Sasaki, Sydney Review
Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Brett Boardman
Rare is the restaurant where you'll find the toilet paper folded to a point like you're in a hotel. But then there's lots about Sasaki that's not quite usual. There's its size (or lack thereof), its air of hushed reverence, the fractal obscurity of its inner-inner-city address. And there's an obsession with detail that's striking. Not every detail gets the attention it deserves, but when it works it's really something.
The texture of crab custard, for instance, has the poise of a haiku. Steamed in a tea bowl - the bowl is called a chawan, and this dish is known as a chawanmushi in Japan - it's a silken thing, and the sensation of slipping a hand-finished spoon through its surface may well tingle your spine. The custard is made with a stock flavoured with what a waitress endearingly refers to as crab bones. There's a scattering of swimmer-crab meat on top, and that's it. Were the crab meat in pristine condition it'd be near perfect; as it is, its economy of gesture is captivating.
If you're seated at the bar, which is low, elegantly lit and fashioned from pale, thick planks of Tasmanian oak, the dining room at Sasaki is exquisite, a jewel-box of a thing, the placement of each bowl and candle as considered as the fall of syllables in a stanza. Seated at the pair of tables by the rollerdoor that opens onto Nithsdale Lane, meanwhile, you might be well placed to consider the fall of the leaves from the ginkgo trees as the season changes. Or the aesthetic contrast between the trees and the razor-wire topping the parking lot behind the Australian Federal Police building. But mostly you'll be thinking about how the 20 inches of noren curtain hanging from the door does nothing to keep out the night air.
If you feel the cold or can't find comfort sitting at low, uncushioned timber stools on a pebblecrete floor, your appreciation of the finer points of the design at Sasaki may be blunted. Or perhaps you'll find the setting heightens your gratitude at receiving a bowl of truly superb miso soup. Rather than the usual lacquerware or plastic, it's served in a beautifully glazed ceramic bowl. Lift the lid and you'll find a broth of unusual depth garnished with little hunks of konnyaku (a jelly made from a relative of taro), creamy curds of tofu, and puffs of fried bean curd. Sublime.
Sasaki on Nithsdale Lane.
It's these elements of sublime that sustain the diner through Sasaki's longueurs and missteps. Pickles can be so lightly pickled in some instances that the hapless diner might be maddened by thinking they're missing something. But no. Those shreds of cabbage and that bit of cherry blossom are nicely pickled, but the carrots don't seem subtle so much as underseasoned. The rice served at the end of the meal - typically a highlight of the very best restaurants in Japan - is clumpy where you might hope for perfect definition of the grains. But a side of silverbeet mixed with ground sesame is a picture of deft execution.
Slivers of persimmon and a sprinkling of walnuts make a crunchy mixture of finely chopped cabbage and carrot so much more than a slaw. Likewise, orange zest folded through shavings of fennel lifts a plate of lightly cured slices of bonito with orange ponzu beyond the status of insert-raw-fish-dish-here.
Pork, salt and daikon.
Printing the placemats with a lengthy spiel on the importance of appreciating the value of everyday objects in our fast-paced lives ("for example, this placemat is made from washi paper crafted in the San'in prefecture of Japan") breaks exciting new ground in the field of precious chef philosophising. Is it just me or does it seem a bit un-Zen to be so explicit about this stuff?
If that's not enough, there's another page of exposition on a handout at the waiter station. "Everyday wares and simple home cooking" reads the headline. "It is these two ideas which are central to SASAKI." Yes, I'm afraid the delicacy of aesthetic sensitivity here somehow permits writing the restaurant name in capital letters whenever it appears in the 600 or so words that follow. For instance: "At SASAKI, we want you to experience the strong love that Yu's mother had when she created food for her children."
Yu who? Yu Sasaki. He's a chef who has worked at the acclaimed likes of Marque and Universal in their respective heydays. He has run Cre Asion café on Alberta Lane, a door or two up from Berta in the heart of the CBD, since 2011. Cre Asion is the sort of tiny cult eatery where girls in Balenciaga sneakers spend 40 minutes perched on tiny seats taking pictures of their matcha cake and their chicken, mushroom and sesame toasties before feeding each other a scant forkful of cake and leaving. Or at least that was what happened last time I was in.
The seating at the Tasmanian oak bar.
In the years since he opened the café, Sasaki, it turns out, had harboured a desire to build a restaurant that celebrated the food and craft of Shimane, the rural prefecture on Honshu where he grew up. Then the space out the back of the café became available, and here we are: "This is something he hopes to achieve with SASAKI, an establishment acting as a platform for craftsmen to showcase their skills. It is essentially a meeting point for the people of Shimane and for you, a customer in Sydney."
Where the background literature is as verbose as it is earnest, the detail on the menu is spare to the point of being obtuse. I suppose you could guess that "Mackerel, Vinegar & Rice" is sushi - but should you have to? It's a brilliant dish, reminiscent of the pressed mackerel sushi of Kyoto, given textural interest with wafers of lotus stem. "Pork, Salt & Daikon" turns out to be a pork chop baked in a crust of salt and flour. Salty, juicy and satisfyingly porky, it could probably use a bit more of the braised daikon topped with mustard-miso served on the side, but it wins points for originality and restraint.
Some of the menu items could almost be subbed in as the last line in haikus. ("plum scent / suddenly the sun comes out / egg and crab", perhaps, or "ill on a journey / dreams in a withered field / caramel and nuts".) Perhaps some diners experience a spasm of joy or a stab of the wistful loneliness of eternity known as sabi when the reveal of the actual dish is made.
Caramel and nuts.
In practice, though, wording the dish descriptions this way just means you have to interrogate the staff to get even the most basic details of the dish (is it raw or cooked? Roasted or steamed?). And it's a staff that's about 70 per cent up to the task. The menu changes with admirable frequency, and the floor team struggles to keep up. They're perfectly sweet, but they're bigger on enthusiasm than brio or follow-through.
Negotiating the short, strange and interesting drinks list can be a chore. A local beer poured from cans, six wines, two of them Japanese, five sakes, shochu, fruit sake, Japanese whisky, and a choice of eight teas. What's the deal with the muscat bailey A, a grape made into red wine in Yamanashi prefecture, west of Tokyo? Is it better with the splendid slices of roast duck served with leek and duck meatballs than, say, the unfiltered sake, or the sencha from Shimane? I still don't know.
The theme of small but (mostly) perfectly formed things peaks with the desserts. They're designated as hitokuchigashi on the menu - one-bite sweets traditionally served with tea. And they're exquisite. Slices of green fig in a syrup flavoured with yuko, a Japanese citrus fruit with a scent faintly reminiscent of pomelo or grapefruit, are served with an elegant little fruit knife fashioned from cedar, while shoyu flavours the caramel binding slivers of nuts sandwiched with caramel mousse between mochi wafers.
Off the beaten track? And then some. Sasaki isn't unwelcoming, but its sparseness, smallness and the mannered quality of its service are not what you could call user-friendly. And thank heavens for that. In this era of vast dining groups and concepts driven by market research, there's something to be said for the focus group of one. Sit at the bar, embrace the unknown and get to know the world a little better. There is poetry here -if you read between the lines.
102/21 Alberta St, Sydney, NSW, (02) 8068 9774, sasaki.com.au
Open Dinner Mon-Sat 5.30pm-10pm
Cards AE MC V EFT
Prices Entrées $4-$17, main courses $19-$26, desserts $4-$8; chef's menu $80
Vegetarian Five dishes
Wheelchair access Yes
Minus The aesthetic can lean a little ascetic
Plus God is in the details. Most of them, anyway