We walk past the hundred or so other diners seated at Masuya’s tables, most indulging in Japanese-style hot pots, sashimi boats, and udon. It all smells great, but there’s none of that at our counter seats – visible yet discreet in its own little corner. The setup is functional, albeit somewhat lacking – an uninspired white ceramic surface, with our view of everything below chest height blocked by temperature-controlled chillers in which raw seafood rests, and the general prattling coming from the noisy dining room. Well, it’s a proper restaurant, after all.
Toshihiko Oe hands over the menu for the night, handwritten in Japanese kanji on washi parchment paper. Then he gets to work, serving plate after plate, piece after piece onto earthenware that he forged himself – giving us undivided attention, producing edible beauty for the next three hours. The rest of the restaurant fades away into the realm of inattention.
Who comes to a restaurant for the benchtops, anyway?
Date Last Visited: 20/Jul/2018 (6 visits)
Address: Basement Level, 12-14 O’Connell Street, CBD, Sydney, NSW
Price Guide (approx): $120-$160 dependent on omakase type
Masuya? Isn’t that the place that just does ‘normal’ Japanese food?
I get this a lot. Of course, if you follow me on Instagram, you already know better.
Masuya hasn’t shown up in major food publications for a very, very long time. When was the last time you’ve seen it mentioned in Good Food, Broadsheet or Gourmet Traveller? I checked: not in this decade. But when it’s steadfastly slung out sashimi platters, nabe hotpots and sake for 20 years – an eon in restaurant time – it’s reasonable to conclude that frankly, Masuya doesn’t give a damn.
However, Masuya’s enduring nature – rare in this age of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it restaurant turnover – has meant that general manager Hisataka Ishihara has managed to keep one of its best-kept secrets, well, secret.
The secret’s name: Toshihiko Oe. Perennially attending to the counter, 99% of diners at Masuya will never even notice him. Yeah, this is the real 1% you want to be a part of. As with most shokunin*, Masuya’s sushi itamae** has been catching, slicing, marinating & serving seafood since before I was born and became the greatest nuisance to my parents that they ever knew (sorry guys). Needless to say, having already visited six times (with the next booking lined up – as always), you don’t need me to tell you that I think he’s ‘pretty good’ – to undersell it somewhat.
*loosely translates into ‘artisan’, generally describing people who devote their entire life to the pursuit of perfecting one craft
**lit. ‘behind the cutting board’ denoting a high-level chef, generally of Japanese cuisine
Omakase at Masuya is flexible, thanks to Toshi’s skill set providing for a range of possible experiences. My first visit was Kappo*-style, similar to kaiseki, while my latest visit was a pure-blown symphony of hedonism encapsulated in 30 pieces of nigiri. Prices range appropriately – but I’ve never paid more than $160 (food only). Does this sound expensive? It certainly shouldn’t be: this is effectively fine dining territory, and matches the other (painfully few) omakase experiences in Sydney**
*a loosely-structured Japanese meal that resembles Kaiseki, with less of the rigidity. Heavily influenced by the produce at hand.
**Except Sashimi Shinsengumi – but that’s a large part of the reason why it’s insanely popular
Needless to say, an omakase – at Masuya or any other good place – connects you with everything that is of and comes from the ocean. At this level, fresh catches of the day (notwithstanding aged ingredients) are the standard. You can expect quality catches: Toshi has served us bluefin tuna from 100kg+ specimens (and once even a tuna nigiri flight of 6 pieces – all from different fish/cuts of fish), top-quality murasaki uni (purple sea urchin) from Tasmania & Japan, giant octopus off the coast of Hokkaido and melt-in-your-mouth imperador with skin so alluring, I’m certain I’ll never have to resort to drugs.
Toshi’s shari (sushi rice) is often a blend of akazu (red vinegar) and shirozu (white rice vinegar), with a heavier concentration of the former for rice that is destined to be topped with red/stronger seafood. It’s really good, with perhaps only Sokyo and Hana Ju-Rin of comparable/better quality. It can sometimes be slightly mushier than I would have liked, but that’s about where my criticism starts, and ends.
Of course, this is just the highlight reel. In the interests of your attention span, let’s get to the pictures:
Masuya Visit #3 – a kappo meal – Jan 2018
Masuya Visit #4 – seafood showcase – March 2018
Masuya Visit #5 – because why not – June 2018
Masuya Visit #6 – the ‘Hedonism Course’ – July 2018
Yeah. I asked for this, so I had it coming.
I have a confession: the delay in getting this blog post out was not out of sloth, but of greed. I’ve seen what can happen when a place gets too popular. Take Sokyo, once you could reserve a spot in front of Sano within a fortnight. Now? Try 8 months in advance for Friday nights. Masuya? When I first started going, the next month was a done deal, every time. Now, even Toshi’s counter is booking out up to 3 months in advance. I can’t say I’m mad: the true crime would be not to share the love. He deserves it.
There’s probably another burning question you’re having: given I haven’t gone into painful detail, how does the Toshi’s omakase at Masuya compare to Sydney’s other nigiri kingpins? I don’t like to play favourites, but it would also be a lie to say I don’t have one: Sano’s magic at Sokyo continues to be where others shall aspire. But the world of food isn’t a zero sum game: Toshi, along with everyone else, are right behind. To me, Toshi’s ability to be flexible but still keep a minimum – and high – standard of quality that keeps me coming back. It’s very easy to get used to a place and stop visiting because it’ll be ‘more of the same’. You’ll never get that at Toshi’s counter.
Funny, when the rest of Masuya is anything but.
This post is based on six independently-paid visits to Masuya – specifically for sushi omakase. Make sure to specifically ask for omakase when booking; call to book.
- Some of the best tuna sushi and grilled fish courses of any omakase in Sydney
- No matter the season, you will not have a bad meal at Toshi’s counter
- No level of sorcery can get me to enjoy periwinkle :’)
- Getting a booking!
Would I return: lol.
F8 | S5 | A2.5