Hachioji Sushi Omakase – First Impressions | Willoughby

Benson Pang is what you could call an ikemen – Japanese lingo for a handsome, stylish man. With slick hair, sculpted face and just the right touch of badassery with a semi-exposed tattoo, the head chef of newly-opened Hachioji’s looks are as sharp as his knives. Don’t take my word for it, because it’s not mine – apparently, it’s an objective statement if the number of DMs I’ve received from female followers on Instagram is anything to go by. Also apparently objective is me – a straight male – needing to know this 😂😂😂😂. But excuse the immediate digression: we’re here to talk about sushi, so snap out of it people!

Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
Head chef Benson Pang

This post is based on a first-impressions, independently paid visit to Hachioji. As a result, your experience may vary dramatically.

Date Last Visited: 10/Aug/2020
Address: 2/56-58 Frenchs Rd, Willoughby NSW 2068
Price Guide (approx): $79 before extras or drinks

Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
When you need to defend the shogunate at 4pm but need to make sushi at 6pm.

A gander on Hachioji’s website states that its Taiwanese head chef is a sushi master with 17 years experience (without any detail on what this actually entails), followed by a slickly-produced video of Benson working his movie-star charms with knife-on-fish action. Now, you’ll have to forgive me for being a little wary – good sushi restaurants don’t generally advertise their skill or hype their chefs to the extent Hachioji does. However, I’m all for cutting the man some slack, given he’s breaking new ground in the Sydney sushi scene with undoubtedly difficult hurdles to surmount, in no small part due to his Taiwanese (read: non-Japanese) heritage. Now skill – not race or upbringing – is obviously what matters. But the deck is inevitably stacked, so a little bit of marketing can go a long way.

Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
Looking classy, but it would be ideal if he loses the wristwatch.

Zaddy* Benson chose to set up Hachioji over the bones of Kisuke, which old-timers know was one of the most traditional Japanese restaurants in Sydney. An ironic choice – persisting the Japanese spirit of the location is commendable; continuing the tradition? Not so fast.

*Another delightful term from another follower.

First, the easy bits: omakase for lunch – 12 courses plus some snacks – runs at $79 before extras, while dinner is $99 (the two menus should be the same, but somebody correct me if I’m wrong). There is also a $188 ‘VIP menu’ which I was regrettably unaware of prior to my visit – one can only wonder what that sum could have bought. There’s also an a la carte menu, which you’ll have to ask someone else about. I would not be surprised to see multiple changes made to the pricing structure as Benson and team bed the operation down – it’s still very early days.

  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby

So here’s the confusing part. While Hachioji’s offering technically qualifies as ‘sushi omakase’, those familiar with its traditional Japanese interpretation will find perhaps as many differences as there are similarities. Much of the core seafood is also similar – tuna, salmon, bonito etc, and of course, it is still essentially neta (sushi toppings) on shari (sushi rice). But that’s about where the similarities end and where my conflict begins. Benson points out that in order to compete with Sydney’s sushi big guns, he has to do something different – and that difference is his Taiwanese** heritage. He terms it ‘New Century Cuisine’, a non-Google-able result that’s as curiosity-piquing as it is concerning – sometimes things are a certain way for a reason, and not all trailblazing efforts are recognised.

If you’re still holding onto any preconceptions, toss them out now.

**Noting that the Japanese have heavily influenced parts of Taiwanese cuisine due to that whole WWII thing.

  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby

Being a relatively new restaurant, you’d expect teething issues. In this sense, my expectations were met. The first round of (otherwise delicious sakura) tea was served tepidly warm; staff checked their phones when there were dishes to be cleared; little things that should be resolved in short order.

The meal itself bounced around somewhat incoherently between overt acidity (yuzu daikon, mixed salad – served consecutively, no less), overt sweetness (5-day aged salmon belly, maguro w/ume jelly), and occasionally perfect balance (bonito, 4-day aged kingfish). Other times, the course itself was served at too low a temperature (hotaru ika, wagyu, fish soup), but would otherwise have been most acceptable.

The shari was a sticking point too – literally. Plus, it was too soft and a touch on the sweet side. Your mileage will of course vary – there was once a time when I thought the al dente rice in risotto was undercooked. Oh how we learn.

  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby

Flavour and temperature imbalances aside, Benson’s actual preparation of the neta itself is for the most part quite good, and he knows how to age fish well (there’s nothing off here, and good ingredient flavour when it wasn’t subsumed by acidity/sweetness). One exception here was the ootoro, which was sliced in a way that had a thick, stringy fibre running in parallel to its length. Great if you like your tuna fibrous, but vice versa.

  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby

Liberal use of sweetness and acidity aside, another aspect of Hachioji’s ‘New Century’ Taiwanese-Japanese seems to be the use of flowers and a general propensity to bling up a given piece. See the gold powder toro, flowers in the umeshu jelly maguro, and both the yuzu daikon and peach salad as examples. I personally don’t care for florals as edible elements, so you’ll have to excuse me for not vibing.

  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby
  • Hachioji Omakase Willoughby

All things considered, you might think that there wasn’t much I liked, but that would be patently untrue. The firm and textural jasmine tea-smoked angel shark was a delicious novelty I’ve never had anywhere else. The carefully prepared bonito was pretty much perfect, as was the king prawn (notwithstanding Benson’s messy-for-the-diner presentation choice), and aburi swordfish belly. The white sea urchin w/shiso & caviar is right up there as one of the best examples of such I’ve had in Sydney. Heck, even the sendoff course – a single scoop of houjicha ice cream (yep, with flowers) – was something I wish I had a tub of.

I’ve always believed that doing away with the constraints of tradition is a surefire way to stand out. In that sense, Hachioji undoubtedly does. But it’s no doubt a risky move – think of all the examples around the world where chefs challenge the status quo and fail (see also survivorship bias). In the hallowed halls of sushi, where incremental innovation is sacrilege when done wrong, Going so far off the beaten path is a move with a level of boldness that’s perhaps befitting Benson’s steely-eyed composure.

At this point, there are two obvious questions:

  1. Does ‘New Century Cuisine’ simply not live up to its promise of an exciting new leaf in Japanese fusion? Or…
  2. Does Benson just have some ways to go in refining it?

I’m an optimist, so I’m firmly in camp #2. Hachioji – right now – is not the restaurant some of us want; yet, I hope it becomes one we need. While traditional sushi omakase as you and I know has its (hugely important) place, change is only made at the edge, by those willing to take the charge, be cavalier, and dare I say it – disregard the rules altogether, even if the consequences can be disastrous.

Time will tell.

Ups:

  • The potential for the evolution of how we think of sushi. Or…

Downs:

  • …an exercise in difference for its own sake.

Pro-Tip:

  • A difficult choice awaits: go now while it’s cheap, or go later when Hachioji improves and becomes more and more difficult to book.

Would I return: in a year or so

This post is based on a first-impressions, independently paid visit to Hachioji. As a result, your experience may vary dramatically.

A note on scoring: I will not be scoring restaurants during the pandemic. Please reach your own conclusions based on the post’s actual content, which remains impartial as always.

Hachioji Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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