Dim lights of orange and yellow cast rays of warmth, drawing forth a sense of comfort on an otherwise frigid winter’s evening. Lights, that barely give form to sophisticated cocktails and diners a like, provide an intimate mood of romance, elegance & class.
A party of five gathers around a small table, some of whom are old friends. The transformation from stranger to acquaintance takes place as introductions are made and pleasantries exchanged over martinis and aperitifs. A moment passes. Before long, an escort directs us to a booth. Positions are taken around a square table. A listless anticipation builds, as we await the first course of the tasting menu at Tokonoma.
Tokonoma Shochu Lounge and Bar, on the surface, looks much like any other modern, sophisticated lounge bars that can be found in the Sydney CBD district. However, delve a little deeper and you’ll soon realise that there are a number of things that sets this place apart from the others. The devil, as always, is in the detail.
As the name may give away to some, Tokonoma, as contemporary as its presentation and ambiance may be, is very much Japanese-inspired at its heart. From the extensive range of sake and shochu; Asian twists to contemporary cocktails, such as the Apple and Yuzu Martini pictured the opening image; to the rather comprehensive menu of Japanese food items, served in small portions much as one may expect from any izakaya in Japan.
The first round of dishes from the tasting menu makes its way to our table.
maguro no miso taru taru – A tartar of tuna with baby shiso leaves and a barley miso dressing is light and rather refreshing. This was paired with sweet potato crisps, which wasn’t on the official tasting menu but provided a nice crunchy contrast in texture.
watari-gani kara-age – Deep fried soft shell crab cooked in the same style as chicken karaage was delightfully crunchy and moist, without being all that greasy. This was paired with a wasabi mayonnaise dipping sauce, which provides some fragrant heat.
gyu niku no tataki – Beef tataki, seared briefly on the outside leaving its centre deliciously rare, is complemented with pickled onions, mizuna (a Japanese green with a peppery taste) & garlic chips.
After a small break, another round of dishes were presented.
omakase zushi – This can be interpreted loosely as “chef’s selection of sushi”, an assortment of sushi that I presume is dependant of the availability of produce and the whims of the chef on the day.
Two styles of sushi are presented – maki (the sushi rolls) and nigiri (the ah… other ones). The seafood in the sushi is quite fresh, and the sushi overall are quite good. It’s much like sushi you can find at most decent sushi restaurants in Sydney.
piri kara dofu to abogado – Cubes of deep fried tofu are garnished with an avocado salsa and barley miso. Despite being deep fried, the tofu is rather soft and delicate. However, the avocado salsa didn’t quite work for me. Not that it was bad. I just didn’t find it all that interesting paired with the tofu.
A third round of dishes are presented. By this stage the pace of eating slows somewhat, due mostly to the moderate volume of rice in the previous course acting as filler. However, this was the last place we should be slowing down, as a couple of the best dishes of the evening surfaced during this course.
ami yaki ro-su niku to wafu sauce – For me, by far and away the best dish of the whole tasting menu. The scotch fillet steak, served with wafu sauce & garlic crisps, has a smokey flavour & a moist, meaty texture. The taste is more reminiscent of a steak house than one I would have expected from a Japanese restaurant, not that I’m at all complaining. This one is something I will certainly be back for.
hotate no jalapeno amazu zoe – If my research is right, scallops are grilled robata style (a Japanese style of open charcoal grilling on sticks), topped with sweet pickled apple & jalapeno garlic.
The scallop I had was cooked to perfection, with the sweetness and acidity of the garnish serving as a delightful complement. Though it may be due to my chili-tolerant palate, but I didn’t notice any of the jalepeno’s spiciness.
zucchini no wafu yaki – Grilled zucchini skewers served with wafu sauce and toasted sesame seeds was firm and sweet but otherwise nothing special.
shiro miso – Miso soup, made using shiro miso (white miso) paste is accompanied with spring onion, tofu and wakame seaweed. As a miso soup, it’s was pretty so-so, lacking any real umami punch to it.
However, the one thing I found interesting about it was that it was served at the very end of the course. Almost like a palate cleanser for the dessert course to come, though I don’t know if that was the intent. As someone who is use to having miso soup served at the very beginning of a meal, as is tradition, this was quite a weird experience.
We come to the end of the tasting menu with the dessert course. Listed on the menu simply as dessert plate, an assortment of various desserts and fruit are served on a platter of ice.
Just after the dessert plate was presented, the head chef Regan Porteous spared a few moments from his busy kitchen for a bit of a meet-and-greet, which soon turned into an impromptu Q&A session. As a Kiwi by birth i.e. from New Zealand, I found it rather surprising how much respect and attention to detail was paid to stay as true to the Japanese roots of the dishes as was possible.
Sure, there were some fusionesque detours but they were pretty infrequent and minor. Which is why I couldn’t help but feel somewhat let down by the dessert.
With all the effort and attention to detail with the meal up until this point, the dessert course was decidedly contemporary in nature. There was very little attempt, in my mind, to incorporate Asian elements to the desserts, let alone Japanese ones. Though, having said that, one thing I wasn’t disappointed with was how some of the dessert items tasted.
The fruit-filled spring rolls served with creme anglaise were great, with its crunchy exterior and sweet filling. Unfortunately, what fruit, I cannot recall.
The creme brulee shames a number that I have had in the past. It actually has a crunchy toffee crust, one that requires a bit of force to breech.
The chocolate fondant (pictured in the previous image) is rich with its molten chocolate core.
Assorted fruit are a sweet, refreshing change to the richness of the other desserts.
All in all, the tasting menu ($70 per person, with a minimum of 2 persons; drinks not included), was a good meal in a very classy establishment. The service was professional and attentive. The ambiance is fantastic, something that needs to be experienced first hand to fully appreciate. It’s a good place to spend time with close friends. It’s even better as a destination for a romantic night out.
Between the food, company and ambiance, it was quite an enjoyable evening.
Dined at Tokonoma courtesy of Leigh from Mark Communications.
Tokonoma Shochu Lounge & Bar
490 Crown St, Surry Hills
Ph: (02) 9357 6100
Tues – Sat, 5:30pm to 12:00am
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