When the extensive renovations at Sydney Overseas Passenger Terminal necessitated the closure of Japanese stalwart Ocean Room, I was aghast, and immediately made a reservation for a final dinner. While that occasion didn’t capture the same magic as my original visit, I could confidently say that Sydney lost bounty of the sea.
At least, for a few months, because if head chef Raita Noda has proven, it’s that you can always simply pack up and set up shop elsewhere. You can never contain an ocean spirit.
It took some time, but Raita-san has reopened in a way that is almost completely different to the splendiferous scale of Ocean Room. Eight seats only, no waitstaff, no a la carte – a pure omakase experience. Welcome to Raita Noda’s Chefs Kitchen.
Date Last Visited: 17/4/15
Address: 1/ 222 Riley St Surry Hills, NSW 2010
Favourite Dish(es): soft shell crab tacos, dobin mushi, invisible tomato salad, wagyu rump steak
It’s a small place, you can walk right past it. Luckily, despite its size, the “222” in font five hundred is a beacon. A trio of duos, is what it is.
For those that haven’t had the pleasure – omakase literally means ‘I’ll leave it to you’ – i.e. a ‘set’ menu/degustation of sorts, based on what produce is best for the day. This is all decided by the chef, dietary requirements notwithstanding. After a luscious first-time experience at Sokyo, I knew just how good these can get. While Sokyo’s costs $150, Raita Noda’s comes in at $120. It’s cheaper for sure, but they’re different experiences, even while at the same time being similar in concept.
This is destination/occasion dining, not a Maccas run. Allow appropriate time – the meal is ten courses, spread out over nearly four hours. Make yourselves comfortable – fortunately those soft leather seats most certainly are.
Also on the cards are excellent companionship, some of the biggest foodies in town: Isaac from iFat | Natalie from nutellasum | Crystal from cc_delectablydegusting | Chris from mabvsfood. With my food warriors in tow, we were set.
I’m no drinker, nor am I an expert in sake, but when I had a taste of Crystal’s plum sake, I knew I had to get a glass for myself. I very much savoured the acidic sweetness of plum in the sake, and was thankful the alcoholic taste wasn’t too strong. It was over all too quickly, to be honest. I’d get it again, but my wallet and stomach always have disagreements.
The plus side? It primed my belly for the food to follow!
Unfortunately, to get food onto the plate, it needs to be cooked first.
I’m full of insights like these, I consider it a public service.
Ahem though really, a part of the thrill of omakase is that you get to watch the chefs prepare your food right in front of you, from almost scratch. What, four hours just talking to your dining companions? Please, I’ve got a show to enjoy here!
Raita Noda only has two staff members, and they’re both chefs. The man himself, and his son Momotaro Noda. This guy looks to be in his early 20s and yet is already working like a pro. Sometimes I’ve just gotta hand it over – father & son team? That’s legitimately cool!
With the omakase experience also means there are spoilers for every dish. Some might prefer the surprise factor, but I’d say it’s well worth it just to watch the oiled machine that is Raita Noda & Son work it. You can probably tell we’re about to get oysters 😛
It’s when you actually observe chefs work that you realise just how much painstaking preparation each course takes. We waited quite awhile for each. A test of patience, for sure, but this discerning preparation is required for the discerning diner. If you can’t bear to watch each course take twenty minutes, you had better look elsewhere. Meanwhile, for the rest of us…
…we are finally plated the first course of Sydney rock oysters w/shiso sorbet & vinegar pearls. Despite all the oysters I’ve had over the years, I consistently encounter preparation methods that are new to me. Shiso is a kind of herb-like leaf. To see it as a green-yellow sorbet is quite the shocker! I’m a big fan of the cinnamon-like fragrance of shiso, and paired with vinegar, should prove an excellent match for the oysters.
Mmm, these were very nice oysters. A standout course of the meal actually, right from the get go. Flavours were what I expected, but I was also pleased at how the sorbet had a bit of a grittiness to it. I don’t think some of my dining companions were fans, but this slight textural oddity worked for me, and before I knew it I was happily slurping up every last drop from the second oyster.
Whoa, had I already eaten the first?
Isaac, who’s not a fan of oysters (your secret’s been exposed, homie) requested an alternative course, which in Raita-san’s discretion turned out to be two chunks of aburi salmon. A safe choice! I have no further comment, as I did not try it myself. You can however, see that Raita uses fish tweezers to make sure all spines, big and small are moved from the fish. That is detail.
