Friday, April 22, 2011

Sushi Sushi & Sushi Kissaten of Melbourne

Beautiful and Bountiful Rows of Rolls

Featuring the "deli style" that is so prevalent in Australia, sushi sushi is a chain that has the best display out of all the ones I've seen anywhere. Convenience and low prices may be the main reasons people frequent sushi deli cafes, but I believe it should be just as important to have a neat display of rows of beautifully crafted sushi rolls, nigiri and inari, along with proper signage and price indication. Some delis blanket their displayed food with sheets of plastic wrap to preserve freshness, which gives it a stale look and takes away from the integrity of showing off what's ready-to-eat. Other delis also seem oblivious to cases that are running low; displays should always be quickly replenished so that there always appears to be an abundance of all selections.

At sushi sushi, the displays are always plentiful and perfectly aligned so everything is pleasing to the eye, and there's a varied selection. There's the Peking Duck hand roll for A$3, which I've never seen anywhere else; and the Vegetarian hand roll, which is fully loaded with the unusual ingredients of oshinko and slices of inari in addition to the standard cucumber, yamagobo and avocado. For those who don't want plain Traditional Inari for A$1.50, there's the A$2 "Flavored Inari," which are stuffed to the hilt with ingredients like imitation crab and flying fish eggs, seaweed salad, or squid salad. Perhaps it's because they are sold individually, but the inari here are huge, not like the bite-sized version in the States. Like many restaurants these days, sushi sushi announces on a sign that they are "gluten-free."

Located between two tea cafes"Easy Way" tea house and "Ten Ren's Tea Time"sushi sushi attracts all groups of people to its vicinity, which features indoor and outdoor seating. Unruffled by the piegeons that flew into the eatery in search of morsels, one businessman asks another, "Do you want to sit inside or outside?" The two then decide to seat themselves at the tables on the sidewalk right in front of the restaurant.

At the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, there's Sushi Kissaten, which also features clean displays of beautiful, bountiful sushi rolls and inari. I tried the Spicy Prawn roll with avocado for A$2.40, as well as the Tobiko roll, which also came with avocado, for A$2.50. The rice was perfectly seasoned and the ingredients fresh as can be.

Sushi Kissaten brown-bags it like everyone else, which seems a much wiser choice than wasting a styrofoam box on a small roll like they would in the States. Here, a sign reads "Sorry, we don't accept EFTPOS, please pay cash." EFTPOS, which stands for Electronic Funds Transfer at Point of Sale, is the equivalent of ATM in Australia.

sushi sushi
148 Swanston St., Melbourne

Sushi Kissaten
Queen Victoria Market
Shop 26-27, F Shed, Peel St., Melbourne

Coffee, Tea, Sushi?

Like a Starbucks with Sushi

Imagine grabbing a sushi roll while you pick up your morning coffee from the local cafe. That's not an unusual concept at Macchiato on Collins, where businesspeople sit at the tables and either read the newspaper or work on their laptops while they sip from coffee cups and munch on a "Chilli Squid" sushi roll. Or maybe it's a Spicy Beef roll, or the one that's labeled "Californian" in the glass case. Call it a "Starbucks with Sushi" if you will, for this place is exactly that. In addition to coffee and sushi, Macchiato serves hot chocolate and tea.

Rolls start from as little as A$2.40 for the Vegetarian or Avocado choices (the former has long pieces of inari hanging out which from a distance almost resemble eel; the Avocado roll isn't all vegetarian, since it comes with fish eggs inside). It's A$2.60 for the Californian, Spicy Beef, Chilli Squid or Smoked Salmon rolls, but the eel roll is labeled A$2.70, which makes you wonder why they didn't just make them all one price to make things easier.

For those who want to grab a meal on the go, there are boxes of mixed sushi for A$8.50, or sashimi for A$9.60. Or, order four of your favorite rolls a la carte and have them toss them all in a brown paper bag with those little plastic fish-shaped squeeze-bottles of soy sauce, which is what they do anyway. And don't forget the coffee.

Macchiato on Collins
446 Collins St., Melbourne

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Very Best: YOSHII of Sydney, Australia

YOSHII of Sydney, Australia

Japanese cuisine has taken over Sydney; I reckon it has.

Ten years ago, when I first visited the most cosmopolitan city down under, sushi was but a subculture spreading across the scene. Today, the "deli" and "conveyor belt" style of many sushi dives still remains, only far more of them have cropped up. The population has explodedand, with our weaker American dollar, so have the prices. One could have eaten double the amount at almost half the price and felt duly decadent a decade previous, but today, not only is it more expensive because of the exchange rate, but Sydney has developed into one of the most pricey cities in the world.

