I have a confession to make: I got uncomfortably comfortable during the pandemic. By how much exactly? Enough to begin thinking that I could get used to this homebody, takeaway-centric life. Enough to think maybe I can even start doing some basic cooking. Enough to not actually miss dining out. Holy f*cking sh*t! What is this, bizzaro earth?
When things get this bad an intervention is required, and for yours truly, nothing delivers quite the critical hit as waves upon waves of expertly-prepared raw fish on mini-pillows of vinegary, pronounced sushi rice. And if you’re thinking that this is a rather laboured way to segue into introducing Kuon – Sydney’s latest sushi omakase restaurant – you’d be right. I blame the pandemic. We’re all doing that, right?
This post is based on two independently-paid visits to Kuon Omakase, and presents initial thoughts on a first visit. I will revisit it once I make a second visit.
Date Last Visited: 13/Sep/2020
Address: Darling Square – Shop 20/2-58 Little Hay St, Sydney NSW 2000
Price Guide (approx): $180pp before options ($190 starting 2021), before drinks
Any time I pontificate on the state of sushi omakase at Sydney, I have to drop the simple and harsh truth that there is Simply. Not. Enough.
And with Toshihiko Oe-san of Masuya having ended his superb offering back in March the is year, Sydney’s harrowing desert landscape just lost another sushi omakase oasis. Scratch that – HE’S BACK!
Dramatic, I know. But come on, you know how much I love Japanese food. You know how much I love sushi. So you must know just how excited I was for Kuon’s opening. Technically, this isn’t so much a ‘new’ restaurant as it is a relocation of sorts, given Kuon’s Executive Chef Hideaki Fukada used to man the omakase counter at Jizakana in Cammeray and has also sliced fish at the famed Lower North Shore institution Toriciya. But given his relocation to the much more accessible Darling Square (I’m not jealous of y’all living in the north *sniffs*), with a purpose-built fit-out that could have been taken straight from Tokyo’s Ginza, I’d say this is no mere relocation, it’s an upgrade in every sense.
I mean that last part – and that includes the price. Jizakana was priced at a forgettable (and reasonable) one-hundred-and-something-something dollars, which is a standard for omakase in Sydney (I mean, not like there’ are lot of data points here…). However, Kuon’s omakase pulls no punches: at $180 for the standard menu before options, it is unequivocally the most expensive sushi omakase experience money can buy in Sydney. In fact, Kuon is priced within striking distance of Minamishima’s $185pp menu, but the latter is a restaurant that has earned its pricetag (and three chef’s hats) through years of effort, recognition, and an award-winning interior (and in my opinion, atmosphere) that most other restaurants would kill to have.
But back to Kuon. Is it a bit rich for Fukada-san to ask for $180? Gee whiz, you’re asking for another blog post here. In Japan, such a price point is the domain of merely mid-tier sushi omakase, with the high-end goods starting well north of $300AUD (then there’s that one time I paid $770AUD for sushi but we won’t go there). The exchange rate sucks, sure, but nobody appreciates seafood like the Japanese do, and they put their money where their mouth is. But I get it, this is Australia, not Japan, so that’s as moot a comparison as grousing on why a bowl of pho costs 10x as much here as it does in Vietnam.
In the end value is like beauty – in the eye of the beholder; subjective, and relative. First there’s Kuon’s dining environment and level of service. With only 9 seats and 3 waitstaff, a very high 3:1 ratio ensured that it was flawless and attentive throughout the meal. My cups & glasses were never empty, and wares were promptly cleared. Then there’s Fukada-san and Head Chef Jun Miyauchi’s use of high-quality ingredients like sea urchin (multiple times), osetra caviar, and more generally showcasing a wide array of ingredients and cooking techniques that go quite a bit beyond just ‘pieces of sushi’. Sprinkle in a little bit of that eXclusivity factor and of course, a huge supply-and-demand imbalance for omakase and you have a price tag that arguably resolves on both sides of the value equation.
