In penning this piece on Harada – Sydney’s newest omakase outfit – I had to think deep about the reasons why I do what I do here, on this blog.
Writing criticism is, often, hugely positive. It’s a chance to show off a great find, something that raises the bar, or even shifts the paradigm. It’s heartwarming stuff and doesn’t discriminate across cuisines or restaurant concepts – who doesn’t want to rave about that hot new ramen joint or that wickedly-inventive but pretence-free gastro-temple? Time is a finite resource after all, and so of all the restaurants I eat at, I’ll review maybe less than one in ten (different story on Instagram, where most get at least some light-touch treatment). Sydney’s dining scene, notwithstanding its many changes over the last few years, is still something to be reckoned with.
On this blog, the vast majority of posts are positive (note: anything receiving >7/10 is considered ‘quite good’). When I consider scoring a venue less, every possible consideration is examined with double the effort. It’s not that I’m arrogant enough to think I have the power to move the needle on a small business’s fortunes – you’d laugh once you see my readership numbers – but that even inconsequential critique deserves the due diligence owed by its critic. With that, let’s talk about Harada’s omakase.
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Harada
Eponymously named after its owner-chef Yoshinobu Harada, the diminutive restaurant is discreetly located on the ground floor of an apartment block in an area that’s full of them. There’s no other nearby retail, the nearest major shopping precinct is Broadway, a ten-minute walk. As if to complete its covertness, there’s nothing that signals Harada’s existence, other than the name written in an unassuming font size on the darkened glass. You definitely have to know where you’re going.
Harada-san’s choice of location is interesting, to say the least. But being one of a still-all-too-rare breed of restaurant – one that serves omakase – means there’s no issue filling up the eight seats at the counter. BYO – for now – certainly helps.
So the restaurant’s kind of mysterious, dark, and discreet. Harada-san himself is less mysterious, though it takes some effort – the restaurant’s website is as instructive as it is cryptic:
Originally from Japan[,] Chef Yoshinobu Harada is a chef with a remarkable background, who had gained experience and inspiration in one of the best master chefs: Mr. Miura Hiroshi
A quick Google revealed this master-san to be the chef of long-closed Rosan, a Japanese restaurant in Sydney that was ostensibly legendary during its heyday. Alas, it was before my time and I suspect most readers of this blog, but its pedigree was such that it’s worth the name-drop. That says something. The rest of the site isn’t all that useful beyond perfunctory statements and a whole list of rules that assumes its someone’s first time visiting a restaurant (one example is – I kid you not – ‘Persons found fighting in and around the venue will be barred from the venue’. Right).
All that aside, we know that Harada-san’s the one behind now-closed Kagura – an izakaya in Surry Hills. Having been to Kagura, it’s difficult to see Harada as its spiritual successor (though it still aims to be an izakaya outside of omakase hours, however that pans out), though perhaps that’s not a bad thing -I wasn’t blown away with my Kagura visit. A bit of foreshadowing.
$100 is a lot of money in the context of a meal, but for sushi omakase, it’s neither here nor there. Sydney is still relatively cheap by international standards, so we should be glad for as long as it lasts (even Sokyo doesn’t charge more than $165 for Sano’s god-tier offering). As you’ll see with all the food Harada-san serves, this is banging good value, approaching that of Sashimi Shinsengumi.
So, how’s the omakase? In short, confounding. A recent visit to another restaurant – Ichibandori – proves analogous: both are Japanese izakaya, both serve an omakase menu that go beyond the izakaya’s regular a la carte, both allow BYO, and both are small-scale operations with just one chef on the pass.
Within the omakase, both Ichibandori and Harada incorporate multiple appetiser-style (otsumami) courses over the sushi itself. As a result, there is a plenitude of abundance, which showcases skills far beyond that of sushi making. Both feature unconventional touches such as wagyu, and even ramen – ramen! – as one of the closing courses. Guess Ichibandori’s party trick is no longer unique to it. Anyway, you get the idea: Harada-san has no shortage of them, and for that I’m thankful and appreciative.
But here’s where the path takes a turn, dear reader. There are cracks in Harada’s foundation.
The first course consisted of several bites – a visually attractive zensai-style (assortment) platter of lean tuna, sea urchin, octopus marinated in red cabbage juice, blue swimmer crab & tobiko, sweet shrimp, cuttlefish, a Sydney rock oyster and salmon roe marinated in sweet soy.