The range of restaurant echelons is far and wideyou could order an "uncut" roll (the style of serving a sushi roll distinctive to Australia) for as little as A$2.50, or sit down for the seven-course degustation menu at YOSHII for A$140, one part of which features the freshest and best-tasting nigiri you'll ever have in your life.

YOSHII, located in a region known as The Rocks, has two dinner menus: the Yoshii Course for A$140, or the Saqura Course for A$130. Both come with the same specialties; the only differences are the "Milk Fed Veal Carpaccio with Japanese Mushroom Dressing" and the "Daily Fresh Selected Sushi" in the former, versus the "Tuna Sashimi Marinated in Soy and Truffle Essence Sauce" and "Slow-Cooked Kurobuta Pig Jowl served with Tamari Soy and Vinegar Sauce" in the latter. Although I would have liked to try some truffle essence, I obviously absolutely had to have the daily fresh sushi a lot more; and this did not seem like one of those places that would understand or tolerate complicated requests, say if I were to ask for a substitution. YOSHII is a quiet, upmarket and formal dining establishment; their service is so polite that it borders on fawning, and the atmosphere is so relaxed and subdued that it really feels more like a spa than anything.

The Sea Urchin Egg Cup was a visual wonder for the eyes and a tantalizer for the taste buds, with its bonito stock and gold flakes inside. The laser-cut egg sits upon a nest of shredded radish festooned with a garland of seaweed and laced with fish eggs; you dig into this with your tiny spoon and wonder why no one ever served you an egg in this style for breakfast. This was followed by a Kaiseki-style plate with Tasmanian smoked salmon with passion fruit kimizu sauce, kingfish sashimi marinated in wasabi oil, duck foie gras and kelp seaweed "Tsukudani," and deep-fried Crystal Bay Prawn mince covered with potato. It's edible art in its truest form, and its essence was overwhelmingly delicious (the passion fruit kimizu sauce actually brought tears to my eyes).

Following the uniquely brilliant "Deep Fried Toot Fish Tempura" served with orange salt and a white wine marinade with dried fruits and celery, the "Green Tea Soba Noodle wrapped with Steamed Snapper with tea-flavored bonito stock" was served. Although the dish was exactly as described, I never could have imagined the intricacy with which this dish was rendered. With punctilious precision, the perfectly sliced snapper was literally wrapped around the neatly chopped green-colored noodles. Bits of rice cracker floating in the bonito stock offered a delicate contrast to the soft chewiness of this dish.

Need a palate cleanser before the sushi showcase? Yoshii doesn't just offer ginger like most restaurants do. Rather, a cup of Lemongrass and Champagne Sherbet is presented, and it's a remarkably refreshing twist. Part of me still wonders if the eight-piece nigiri set would have tasted just as marvelous without the tart slush of a palate-cleanser, but somehow I reckon the sushi would have been out-of-this-world regardless.

The bewitchingly colorful palette arrives, and it's fraught with an array of tuna, kingfish, (a breed of yellowtail that is very popular in Australia), crystal bay prawn, alfonsino, scallop, bonito (with plum sauce and grated radish), grilled ocean trout from Tasmania (topped with yuzu and grated radish), and unagi from Japan. The scallop, wrapped in its riband of seaweed, was bar none the best scallop I'ver ever eaten in my life, and the crystal bay prawn was paragon. A rare thought zipped through my head: I didn't overpay for this meal; I didn't pay enough.

For dessert: a heavenly Marscapone Cheese Mousse with black sesame and soybean powder, followed by the piddling check, and then gracious bows of courtesy and gratitude from the staff and chef as I floated out of the door.

115 Harrington St., Sydney NSW

Cooked Tuna Roll and Prawn Tempura Roll at "Eat Me Sushi" in Newtown, New South Wales

Eat Sushi at "Eat Me Sushi" in Newtown, NSW

Located in the artsy district of Sydney in a suburb called Newtown, Eat Me Sushi is one of the many typical deli-style sushi places where the sushi roll is not sliced up (unless requested). The "uncut" roll, as I like to call it, is somewhere between a cut roll and a hand roll; you hold it in your hand and eat it as if it were a mini submarine sandwich, but it's not in the standard conical shape of most hand rolls in the United States. Eat Me Sushi, like some sushi delis, serves the roll to you covered in plastic wrap (other places may hand it to you in a napkin or small brown paper bag). Additional condiments cost extra: wasabi packets and sample-size soy sauce (in miniature plastic fish-shaped squeeze bottles) are 10 cents each; ginger costs 40 cents.

