You could say that Michael Phelps has won a “decent amount” of gold medals in his Olympic career. You could say I’ve eaten a decent amount of sushi in my lifetime. Guess which of the aforementioned two sentences is the bigger understatement? It’s safe to say that if the consumption of sushi was banned in Sydney, I would be packing my bags tomorrow.
Fortunately, Sydney’s Japanese scene is once again bolstered by a hidden gem of a Japanese restaurant in the Lower North Shore that has – despite all odds – escaped my radar. Say hello to Crows Nest’s Hana Ju-Rin!
Date Last Visited: 5/8/2016
Address: 300 Pacific Highway,Crows Nest, Sydney, NSW
An unassuming frontage disguises a wealth of sushi-making talent, smack bang in one of the busiest parts of the Pacific Highway. While Hana Ju-Rin doesn’t sport much of a frontage, the restaurant more than makes up for it with two levels of seating: Western-style on ground level, with more traditional tatami-style seating (and private rooms) below ground.
While you’re probably reading this post for the sushi, I should note that Hana Ju-Rin also provides a standard Japanese, as well as a teppanyaki dining experience. This is the real deal – counter seating, and the heady aromas of all sorts of fare being subject to the hot grill, worked by the teppanyaki chef.
However, as attractive as that teppan grill was, we all know the sushi counter is where it’s at – and that’s what you’re here for as well. Best seats in the house? Easily – especially when sushi-making is one of the most exquisite and refined expressions of Japanese food preparation you can witness. It’s not like I haven’t talked about it before…
But back to Hana Ju-Rin and indeed, the real MVP of the show:
Say hello to Tomoyuki Matsuya, a second-generation master sushi chef, or more appropriately, the itamae. While Hana Ju-Rin is much more than a sushi restaurant, it just wouldn’t be if it weren’t for Matsuya-san’s presence.
While being able to indulge in the pleasure of consuming handcrafted sushi is very much the reason one opts for high-end sushi, a large part of the experience also comes from watching it being made in front of you – it’s a rhythmic, often entrancing dance of hands, keen-edged blades, and lustrous, top-quality seafood in both red and white.
Sure, you’re free to choose your dishes a la carte, even when sitting at the sushi counter. But we are here for omakase – where you can be confident in switching your brain off and letting the itamae take care of everything. After all, he knows what the best produce of the day ought to be – so why not leave it to the experts?
Omakase at Hana Ju-Rin runs at $88 which includes 15 pieces, a starter, and a soup. Individual sushi is always seasoned by Matsuya-san himself – you never need to help yourself to soy sauce.
For an extra $20 you can get a sashimi plate (which we opted for), and for another $15 on top of that, an appetisers plate (we did not opt for that).
$88 is fairly good value in the admittedly limited high-end sushi market in Sydney – with only one restaurant’s omakase costing less. Every other place? In excess of $100. However, I’ve never had an omakase experience that hasn’t been worth the money – and Hana Ju-Rin is no exception. Let’s dig in!
The included appetiser is three slices of octopus, seared on a open-flame grill and served with lashes of truffle oil and S&P on the side. These were meaty, chewy and exhibited a fair bit of juiciness. The truffle oil made its presence felt, adding its signature earthy aroma, while only a dab of additional pepper was necessary to complete each bite.
While we were consuming the octopus, our sashimi plate was being prepared. Seeing that, I finished my appetiser all too quickly – I’m a sucker when anticipating!
A wait that was well worth it – and I’m definitely glad I ordered this, as I would have left Hana Ju-Rin hungry. On the plate we have lean tuna, medium tuna, yellowtail, armorhead, bass grouper, kingfish, trevally, Hokkaido scallop, and sea urchin.
It’s easy to say I liked all of the sashimi – I’m biased, after all. However, there were standouts – notably the juicy-sweet Hokkaido scallop, the sinewy and texturally interesting bass grouper, and the remarkably smooth trevally. Oh, and of course – I can’t forget the sea urchin. An absolute winner in its buttery, sea-sweet goodness.
$20 well spent.
Piece 1 is giant grouper, a chewy, sinewy fish. There’s a natural sweetness to the flesh, accentuated by the light dash of soy brushed across the top. A piece of shiso wedged between the fish and the rice brings out a minty freshness that may not necessarily be to your liking, but was totally up my alley. For the record – there’s shiso in every piece of white fish nigiri.
The included wasabi was also of a reasonable amount – I never ate a piece throughout the dinner that threatened to blow my nose off.
