Like most of us, Kentaro “Kenny” Takayama wanted to fulfil a dream: a backyard, homely cafe to call his own. To do this, he upped and gave up his awesome gig as head honcho at Bills – no small feat. Ah, but there was a small snag – it looks like the domain squatters have gotten to kentaro.com long before Kenny could get his hands on it! And that’s how Cafe Oratnek – his name spelt backwards, was Christened. It’s all about getting that dot com.
…And pretty much the latter half of that introduction is total BS. Sorry :P. The reality? Who knows – perhaps that’s the eccentric nature of the man himself, the desire to be different, to be special and remembered. I could believe it, as it shows in Oratnek’s food – think sandwiches that come in pork katsu, smashed egg or fried chicken & kimchi varieties, miso beef lettuce baos, and sake steamed clam pots. Not exactly the kind of fare you find on a normal cafe menu. As wordsmith/homie iFat puts it: “very few stick their neks out and they end up just being orat.”
Different is definitely trending – but only deliciousness will keep the crowds coming back. Kenny, spotlight’s on you.
Date Last Visited: 26/8/15
Address: 4 Pitt Street, Redfern, Sydney
Recommended Dish(es): all sandwiches on the menu
A cafe that makes the most of a Terrace’s backyard is definitely the first of its kind I’ve come across. I have no idea how Kenny got council approval for this, but while the next door neighbours may disagree, this is a great boon for all interested in a good feed – at a short walk from either Redfern or Central station. I’ve been saying for a number of years now that Redfern’s cafe culture is becoming ever more competitive in the Sydney scene, and Oratnek is going for the treetops and beyond.
The place itself? Just lovely, oozing Victorian charm. Did I ever tell you I love terraces? I’d live in one if I could, but eating in the courtyard of one is as close as I’m going to get for now. Thanks for providing that particularly unexpected opportunity!
There’s also an internal seating area if that floats your boat. Should you choose to sit here, you’ll be greeted by warm, yellow hues, reflected off deliberately exposed brick – a trend that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. In any case, it fits Oratnek’s style more than most. I wonder if anyone actually lives upstairs or not – and if not, might the upper levels one day play host to more seating? Ah questions, so many questions.
But it’s time to get some answers. Let’s get some food talk going. That Oratnek’s menu is Japanese-inspired is a no brainer. The name “Kentaro Takayama” should be your first clue. Yes, there are those various sandwiches (or “sandos” as the Japanese like to call them), but also a great deal of other plates like the Japanese lamb casserole, spicy pork-stuffed chicken wings, and of course…
…matcha goodies to make you green with envy.
But be warned – Oratnek’s matcha items aren’t available every day, and when they do present themselves, do so only in limited numbers. These matcha tiramisu? We nabbed the last for that day. Matcha muffins? They exist in the hallowed feeds of Instagram, yet I’ve never seen one with my own two eyes. Matcha lamington? Oh boy, just you wait for how that one plays out.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a step back and get onto what’s really important, the items that have caused Oratnek’s social proof to reach starry heights, despite being in operation for less than six weeks.
Let’s talk about the humble sandwich.
If Kenny is representative of the regular Japanese food enthusiast, then it’s safe to say they love their sandos. Oratnek however, doesn’t go nuts with variety, instead offering three focused, differentiated takes on the timeless classic.
Which one to start off with? You’re probably interested in the one on the top right, so let’s get smashed:
Ho dang, this is a true blue honest-to-Joe smashed egg sando. Mustard mayo everywhere, poppy seeds showing off like they just don’t care. Oodles of egg all over the place, and of course, without further ado – for which to stuff your face.
My terrible sense of poetic whimsy aside, this is an egg sando that’s all about what’s between the bread. First of all – there’s just so much of it. Quantity to the point I felt that Kenny’s being a little too generous. So much that I even thought I couldn’t eat this properly; a mess certainly inevitable. Well, rest assured – the filling holds true to itself. Even in tilting the sandwich for another photo, it stayed put:
As for taste? Oh yes, this hits the spot. The egg is smashed in such a way that it still retains its texture, without becoming an indeterminate mess. Very mushy, very fun to eat. This is then supplemented by the mustard which, while I wished was stronger in flavour, did an adequate job at taking the edge off of the egg becoming too “eggy” after a few bites. The poppy seeds added little pops whenever I bit into them, and on the whole it’s a gooey, glorious cacophony of creamy texture. One downside of the filling? It definitely requires salt and pepper to taste. By itself, its texture far outstrips its flavour.
