Susan Kurosawa is captivated by the kaiseki cuisine at an exquisite Japanese restaurant
THE growing popularity of Japanese cuisine has resulted in its extension to snack status. Witness the number of sushi bars that have those revolving counters with containers of nori rolls and triangles of sashimi riding around like exotic little carriages on a train track.
Just as Thai cuisine can’t be judged by the one-green-paste-fits-all approach of suburban curry joints, sliced fish of the eatand-run variety is far removed from exquisitely formulated and presented traditional Japanese cuisine.
It is all about being pleasing to the eye, an approach evident in Japanese gardens (so symmetrical, so layered with obtuse meaning). The taste, although important, sometimes seems secondary to design and texture. No other nation considers, say, a chrysanthemum lightly fried in flaky batter to be a delicacy. Its taste is as fleeting a notion as the flowering of cherry blossoms.
Yoshii does not do express bento boxes. This is a shrine for serious contemplation of oriental artistry. Nagasaki-born chef and co-owner Ryuichi Yoshii, who has been in Australia since the early 1990s, is a master sushi chef and keen exponent of the kaiseki style of dining, involving a succession of small dishes.
In Western terms, it’s a degustation menu, and a perfect way to explore intricate tastes and combinations. Each dish is like a haiku poem: brief, ineffable, so much more than the sum of its parts.
The restaurant, in Sydney’s Rocks precinct, is small and appropriately discreet, with a sit-up kitchen bar and a parallel dining room with seven tables divided by a slatted screen.
Because of these demure dimensions, Yoshii’s presence is always apparent, chatting with customers at the bar as he slices sashimi into paper-thin strips.
There are two degustation options, Saqura Course ($110) or Yoshii Course ($130), and the latter can be teamed, course by course, with a glass of Krug grande cuvee brut champagne, two white wines and a red, and a sake or Asahi beer ($178).
My partner and I each opt for the Yoshii Course, attracted by the centrepiece dish of rosegum-smoked wagyu beef with horseradish and turnip puree (the Saqura Course is more fish-based).
First there appears what Yoshii dubs sea urchin egg cup, a plain but apposite name for this extraordinary confection.
A brown egg, with its top perfectly sliced off, sits in a silver cup, the contents capped with a sliver of gold leaf; inside is a suspension of yolk, Tasmanian sea urchins and bonito broth.
Beneath this installation is a mound of daikon shredded to a fineness that defies the term julienne; on the side is a tiny dish in which to dip and all but dissolve this white radish.
A ‘‘ quintuple of entrees’’ arrives on a single plate, a composition as curved and colourful as a Joan Miro canvas. Two little whitebait have been deep-fried with par- snip puree; there’s a cake-like cube of tomato mousse with pumpkin puree and a shot glass of lukewarm somen noodles in a broth with a dash of bonito and topped with shaved truffle. Also on this plate of discoveries, slender slices of duck breast with an apple dressing and morsels of kobujime (fish of the day; this Tuesday evening, it’s jewfish) on a zingy bed of slowly melting lime sorbet.
From now on, the courses become more substantial but no less restrained in their delicacy. The standout is black cod marinated with blue cheese-flavoured miso; also on the plate are two tiny pieces of sesame toast, so we spread the soft fish and eat these like canapes. On the side of the white dish are several arrows of cucumber: so infinitesimal that I have to put on my glasses to check they really are there.
Milk-fed veal sashimi would hardly appeal to those who like their meat wellcooked, but this dish, sprinkled with forest mushrooms, is so tender that, even though cutlery is provided, the barest pressure of a wooden chopstick suffices to cut it.
In a lidded china dish, floating in a ginger-flavoured broth, sits a tricolour disc of pressed snapper, scallop and spanner crab. ‘‘ It’s like eating an artwork,’’ sighs my partner, who is still recovering from the unexpected pleasure of drinking his Kirin beer from a glazed pottery beaker.
The tableware, in the time-honoured way, is as appealing as the food. There are big white dishes in irregular forms, classic plates with gilded rims and bowls patterned in autumn leaves, one of which arrives on its own miniature cushion and lacquered stand. The miso soup that accompanies the sushi course (served, surprisingly, just before dessert) is in an ovoid lacquered container that looks as if it should contain a family of ever-smaller kokeshi dolls.
A lemongrass sorbet spiked with champagne is served between the wagyu beef and sushi platter.
‘‘ Dessert?’’ inquires the Japanese waitress, who all evening has politely explained each dish with the precision of a doctor deconstructing a procedure to a wide-eyed patient. How to refuse? Apple spring rolls with a dish of wasabi sorbet could be termed palate-cleansing, but there is no residual oiliness from this exquisite meal. Is it possible we could have eaten so much and gained not a gram?
Yoshii changes his menu with the seasons and likes to refer to his food as omakase, or ‘‘ leave it to the chef’’.
Like the sublime dishes of our most famous Japanese-Australian chef, Tetsuya Wakuda, the food at Yoshii astounds in its invention and execution. We experience an inordinate number of how-did-he-do-that moments. I doubt you could eat better Japanese food in Australia; there’ll be no going back to the sushi train. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
Yoshii 115 Harrington St, The Rocks, Sydney, (02) 9247 2566; www.yoshii.com.au. Open: Lunch, Tuesday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday. Drink: Good wine by the glass from $14; Japanese beer; flasks of warmed Tamanohikari sake ($15). Reason to return: For a sushi degustation at the sit-up bar (from $100) or a lunch set (from $40).
If looks could thrill: Chef Ryuichi Yoshii ensures each dish is as pleasing to the eye as it is to the palate