That Kentaro (Kenny) Takayama is lucky that his name isn’t palindromic can be considered a good thing. It would have been awkward to own two separate cafes with the exact same name – can you imagine the confusion? Flipping his name on its head is Redfern favourite Cafe Oratnek. Now, we have Cafe Kentaro in Surry Hills. The name’s done a 180, but critically – has the food?
Date Last Visited: 12/2/2017
Address: 616 Bourke Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, NSW
Highlight Dishes: Japanese poutine, pork katsu sandwich
Price Guide (approx): $25pp
Cafe Oratnek became (and continues to be) successful for a reason, and when you have the formula for success, you don’t want to tweak it much. Thus, while Cafe Kentaro may be a total reversal in name, it still sticks to what’s familiar.
First: what similar? Well, the Japanese touch, that’s for sure. Expect the Japanese touch gracing almost everything on the menu, ranging from the subtle (Japanese poutine w/miso beef) to the overt (chicken tsukune). In this sense, Kentaro and Oratnek are very much spiritually related.
Where they differ is in the dishes themselves. Oratnek may be a bit out there in the context of its local competitors, but one can still identify that it’s first and foremost a cafe, serving appropriately cafe-esque fare.
Kentaro on the other hand makes no apologies about taking restaurant nosh down to accessible price points – price points that are decidedly cafe-like for the most part, not restaurant-like. Do not visit Cafe Kentaro expecting smashed avo on toast (something you could get at Oratnek). But come to Cafe Kentaro with a hungry stomach, a taste for Japanese influences, along with an open mind and you won’t go wrong.
Did I also mention that there’s a well-stocked, highly-varied pastry cabinet full of Japanese takes on traditionally Western desserts? But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s start with a coffee.
Or perhaps a houjicha latte? If you’re at Cafe Kentaro, you’ve already decided to break the mould – why not start with your hot cuppa? Houjicha is roasted green tea, sporting a dark mustard colour instead of characteristic green hues. In terms of flavour, it is literally like smoked green tea – astringent, aromatic, and bittersweet. Kentaro’s latte is not too powdery and tastes mostly grit-free.
Not many cafes offer a good green tea latte to begin with, let alone a houjicha latte. Speaking of green tea lattes – Cafe Kentaro does those too.
Note that unlike many other cafes, Cafe Kentaro’s tea-based lattes come completely unsweetened, so be sure to dial in an amount of sugar appropriate to your tastes – a good move, inconvenience notwithstanding.
Ever fancied a hot dog for breakfast? No? Me neither. A lunchtime tradition has been given the East Asian treatment with Kentaro’s Japanese hotdog. I got loads of aromatic pork; sweet, pan-charred mushrooms, and a whole lot of umami from the Japanese condiment triumvirate: bonito fish flakes, shiso pepper and nori seaweed.
My favourite part of this dish was actually the bun – so soft, so good. Like an understanding mother, it didn’t get in the way of the party going on inside, the way mom (I mean bun) should be.
It’s quite salty though, which is something I can’t ignore – dialing down the condiment factor would greatly assist in the sodium stakes.
Possibly the most adventurous dish on Cafe Kentaro’s menu as far as a cafe goes, the chicken tsukune is sure to raise a few eyebrows. Chicken tsukune are skewers consisting of chicken mince and finely diced vegetables. But the most important ingredient – the one that decides whether or not you can call it tsukune – is finely chopped chicken cartilage, to give the mixture a unique, spongy crunch.
It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but this is a dish that’s under-represented even in Sydney’s Japanese restaurants. Thus, a fairly rare opportunity to taste it can be had at Cafe Kentaro.
At $25 for just a couple of sticks, it doesn’t pass the “value for money” test; I would have expected at least a raw egg (this is common with tsukune/yakitori dishes in Japan). As it stands, the regular Joe will be left hungry if this is all they order.
You might call foul upon seeing Oratnek’s famous pork fillet katsu sando on Kentaro’s menu, but this is Kenny’s dish – and he’ll damn well take it to whatever venue he chooses. Besides, it’s so damn good, not ordering it at either cafe would be a crime. Pillowy fluffy bread; thick, juicy pieces of pork katsu w/crunchy skin; and some fine-tuned sweetness coming from the Japanese BBQ sauce a great sandwich makes.
Go on, line this up in your sights – you’ll become a convert at first bite.
Look, if 2016 was the year of loaded fries, then at least introduce some more of the original product that started it all – Canada’s best export: poutine.
That said, Cafe Kentaro doesn’t give you the traditional stuff. However, expect tender-soft pulled beef, heavy-hitting dark miso, and goats cheese as the star flavour agents. While it’s slightly disappointing that authentic cheese curds aren’t used to give that extra “phoooar” pungency that’s innately ascribed to poutine, goat’s cheese isn’t too far off the mark. But really, the beef is so good, it pretty much stole the show – even the crunchy hot chips couldn’t distract me.
It’s another fairly salty dish, so sharing is not optional. Wait, you were going to demolish this one all by yourself? Savage!
Still here? Congratulations on continuing to fight the good fight. Round 2: desserts.
If you’re thinking the matcha cream puff looks like the product of a certain bodily function, I’m with you *snicker*. Puerility aside, this is a visual stand out in the pastry cabinet. A mountain of creme patisserie is clamped between a choux-like pastry sized so large that it needs two to finish.
Unfortunately, I can’t comment much on the cream puff’s flavour because we had to have ours refrigerated (our fault, not the cafe’s). This turned the pastry rather leathery, and also resulted in the thickening of the egg yolk-laden creme patisserie. Choux pastries never taste good after undergoing refrigeration, so if you order one be sure to commence demolishing it right there and then!
My experience of Cafe Oratnek’s lamington was not a great one – I was served a half-slice, which is a faux pas as the insides of the lamington were drier than an Egyptian mummy’s tomb. The matcha lamington at Cafe Kentaro is served whole, which is a lot more like it. It’s moist and spongy as required, and not overly sweet – thus allowing the coconut to be tasted. However, I couldn’t get much more than a hint of matcha – it definitely looked more green than it tasted.
The best pastry we tried happened to be an everyday blueberry muffin, but one that was made exceptionally well. Fresh fruits, a moist and spongy muffin made this all too easy to overeat – heating not even required!
Here is a cafe that does a lot of things well with an acceptable number of compromises. We can all agree that Surry Hills is a cafe hotspot (and I wouldn’t argue with you if you said the scene is overcrowded). Yet despite this, venues like Cafe Kentaro prove that there is still the opportunity and the space to walk down your only road – even if it happens to be a bit of a lonely one in the assemblage of avocados on toast. Whether it works or not will be up to the test of time; here’s hoping.
This post is based on having dined as a guest of Cafe Kentaro.
Have you visited Kenny Takayama’s latest venture? Let me know what you think in the comments below!
- Unique – a cafe that insists on doing things its own way
- Japanese food lovers will have so, so many reasons to visit
- A stronger-than-average pastry cabinet selection; props for making everything in-house
- A mild case of over-salting affects several dishes
- Serving restaurant dishes in a cafe setting? I like that it’s trying something new, but I’m not yet convinced that it works.
Would I return: yep
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F6.5 | S4* | A1.5
*take with a grain of salt as my visit to Cafe Kentaro was under invitation.