I’ll make a general comment on the rice at this point that applies to the rest of the sushi. The grains are discernible, distinctive – not at all mushy. There’s a very subtle sweetness but curiously, is tinged by a hint of acidity and sourness with each bite. From a visual standpoint, the rice (or shari, specifically describing sushi rice) is off-white, an ever-slightly brown hue. Matsuya-san explained that he cooks the shari with a red vinegar that’s aged for three years. That’s pretty darn cool!
Piece 2 is a sand whiting. Its texture was quite unique, in that it progressed from soft tissue, to ever chewier as I made my way in. Also a sweet fish, it was particularly fragrant. Again, that shiso brings it up just a little bit, but the bigger contribution was made by the tangy and slightly biting ginger. That little dab is all it took.
There were times when Matsuya-san would be making sushi for other customers seated at the tables, which introduced noticeable gaps in service. If you’re in good company, as I was, this really wouldn’t be a problem. However, those who are very time-conscious will find Hana Ju-Rin’s pace to be somewhat disjointed.
Piece 3 is a snapper, simply served with some sesame seeds. I wish there was a bit more soy sauce on this one, but the fish did sport a similar sweetness profile to the giant grouper, which was a good thing. On the texture side, it’s a softer specimen of white fish, and so was a good break from the slightly chewier varieties from earlier.
Oh, now here’s a few pieces that ought to be satisfactorily soy’d-up!
Piece 4 is something completely new to me – latchet fish. A pleasant surprise that I’m still managing to eat new types of fish with each new sushi experience. The piece is based with a yuzu/soy mix which makes it a lot zestier than previous pieces, but it never gets overly buzzy as there’s a bigger-than-usual serve of wasabi here that keeps things grounded. It’s not a particularly sweet fish I must say, one of the more neutral pieces I’ve had. Texture-wise, it’s very sinewy and chewy.
While the omakase has been going well so far, one issue both me and my dining partner experienced – in a very significant way – was the teppanyaki a few metres away. The smells from that area waft over, unimpeded, and it’s intense. You know exactly what I’m talking about – meaty beef, the sizzle of fried noodles, charred onions and sweetness of soy is all up in this joint. Unfortunately, for a sushi experience, this is an invasion of our palates with severe consequences. Eating a meal that’s almost exclusively comprised of delicate pieces of raw fish? It’s like going wine tasting sitting where nobody knows the meaning of “restraint” when it comes to cologne. There is a reason why many high-end sushi restaurants in Japan explicitly forbid the wearing of strong perfumes as a condition of entry.
I’ll eat a piece of sushi, but feel like I should be biting into a piece of juicy steak instead. “Where’s my wagyu nigiri?” As my dining partner remarked. While we exerted quite the mental effort to remove the effect of the teppan grill, do note – dear reader – that it will make good work, and distraction, of your nostrils.
Piece 5 is latchet fish yet again, but this time cured with konbu (kobujime). This changes almost everything about the fish – surprisingly even its texture. Its chewiness evolves almost to something akin to a “crunch”, and the flavour is deeper, a lot more briny from the konbu seaweed.
This was a great piece. While I like subtlety which is the key drawcard for white fish, I’ll always hop onboard the flavour train where it’s an option.
Piece 6, and the last of the white fish, is trevally. I described its texture as being similar to squid, except if said squid was much, much softer. The same uniform chewiness and meatiness is there, and a bit of a creamy sweetness as well. There was actually no squid in this omakase, but I was happy to take this trevally in substitution.
Piece 7 is the bridge between white and red fish – Crystal Bay prawn. It’s served with finely-diced yuzu (it’s between the prawn and the shari), giving it a sharp acidity and bitter notes. I personally wasn’t a big fan of this piece – I much prefer raw over cooked when it comes to prawns/shrimp, as cooking it tends to toughen it up too much.
And now, gear change!
The show is truly about to begin.
Tuna, tuna, tuna. What would we do if we didn’t have tuna? A question I fortunately do not have to answer, as I’m about to stuff myself full of it.
Piece 8 is lean tuna (or akami), which is marinated in soy. Despite the fact that it’s lean tuna, I never cease to be amazed by just how creamy its texture is. Not in the fatty, melt-in-your-mouth way of fattier cuts, but rather in a smooth but clean way that retains integrity even as it slowly disintegrates in your mouth. Excellently flavoured, it’s one of my favourite pieces in the omakase.
In standard progression, piece 9 is medium tuna (chu-toro). This is a fair bit fattier than akami but not quite at the full-fat level of fatty tuna. Hana Ju-Rin’s process for this is aging for two weeks to concentrate its flavour, and while I can’t compare it to an un-aged chu-toro, I’m easily able to appreciate just how flavourful the piece in a standalone manner. I described the piece as “akami on steroids” in my notes, and that is in some ways quite accurate – creaminess on another level, with that fatty part at the end giving that coveted “oooomph” moment.