It’s by no means cheap. It could even be called expensive. But it is not ‘overpriced’. Now with that said, if your wallet feels a little bit heavy, you can always load up on Kuon’s supplements, such as 5g of truffle shaved on top of the snow crab chawanmushi or tempura of sea urchin wrapped in shiso leaf. Now while I’m typically a ‘give me all the options’ kind of guy, rest assured that this isn’t one of those restaurants where the diner needs to tick all the optional checkboxes for the ‘full’ experience: the standard menu with its standard $180 tariff will do just fine. This ain’t Per Se.
So about that ‘standard menu’. Sushi omakase is perhaps a misnomer – it is, but also isn’t. With about half the menu devoted to courses assuredly not stuff-on-rice, it is perhaps more accurate to say that a meal here is actually just a kind of free-form omakase. In other words, there’s a sushi sub-component, but it’s far from the whole story.
In fact, the sushi may not even be the main act, but rather the support. For example, when you start off the meal with superlative bites such as the monaka topped with chopped tuna belly, long-spined sea urchin from Tasmania and Uruguayan caviar, the bar is instantly set very high, and not every subsequent dish can be expected to – nor does – clear it. Having said that, with the benefit of three months at it between my June & September visits, the improvements have been pretty clear almost universally across the board.
The monaka was followed up by an oyster, cooked in the Spanish ajillo style – i.e. in olive oil – and appropriately paired with eringi (king oyster mushroom), which made for one of the more interesting dishes of the night. This is the stuff of curiosity and novelty – when was the last time you had a cooked oyster? If a creamy, rich oyster mousse (and I seriously mean creamy – the oil made a tangible difference) sounds like your thing, you’re on. However, if you didn’t like oysters raw, you are certainly not going to like them cooked.
For three more reasons why I can’t designate Kuon as a sushi omakase restaurant, look no further than asparagus, NSW black tiger prawn and Tasmanian sea urchin & shiso leaf tempura. The first was, sadly, not the best specimen, with a hard wiry texture that flash-frying couldn’t save. The second was probably the best single piece of tempura I’ve had in Sydney – the prawn’s luscious juiciness, springy bite all perfectly extruded with its light & crispy batter. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that Kuon uses a cold-pressed sesame oil (TIL) that fetches something like $20 a litre. The third piece, a +$20 supplement was, to my urchin-addled mind, completely worth the money. But I’m biased – not only to sea urchin, but also to this style of tempura which is very wa – Japanese-esque. Right now, anything that takes me back to Japan whilst being unable to go back to Japan is an instant three-pointer.
Fukada-san should open his own tempura omakase restaurant. Seriously.
I wished a somewhat softer-than-expected tai kobujime (snapper cured in konbu seaweed) was firmer in texture so as to be able to discern the natural texture of the fish, and a blacklip abalone served with a sauce of its own liver and creamed sea urchin was textbook reference goodness, though perhaps lacking a bit of pizzaz to bring the diner out of the liver-induced funk.
Before the sushi begins proper, Fukada-san showcases his knife skills in preparing all of the sushi neta (toppings) in front of us, which is an immensely respectable move, as this is what’s typically done in Japan a la ‘live prep’ and not seen at any other sushi-ya I’ve visited in Sydney. Seems like a small point, but when you’re sitting one meter away from your chef with only a plank of wood in between, theatre is de rigueur. While we waited for him to slice up our feed, Miyauchi-san grated fresh Canberran truffle onto freshly-steamed snow crab chawanmushi. Yeah alright, I guess this’ll substitute for popcorn while watching the show.
The next course prior to the sushi is seldom-seen ankimo nitsuke, which is monkfish liver cooked in soy. This is almost definitely imported from Japan – monkfish livers are a rather ‘out there’ delicacy with respect to the Australian palate. Kudos to Fukada-san for getting it in the shop.