You’ll notice I’ve been avoiding talking about the bread for some time. The reason is unfortunately, not positive: the bread is simply too dry. On the face of it, it looks like a fluffy morsel of heavenly proportions. Instead, it’s comparable to a desert in moisture content. Eating the bread in even proportions with the egg filling does mitigate this somewhat, but never fully resolves the problem. Dry bread is almost sinful, so it’s a hard one to forgive. I am however, willing to give a concession for two reasons. One – this is the only sandwich for which the bread was dry. Two – I think to myself – would I order this again? And the answer is a tentative yes – that egg filling, if salt & peppered is just too good to resist.
Please, source some fluffier bread for this one!
The next sammich on the list is the Japanese fried chicken & kimuchi mayo.
Wait, doesn’t Kenny mean kimchi? No, he means kimuchi: I don’t really want to delve into the politics of it all, but let’s start and end the lesson here: kimuchi is essentially a “Japanified” version of kimchi, in that it is less potent, less spicy and not fermented as rigorously as proper Korean kimchi. This fact isn’t important, but the more we learn, right?
In any case, this sandwich is awesome. It’s my favourite at Oratnek, and that’s saying something given what I’m covering next. OI, DON’T YOU DARE SCROLL DOWN.
The deal is this: great bread (not dry!), delicious fried chicken that manages to remain tender & soft on the inside, whilst maintaining a crack-level addictive crust, and of course – oodles and oodles of creamy, spicy kimuchi mayo that shows who’s the real sauce boss. The an additional crunch factor from the cabbage? More than welcome!
It’s almost unfair because this kind of combination is just so hard to beat, but that’s the thing – if you can’t beat them, eat them!
One of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve had all year – and Kenny didn’t even need to use cheese to win me over. Cheezus.
And now, we come to the dish that almost single-handedly made Oratnek worth geotagging: I present to you the pork fillet katsu sando. This is something special, orat. Actually, all three sandwiches Oratnek offers are unique, but it’s particularly rare to find pork katsu that’s very well-executed in Sydney, let alone a pork katsu sando. The Japanese love eating them this way, and I’m so, so glad somebody actually decided to try bringing it to the Sydney masses.
Be careful, these sell out pretty quickly – I learned that the hard way. Try to arrive before 1pm to avoid disappointment.
This is a damn good katsu. The first thing I notice is just how crunchy the skin is. I’m not sure how I could devise an objective scale to measure crunchiness, but let’s try: out of 10 – if Grain Waves were a 5 and Red Rock Deli a 7, this is a solid 9. Yeah that’s right, I just said something is crunchier than Red Rock Deli. This is the most friable katsu I’ve ever had – a sandwich made out of that panko coating alone would be just incredible.
Then we come the pork itself. It’s juicy – AF – so they say. I did a little test and I could actually squeeze the succulence out of the katsu when pressing into the sando. That’s the level to beat, people. The pork remains slightly chewy and will still work your teeth at times due to its thickness, but it’s an exercise you’ll be happy to perform.
In terms of flavour, most of it comes from the crumbed skin and the generous mustard seasoning acting as the primary condiment. This is smart, as it cancels out what would otherwise be a strong porcine aroma which is actually not all that attractive – especially given how generous the katsu is – each sandwich is guaranteed to have at least 100g of the stuff. When all that’s said and done, it does mean the actual pork meat itself is relying more on external seasoning, rather than any inherent flavour profiles in order to give it its oomph. As such, I wouldn’t eat the pork separately from the rest of the sando.
I know what you’re thinking and you can be reassured – the bread is assuredly not dry. The bread used for the katsu sando is not the same as the bread for the egg sando. Thank goodness for that – this is the way it’s meant to be, fluff and all!
In the end, while this sandwich is not perfection, it’s still a sandwich worth travelling for. The pork katsu alone? Definitely one of Sydney’s best.
All sandwiched out? I kind of hope so, because we did actually eat food that doesn’t involve bread!
The miso BBQ beef rib san choy bao is all about that juicy, juicy moo. I don’t have much of a bone to pick with this one, and it ain’t just because the beef lacks said bones. From a flavour perspective, this is a seriously tasty dish. The miso seasoning is bright, tart and savoury. Anywhere it went, the flavour train followed. The beef? Tender, soft and man-sized hunky. While flavours were good, I did wish the beef was more saturated with the flavours of the miso, as the beef’s chunky size meant that the seasoning could not fully permeate throughout, which left parts of the beef inequitably covered with flavour.