My reactions were as mixed as the variety there was on the plate. The crab and tobiko was dry and grainy, with an off-tasting funk. The ikura’s sweetness and juicy, poppy mouthfeel was welcome, but with a similar level of unwelcome pungency. At this rate, it was hard not to suspect something was amiss on the platter’s preparation. The cuttlefish and octopus were passable, that is to say average. Good bites were the tuna (safe and sound), sweet shrimp (lived up to the name – haven’t had a bad one yet!), and oyster with its satisfying oceanic sweetness.
So it was a rocky start, and then there’s the sushi itself. The nigiri were large – too large. Technically, they do fit in one bite, albeit a sizable one, with an uneven skew towards the shari (sushi rice), not the neta (sushi topping). Then there’s the shari itself – it was too hard, rice grains too well-defined, as if not enough water was used in its cooking. I did enjoy Harada-san’s neta, which were technically well-executed (the tuna belly, John Dory and marinated mackerel were particular favourites, ones I’d be happy to reorder). However, as the shari is crucially important (sushi chefs cite a 70:30 ratio of shari:neta importance in a piece of nigiri sushi), and so while the sushi was passable, it was mediocre.
Moving along: a truly beautiful broth made from the natural salinity of the umami-rich storm clam. This was a highlight of the night, one that could easily feature on the menus of any of Sydney’s omakase greats. The one letdown: a highly metallic and unpleasant liver. Jarring. A wagyu dish, served with egg white foam and egg yolk, was a clever and delicious riff on steak and eggs. At least, the wagyu was – the egg foam was too ‘eggy’, which is an adjective I can’t believe I’m still using after 7 years of blogging, but is absolutely appropriate in this instance. Nobody I observed finished it – it was far too much.
If the storm clam broth was a highlight, the prawn ramen w/lime foam was the highlight. I’m confident in putting this on an unequivocal par with Ichibandori’s ramen: the noodles had perfect bite, the broth an incredible depth of shellfish umami, and the lime foam added a fleeting acidity, elevating the dish as a whole.
Dessert was fig compote w/matcha powder & yoghurt cream. It was ‘not bad’, but a case of take it or leave it.
Harada-san clearly has the innovative spark, and the drive to manifest his ideas. Service, as far as this writer is concerned, was fully on point – Harada-san takes pains to explain the dishes and is happy to take additional questions from the floor. That he’s churned through at previous izakayas says something about running this kind of restaurant: it’s hard, damn hard. But the grit is there – and dishes such as the ramen showcase great proficiency in certain specific skills (he’s definitely one of the best broth-masters in Sydney). If he hasn’t blacklisted me from his venue, I’d be super keen to return for a full-sized bowl of the stuff.
Ultimately, all these concessions can’t hide, nor excuse, the holistic outcome. The meal, overall, was second-rate. Harada-san may be innovative, but something is lost in the transition from idea to execution. Many courses lacked a je n’ais ce quoi, many didn’t agree with my palate. Harada-san took many risks, many materialised.
Having next to zero skill at cooking – let alone drumming up an omakase – leave my conclusions on a weak footing. Whether that means you take the review with a grain of salt or not is up to you – I would encourage you to visit if you were already pre-disposed to do so; however, if you were on the fence, then you have hopefully just become a little better informed.
I may have made some friends with those in the hospitality industry over the years, but the answer to the question at the beginning of this post comes to the fore: I do not write for chefs/restauranteurs. I write for prospective diners. When Joe Bloggs saves up a hundred dollars from hours of hard work for a special occasion, you’d better believe that they want that money to go as far as it can. To tell anything but the truth – as I observed it – is sacrosanct.
It’s nigh impossible to separate the chef and their product. The barbs are there, no matter how reasoned the review. The restaurant will always have its loyalists – the ones that enjoy the experience far more than myself. All power to them, this piece is obviously not for you.
With all that’s said and done, creativity is bloody hard. Harada’s magnum opus remains out of sight.
Date Last Visited: 17/Jan/2020
Address: 18a Wentworth St, Glebe NSW 2037
Price Guide (approx): omakase $100, BYO available
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Harada
- Genre-breaking creativity in an omakase format
- Broth-based courses are some of Sydney’s best
- Execution issues, flavour clashes, and general preparation faults are in abundance.
- BYO (for now) is a great touch for those fancying a tipple.
Would I return: no
F5 | S4.5 | A2
See how I score here
This post contains affiliate links. Purchases made by clicking on an affiliate link may earn a small commission for me, but never at extra cost for you. Please visit the Affiliate Marketing Policy for more information.