Unlike livers of land animals, I find fish livers to be far less metallic, with a more pleasant mouthfeel (almost like a very fine, powdery chocolate) and that oh-so-mysterious ‘taste of the sea’. Delightful – one of the top 5 of the night.
The neta will change frequently depending on the catch of the day, so detail here is the enemy of your attention span: my favourite pieces were the kusakari tsubodai (pelagic armourhead), kinmedai (imperador) due to their relatively buttery texture and discernible sweetness and to a slightly lesser extent, the scampi w/karasumi. The selection was assuredly fish-heavy, and lighter fish to boot. As there was no strong pieces such as mackerel, nor bivalves such as geoduck or other ‘interesting’ pieces, I’d say Fukada-san is either playing it safe, or there’s something stopping him from sourcing better produce. The ootoro from Japan aside, the other two tuna-based pieces fell a bit flat – something that I suspect has to do with inherent quality – small specimens from Australian waters is a far cry from the heights tuna can reach.
The ten (but actually, twelve because maybe Fukada-san was feeling generous that day?) pieces of sushi wrapped up with Kuon’s signature toro-ikura-uni hand roll which was pretty much a smackdown of goodness (side note: that crispy nori!!!!!). A sweet-savoury tamagoyaki – the traditional symbol of The Last Sushi – rounded out the lot.
A word on the shari (sushi rice) – we could smell it as we walked in the door. Kuon’s is particularly reliant on the use of akazu (red vinegar) from Tajima Province in Japan, which is made from sake lees that have been aged for at least three years, elucidating a more mellow, rounded flavour in the mouth – notwithstanding the initial sharp hit to the nostrils. Salt is used sparingly, which I presume is to highlight the neta, but given Fukada-san’s reserved use of low-salt nikiri (the secretive soy blend sushi chefs make to brush onto sushi), the pieces don’t sing with too much zing. If you’re a fan of a more muted, subtle style of sushi then come on, book Kuon.
A respectably traditional dessert of azuki mizu-yokan (red bean agar jelly) concluded the meal, and then it was off to digest – both the food and my thoughts.
Well, I’ll be going back (and I now have!). When considering all the factors that lead to a restaurant experience, there are few better sushi restaurants in Sydney to find yourself in right now. The atmosphere (greatly helped along by Fukada-san’s affable temperament) and ability to see everything he and Miyauchi-san do is unparalleled. The starter courses were either unique or luxurious – am a fan of both – and the seafood tempura were stunners. The sushi was acceptably good while perhaps a bit on the safe side, and it’d be disingenuous for me to say it was ‘mindblowing’. Some work is still required on being able to draw out the best flavours of each piece. Is it tweaking the shari to add more salt? Is it to jazz up the nikiri so it’s more pronounced? I don’t have the answer to the question because I’m just a wank that likes to eat a lot of sushi, so all I know is what I like to see for my palate. You do you. Haivng said this, the improvement for my September visit vs June was palpably clear, so those above sentences, while still technically true, now have significantly less wait. Clearly, the rest of Sydney agrees: in May, Kuon had already booked out till January 2021, joining that rarefied echelon of restaurants that can command a 6+ month booking calendar all the while leaving you with little change from two avocadoes.
But if you’ve taken away anything from this absolute monster of a post, the fact that I liked it enough to have already revisited (and with another booking, no less) should be the ultimate money-in-the-mouth statement. Welcome to Darling Square’s latest darling. Be prepared to see me here on the regular. Or at least, as regular as I can with half of Sydney’s foodies jostling for its 9 seats.
You know what? Stuff takeaway. Stuff my sh*tty cooking at home (okay, maybe I’ll do a little more). Restaurants are back!!!!!!!!!
Would I return: 3rd
2nd booking confirmed.
For video highlights of the night and future visits to see how the menu and my impressions change with each visit, please check out my Instagram highlights reel (updated with the 13/Sep/2020 visit), and apologise for the occasional obnoxious commentary!
This post is based on two independently-paid visits to Kuon Omakase
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.