Speaking of “ooomph” moments…
The quintessential expression of omakase-style tuna is the fatty tuna (ootoro). This is unapologetically “would you like some meat with your fat”-level of unctuousness, and the result is as you’d expect, a literal melt-in-your-mouth experience. Due to the way its cut, I still had to chew a few times to get some more sinewy bits, but the predominant flavour and texture is simply “it’s melting”. That it’s aged 10 days is doing it every favour.
Looks like the fun isn’t about to stop with the ootoro. Good, because I wasn’t anywhere near done partying either.
Piece 11 is Tasmanian sea urchin (uni), served with a sweet barley miso. You already know how good the sea urchin was in the sashimi platter, so I won’t repeat my praise here. Let’s just say it deserves its mantle as one of the best pieces of the show.
Things always look promising when a blowtorch gets involved. But when it’s a scampi that’s getting the heat? Well, let’s just say that my mouth still has the ability to water notwithstanding everything we’ve had so far.
Sorry, nearly there – but hey, I had to wait for the masterpiece to be completed as well!
Piece 12 is – you guessed it – scampi w/mullet roe (karasumi). This type of roe tastes quite salted/cured, and quite dry, unlike the juicy pops of salmon roe. It works well with the scampi as it’s already creamy enough by itself, and even more so with blowtorched mayonnaise. The flavours are incredible, and probably my favourite piece of the night. A good scampi can easily rival even fatty tuna, and this is a case where that very much happened.
The head of the scampi isn’t wasted either – being used in a miso soup. It’s not for show, as the soup really takes on that earthy scampi flavour which sets this miso soup apart. That said, the flavour was perhaps a bit strong – I wouldn’t have minded just having a normal miso soup.
Piece 13 is Hana Ju-Rin’s signature, a bedazzling piece of soy-marinated salmon w/fried leek. This is a clever, clever dish that pretty much perfectly executes the flavour harmony of seared salmon, soy, and burnt leek. The scoring of the salmon gives it some textural weight that allows the soy to more fully permeate the salmon. That said, it’s just a little bit too strong, but I’d still take this over pretty much any other piece. My second favourite of the night!
Did you know that wasabi served at most low/mid-tier Japanese restaurants, even in Japan, isn’t real wasabi? It’s often horseradish instead, that’s been dyed to resemble wasabi. True wasabi plants are notoriously difficult to grow in most regions outside of Japan, and are thus quite expensive. The real stuff could easily cost high double-digits for one root. The fact that real wasabi loses its flavour in less than an hour of being grated doesn’t really help its case. The difference? A much more complex, vegetal flavour, and it doesn’t blow your nose off immediately unlike horseradish.
Hana Ju-Rin is one of those rare restaurants that uses real wasabi – imported from Japan. Its expression is taken to an apex with the last rice sushi:
This is wasabi maki. No fish, just rice and wasabi, with a stuffing of shiso. It takes balls to create sushi that showcases literally wasabi, but that is exactly what Matsuya-san has done.
I can appreciate this – it’s very fresh and fragrant, but I’m not the biggest fan of wasabi (even if it’s the real deal), and I still missed fish. While definitely an exploratory piece, you can opt for chu-toro maki instead if you feel that pure wasabi isn’t your game.
The 15th and final piece of the meal is a traditional tamagoyaki (egg sushi). Spongy and denser on the inside, fluffier and softer externally, this is a piece with complexity that belies its appearance. It’s not overly eggy, and is more sweet than savoury. Matsuya-san jokingly called it “Uncle Tetsu’s” when he served it to us, prompting a chortle from everyone seated at the counter. Given how it tastes, I can see why – it’s not all that dissimilar after all.
One of the better tamagoyaki I’ve had in Sydney.
15 pieces of sushi and four hours later, we were done. It’s not a short meal, but that’s the point. Hana Ju-Rin’s omakase is yet another great discovery that adds to Sydney’s Japanese scene, and one more reason to hop over the bridge. With that said, it’s not without its faults – the smell of the close-by teppanyaki is difficult to forgive, and sometimes the pieces just take a wee bit too long to come out. All in all though, for $88 (+$20), I can’t think of many better ways to spend $88 and a Friday night.
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Hana Ju-Rin
As usual, feel free to leave a comment or three 😀
- A great sushi experience for lovers of Japanese food
- Good value for money
- Convivial service – feel free to strike up a conversation with Matsuya-san!
- The white fish sushi can get a little bit samey after awhile
- Serving sushi next to an operational teppanyaki is one heck of an egregious design flaw
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| S4 | A1.5