This is already a tasty dish in general, but serving it as a san choy bao introduces more considerations than trying to buy furniture from Ikea with your ultra-specific girlfriend. The lettuce leaves provided are inconsistent in size, with many being unusable for wrapping the larger-than-life blocks of beef. Many leaves also had tears, which led to very messy eating, as sauces had a field day escaping onto the plate & table.
If this is to be a san choy bao dish, the beef, as deliciously stocky as they are, needs to be further cut down, perhaps into ribbons or thinner slices. The lettuce needs to be consistently high-quality, with no tears. As it was, we pretty much ate everything separately – it was just easier.
This is The Lady‘s dish – mushrooms and I still aren’t bedfellows to that extent.
At least, for now. This toastie did a standout job in getting me a little closer to the fun side of fungi – it’s assuredly a shroom-lover’s delight. They’re soft, chewy and full of earthy flavour, accentuated by the miso and goat’s cheese. It’s a difficult combo to top – the Japanese know their umami alright, they invented the word, after all.
For me, the tastiest aspect of the dish is where the miso butter meets the bread itself. Biting through that deliciously crunchy crust, and then being bombarded with oozy, buttery miso is pure bliss.
It’s actually the best bread I’ve had at Oratnek. If you like mushies even slightly more than I do, definitely nab this one.
Pork-stuffed chicken wings. In what would surely be an unholy combination in some circles, I can’t believe this hasn’t been done sooner. All the goodness of pork married to everything that makes a chicken wing great? Imagine being able to eat pork with the crispiness of chicken wing. Or, picture a juicy chicken wing, but instead of sporting an almost malnourished amount of meat, it has all the man-sized portioning you want in the form of pork.
It’s a bit weird, it’s a bit rare, and it’s delicious. I’m a fan of three things: the crispiness of the skin, the juiciness of the meat(s) inside, and the chilli jam that goes with the dish. Together, it’ll give KFC a run for its money. It just works.
If anything, the wings themselves are lacking in flavour, but this is why the chilli jam is there. Use it wisely, use it well. Chip lovers aren’t left behind either – Oratnek does them not so thin and crispy, but not fat and chunky either. They won’t blow your mind, but they’re just plain good. I polished them; it would be a crime not to.
At first, we were told that there were no matcha lamingtons left, a feeling we knew all too well when told the pork katsu sando and pork-stuffed chicken wings became unavailable to us. Alas, Kenny himself came to our rescue, managing to scrounge up one last half of a matcha lamington. As it came in this state, it was provided on the house. My lucky day!
In terms of flavour, the matcha is quite pronounced, which I believe is a result of feedback Kenny received a few days prior, from other food enthusiasts. Thanks guys! On the other hand, its texture is quite dry, which definitely spells doom for a lamington. HOWEVER, this is a half slice, which means it would have dehydrated for some time after cutting. I’m not going to make too much of a judgement because of this. All I can say is, if you get a chance to try the lamington whole, you should give it a go.
That dessert luck continues with the matcha tiramisu – I was the last to snag it. To the lady who was sitting on the table behind us, I’m so, so sorry. I tried not to make eye contact – it was the least I could do.
I hope you like your tiramisu thick and cakey – because that’s exactly how I would describe this one. Because of its dense profile, it’s also a bit on the dry side. Eating it with the wooden spoon actually makes it worse, as wooden spoons have a bit of a “dry” taste to them exacerbating the tiramisu’s dryness.
In terms of flavour? It’s there, but only enough to make us think “hmm, it’s okay, but nothing particularly outstanding”. The desserts are unfortunately, a letdown.
What’s the verdict? A Japanese-themed cafe, situated within a charming Victorian terrace located in the heart of trendy Redfern. Tick. The food? Not without its flaws, but uniqueness plays a role, and when it’s tasty, it’s really tasty. Tick tick.
Orat Oratnek, you can stay.
This post is based on two independent visits to Cafe Oratnek.
As usual, feel free to leave a comment or three 😀
- A quality menu with roughly consistent quality throughout
- Good pricing – four dishes between three people was on average, $18pp
- Standout sandwiches that for once, make them the preferred option rather than the last resort
- Beautiful, one of a kind decor
- Every dish has one or two little faults, which prevent me from handing out landslide compliments
- The service can grind to a halt when it’s packed
- The sweets need rework. Nothing is bad per se, but you won’t revisit Oratnek for the desserts
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 | S3 | A3