"I might have the chuna," mused a woman pushing a stroller in an authentic Aussie accent as she gazed through the beveled glass at the displayed rolls. Three young guys came in after her and floundered over what to order until I (experienced by now as I was on my third roll) recommended the prawn tempura roll that comes with mayo and lettuce. The lad took my advice and asked for one of those.

Rolls at Eat Me Sushi are fast and cheap, and the service is friendly. The cooked tuna roll (the sign says it comes with cucumber, onion and Japanese mayo, but I think it had avocado instead of cucumber inside it) and the prawn tempura roll were the tastiest, and cost only A$3 apiece; my least favorite was the one called "Vegan Eat Me Roll," which combines tofu with avocado and shallots (I thought the tofu was too plain). Boxed sets of cut rolls, nigiri and inari may also be purchased for A$7 to A$9, depending on the contents.

Eat Me Sushi
258 King St., Newtown NSW

Egg Cucumber Roll at Edona Sushi Noodle Bar, Teriyaki Potato Roll at "I Am Sushi" in Surry Hills

Deli-Style Sushi in Surry Hills, New South Wales

In the Surry Hills suburb of Sydney, both Edona Sushi Noodle Bar and "I Am Sushi" offer up the similar deli style. Unlike Eat Me Sushi, which you walk into and pass the dining area in order to see the display case of rolls, at Edona the dining room is off to the side of the restaurant, so their display case is practically on the sidewalk. Passersby can't help but notice the rows of rolls all neatly categorized by headings like Fusion, Seafood, Meat and Vegetarian. To make things easier, every roll at Edona costs A$3, whether you choose Teriyaki Tuna or Seaweed Cucumber.

Here, the condiments also cost extra. Bowls filled with the little plastic fish-shaped dispensers of soy sauce (these seem to be quite prevalent in Australia), wasabi packets and containers and ginger each indicate the pricefrom 10 cents to 30 cents.

I ordered the Egg Cucumber Roll, which was actually more like an egg salad roll with cucumber inside it. Not the most savory I ever tried, but I had gotten it for novelty, since I had not seen one like it anywhere else. This was the same reason I ordered the Teriyaki Potato roll at nearby "I Am Sushi," because the strangely squarish and mushy-looking roll with avocado inside featured a seemingly soggy and cold blob of fried potato, which made it all the more interesting that they considered this a sushi roll. It was an aberration of a sushi roll, really, not just in style and appearance but in the interesting ingredients. It tasted just like a potato salad, with gooey sushi rice surrounding it. With the teriyaki sauce inside, it really wasn't bad.

Edona Sushi Noodle Bar
101-103 Devonshire St., Surry Hills NSW

I Am Sushi
418 Elizabeth St., Surry Hills NSW


Sydney's Sushi Bar Makoto: Seared Salmon with Soy Sauce Marinated Salmon Eggs, Pumpkin Tempura Roll, Tempura Squid & Pineapple Temaki

Sushi Bar Makoto: A Sushi Train Restaurant

Sushi Bar Makoto is so frenetically busy and popular, the dishes of sushi are double-stacked on conveyor belts; you can sit upon a stool and watch the selections whiz past, the little signs next to the plates indicating the names of exotic sea gems: Bar Cod, Trevally, Sea Urchin from Tasmania. But there are familiar names as welllobster salad gunkan-style sushi with flying fish eggs, seared salmon sushi topped with salmon eggs marinated in soy sauce (hence the brownish hue to the roe), shrimp tempura sushi with red onion and Japanese-style tartar sauce. There are even cups bursting with fruit, the oversize lids on them askew and nearly toppling as the offerings round the corners of the belt path.

I fancied one particularly colorful two-piece roll which consisted of pumpkin tempura with red and yellow radish, with flakes of furikake dusting the tops. Presumably due to having made many a revolution around the bar, the pumpkin tempura inside was soggy and cold, but still serviceable (the tangy crunch of the pickled radishes inside did help the taste).

