Room's yellowfin wing (pictured). An absolute cracker of a dish and all but a reason to visit the restaurant in itself, it consists of the pectoral fin of a large tuna and the three muscle groups attached to it. It looks rather like something from the ugly end of the chum bucket and is a very strong contender for Least Pretty Dish of 2009. The fin is scorched, and the ungainly arc of fish attached to it has got to be at least a foot wide. It's about as far from the cool precision of tuna and sashimi as you can get, but all the more attractive for it. As massive as it is, only a small fraction of it is edible, the rest of the cut being skin and bone. If this sounds like a strong argument mounted to send you screaming in the other direction, I should also add that the staff may attempt to talk you out of ordering the wing on account of its "strong taste" (a move known in restaurant reviewing circles as The Red Rag to the Bull). Ignore them. Feel the fear and eat it anyway, and you'll be rewarded with an unusual dish brimming with reward for the true lover of fish. Better still, it comes with a map. Yes, a printed diagram cataloguing the merits of the three different kinds of meat to be found on the wing in a "here be treasure" kind of way. (Thank you, Japan.)

Allow me to quote from this fascinating document. The back loin, it tells us, is the muscle "used to support the heavy head of the tuna, which creates a very lean meat with intense flavour". The fin muscle, or the part I like to think of as the tuna armpit, is "one of the most active muscles of the whole fish. It has a unique flavour - "truly different to the rest of the tuna". "This muscle," the map says of the neck belly, "is fat and tender to protect the internal organs. During autumn and winter this muscle can become the popular toro." It's Grey's Anatomy meets Top Chef, and you'll be pleased to know the eating is even more enthralling than the reading. Some surgical chopstick-work around the wing by you and your tablemates will reveal alternately smoky, sweet, strongly tuna-like and sweetly mellow morsels, ranging in texture from buttery to firm. It's served with nothing more than ponzu sauce leavened with cucumber for dipping and a cut lemon, and it is a total must, even without the map.

Ocean Room's stated raison d'être is modern Japanese food inspired by the fruits of the sea, so it's not surprising that sushi and sashimi are the restaurant's other long suits. The strengths of the selections are the quality and diversity of the fish (with interesting cuts of salmon and tuna supplemented by less commonly seen species such as bar cod and Spanish mackerel). Rice is handled with accomplishment, while the dressing leans towards the showy and modern rather than the classic and subtle.

There's also a menu of chotto, or small dishes, which are for the most part enjoyably daffy. Tuna tartare in a crisp rice cracker cornet is a perfectly decent take on the French Laundry classic, while the marinated anchovy and tomato sorbet number on a croûton is reminiscent of MoVida's Cantabrian anchovy with, yes, smoked tomato sorbet. Chicken Nagoya-style translates as peppery bone-in grilled wings with sweet soy. Kushikatsu, that great specialty of Osaka, combines two great snacking traditions by skewering hunks of pork tenderloin and deep-frying them, somewhat like an upmarket Dagwood dog, with a little squiggle of racy mustard aioli aiding and abetting its tastiness. The soft-shell crab taco is a signature that has followed chef Raita Noda from the days when he was chef at Darlinghurst's kooky Rise restaurant. I'm a member of the camp who thinks that soft-shell crab is little more than a ruse to encourage suckers to pay to eat deep-fried brackish water, so I'm not the fairest commentator, but I can't help thinking the crispness of the crab would be better complemented by a soft taco rather than the crisp-on-crunchy arrangement we see here. Last and certainly not least is the curry pan: a deep-fried bread-like pocket filled with a savoury mince-like Japanese curry of wagyu cheek. It's so wrong that it's right, and it would fit perfectly on the bar menu at a pub in Aoyama.

You can in fact order the chotto stuff in the Ocean Room bar, along with Kirin on tap or fancy drinks from a list devised by Andy Penney, a master tin-shaker whose talents you may have enjoyed at The Beresford or the Bayswater Brasserie. Thanks to a substantial renovation over the winter, the fish tanks and rather interesting poppy pod-like chandeliers that defined the stadium-sized 200-seater are now gone. If you're unfamiliar with the layout, there's a bar down one end of the large rectangular room, while the other end is all glass, opening onto the quay and views of the Opera House and a scattering of waterside tables. The most arresting facet of Yasumichi Morita's new design for the place is 40,000 or so foot-long timber rods suspended from the ceiling, nunchaku-like, in lengths varied to create the impression of undulating waves and ripples. It offers the benefit of damping down the sound levels, is quite the loveliest thing seen on a restaurant ceiling in Sydney this year, and would look just smashing in the event of an earthquake.

How you feel about the rest of the menu will largely depend on your feelings about food served in shot-glasses or in little piles spread across wide rectangular plates. Lots of it gets a run in the deep-fryer, and virtually everything comes with a component of chilli, sweet miso or some kind of mayonnaise. In terms of subtle nuance, it's less Howl's Moving Castle than Astro Boy. The Tuna Creation presents (wait for it) five different pieces of the fish on a bamboo leaf sitting on crushed ice in the hollow of a halved section of bamboo, each piece matched with both a sauce and a tiny ceramic spoon of a different flavoured salt (the toro, fatty tuna belly, for instance, is flash-fried and served with chilli salt, ginger and coriander). It's precious, and though it eats just fine, you can't help but wonder at some of the creative choices being made in the kitchen.

Much of the silliness of previous menus, though, is gone. The off-brand likes of the wagyu beef pie and fried flounder baskets have largely been replaced by the more tasteful (and tastier) likes of the pork belly cooked tender under a salt crust and served with kochujang, the hot Korean chilli paste. Desserts, though, don't really convincingly refute the less than wonderful reputation Japanese pastry enjoys in Sydney. Dessert assiettes are pretty embarrassing at the best of times, and the chocolate tasting-plate gives the sense that it has been constructed by someone who has read about the joys of the cocoa bean but never truly understood them personally. Beyond the changes in the cocktail bar, the drinks side of things needs serious work. The wine list is uninspired and the negligible sake and non-existent shochu selection screams "missed opportunity".

There's room for improvement here, but there's also plenty of room for pleasure in the meantime. Service is well-meaning, and you get the impression everyone in the kitchen really, really cares whether you enjoy your meal or not. With a new fit-out and an increasingly sensible menu, Ocean Room is a group-friendly quayside attraction that merits your attention. Hell, where else are you gonna get a tuna wing map?

Ocean Room

Ground level, Overseas Passenger Terminal,
Circular Quay West,(02) 9252 9585, oceanroomsydney.com
Cards AE DC MC V.
Open Lunch Tue-Fri noon-3pm; dinner Mon-Sat 6pm-11pm.
Price Entrées $18-$23; mains $35-$45; desserts $17.
Vegetarian One entrée, one main.
Noise Not an issue.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus Tuna wing, tuna map.
Minus Gratuitous showiness.

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