For such a trendy joint filled with young people, the atmosphere is unexpectedly dull; most patrons sit dour-faced and quiet as they pick at their food. And not surprisingly, there are communication difficulties with the staff, who stare at you wide-eyed with childlike puzzlement when you ask the simplest questions. A waiter came by and asked if I wanted a "wet-tish." It took me a dazed and confused number of minutes before I figured out he was offering "wet tissues"what we would call "wet-naps" in the States. But for the most part this is a help-yourself eatery; specials can be ordered from the chefs behind the bar, who quickly cater to your whims.

These whims could easily be any one of the three "Chief's Special Handroll" (that's how it's written) selections posted on the wall: Fried Salmon Belly with Mentaiko, Paradise Prawn Cutlet with Sundried Tomato, Tempura Ika with Pineapple. As I expected, the latter was the tastiest in my opinion because of the integration of a tropical fruit (plus you just can't go wrong with fried squid); but I had to try the others as well, and because there's only so much even I can eat in one sitting, I strolled around the street for a spell before returning to Makoto for a second round. By then the restaurant, getting ready to close for the afternoon, was practically giving away whatever was left on the conveyor belt: everything after 3 p.m. is only A$3 a plate, but you can only take it to go. As the color-coded price guide at the bar shows, most plates normally range from A$2.60 to A$6.60. Not bad for a slightly higher-end conveyor-belt sushi restaurant.

Sushi Bar Makoto
119 Liverpool St., Sydney NSW

Kingfish Jalapeno Sashimi and Seared Salmon Sushi at Sushi Choo in Sydney, Australia

All Aboard Sushi Choo

Hop aboard Sushi Choo, a modern and more glamorous take on the sushi train restaurant concept. Located inside the Ivy, Sushi Choo is contemporary both in culinary style and interior design: the white marble counters and enormous red wicker cage-like lanterns beckon you while the menu enticesyou can order "On the Rails" (from the sushi train itself) or "Off the Rails" (appetizers or specials from the kitchen, from miso soup and edamame to sashimi). For early diners, there is even a A$20 All-You-Can-Eat special, which may be well worth it considering many sushi train restaurants charge an average of A$5 for one item.

There is no simple color-coding here for the price guide; the menu actually describes the designs on the plates and their cargo. For example, the plate with the "small leaf flower on black or red" costs A$5.50, and may hold tuna ceviche nigiri, kingfish leek & chilli nigiri, makimono tuna avocado, philadelphia or dynamite. The dish with "black or gold single lotus" is A$9, and could feature the makimono nixon roll, the burning rainbow roll, or lion roll.

Feeling off my rocker with this glitzy atmosphere and such novel names, I ordered one item "Off the Rails"Kingfish Jalapeno, thinly sliced with yuzu soy, coriander and jalapeno, for A$10-while grabbing another one from "On the Rails"seared salmon enhanced with yuzu.

Sushi Choo
Level G of the Ivy
320 George St., Sydney NSW

The Balmain Bug Roll at "Sushi e" in Sydney

Introducing the Balmain Bug

Ever heard of the Balmain Bug? Neither had I. And that was why, despite the other temptations on the menu at Sushi e such as the Wagyu Roll with flamed Wagyu beef slices, and the exotic-sounding maki featuring salmon, baby capers, mixed cress and Spanish onion, I chose the Balmain Bug Roll.

Also known as the butterfly fan lobster, the Balmain Bug is a species of slipper lobster that lives in shallow waters around Australia. The waitress had to explain to me what it was; and I was but a mesmerized tourist, questioning and learning and feeling grateful that such a ritzy place was friendly and welcoming to someone dressed in casual garb and hiking boots, as I had just concluded a tour in the Blue Mountains.

The Balmain Bug order is not a cheap one, eitherA$21.50 for this eight-piece cut roll that's no bigger than your average California Roll. However, anything in the lobster family has never been inexpensive, and although the roll was top-tier in taste overall, it didn't seem extraordinarily unlike any high-grade sushi roll with fried shellfish inside it. The rare "continental cucumber" inside, however, did have a soft and velvety texture to it, unlike the rough and crunchy, cheap variation most places stick in their rolls as a filler ingredient.

Ironically, Sushi e was recommended to me by heaps of bogans I had chatted with at the Ivy Bar, and therefore I had not expected an ambience quite as upscale as the one I encountered at this palatial Japanese dining hall. The "e" stands for "establishment," the name of the trendy hotel and nightclub inside which Sushi e is located.

Sushi e closes the deal with a complimentary dessert: a thin vial filled with Vanilla Panna Cotta and Raspberry Coulis.

Sushi e
Level 4 of establishment
252 George St., Sydney

Next blog: Sushi in Melbourne