I never thought I would say this, but the soft shell crab taco was a clear favourite of the night. Yes, there’s plenty of sashimi and sushi to follow, but while I’ve had plenty of good sashimi/sushi, this was the first time I’ve had such a taco this delicious.
I described the soft shell crab in my notes (taken on the night) as “#sojuicy”. I could not believe how juicy it was. Surprisingly it’s not tough at all despite the deep-fried nature of the crab. I’m not quite sure how it was done, but there you go – a remarkable soft shell crab.
And I thought those were overdone *rolls eyes*
As for the rest of the taco, the shell is of the hard variety, but unlike some others I’ve had, this one manages to remain reasonably crunchy. You don’t need to have Superman’s teeth to dig into this. At the bottom of the taco is a bed of boiled bean sprouts. It seems like an odd addition, but a welcome one. I like bean sprouts though, so there’s an obvious bias here. I do feel they add a bit of a ‘wet crunch’ to the dish, helping out to balance out the hardness of the taco shell.
Well done Raita Noda!
When the suction cups come out, you know it’s octopus time!
At this point, I feel obliged to mention a few notes on service. Dishes are usually explained by Momotaro, occasionally by Raita himself. Descriptions are usually on point: sometimes more detail, sometimes less. I find that they exhibit a similar air to the rarefied and sometimes distanced itamae I read much about in Japan. They will make conversation if you talk to them, as evidenced by a couple besides us doing so. We felt more at ease simply watching them. Either way, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation – they will not otherwise initiate.
One aspect that was unfortunately a bit lacking was the infrequency of water pours. We had to ask for our water to be poured each time – it almost never happened automatically, despite many a minute of empty glasses. I do however understand that Raita & Momotaro are working hard pretty much every second of our four hour performance – something I could clearly see with my own eyes, so I will forgive this. It’s not even too big of a deal personally, but I do understand there are those that care for this level of service. So there’s my full disclosure.
If you want water, do actually speak up for it!
In getting back to the show, we see that Raita has skillfully cut up thirty pieces of octopus, six pieces a plate. It’s looking like it’s going to be a carpaccio from the looks of it. The anticipation builds as to what the final product would look like.
It definitely looks like a carpaccio, but with a sizzling twist – Raita manually drizzles hot olive oil onto each plate. The resulting smell is even more heavenly than the popping sound the oil elicits as it half-cooks the tenderous chunks of octopi.
Like the soft shell crab taco, the octopus carpaccio is another crowd favourite of the night. I like octopus, but when I usually eat it, the tough, rubbery nature of the meat means that I’m usually not tasting very much at all. Sure, you can drench it in soy all you want, but it doesn’t excuse the texture. Besides, when texture is bad, flavours shine through with greater difficulty, or sometimes incorrectly.
Raita Noda’s octopus carpaccio has none of these issues. Yes, there’s still the distinctive toughness of octopus, but that’s what makes it octopus in the first place. It is otherwise quite tender (relatively speaking), and for the first time I’ve had octopus in Sydney, a hint of natural sweetness that’s part of the natural flavours of the octopus.
Then the spiciness of the ginger kicked in and all was dandy as I polished off piece…by piece…by piece. It felt like they got chewier with each bite! Flavours also developed the more I chewed. Soy sauce ‘flakes’ brought in an added zing that never goes out of style in Japanese cuisine.
This was one of the high points of the meal.
When I saw the Nodas preparing these little ice lanterns, I knew the spirit of Ocean Room is yet to perish. On one of my visits to the former restaurant, a dish similar to this was plated. It took the same form – a funnel-shaped bowl with the food itself resting on a bowl of ice. The addition of an artificial candle to light up the bottom is however a new addition, and I like it!
While this is quite the exquisite plating, the devil is in the details, and the details involve crab & scallop salad w/invisible tomato. So crab and scallop are explanatory, what’s invisible tomato?
Raita Noda’s done this one before – he makes a granita out of tomato, but manages to drain much of the red colour out of it, so it’s mostly clear. Yet, the taste buds are challenged because the taste is distinctly tomato. There’s also liquified black olive and a Sicilician olive ‘gels’ to add an extra, olive dimension to the dish’s flavour palate.
Before you gag, let me just say that this flavour combination works, as it’s not meant to be a dessert granita. It’s a condiment that supplements the shaved crab, as well as the whole, torched scallop. That was delicious, by the way – an extremely fatty scallop, the fattiest in recent memory. Count the memories, not the calories, right Crystal?
I also learned what sea grapes are for the first time – that’s the string of green on top of the dish. They don’t really taste like grapes, and are small enough such that they have a little ‘pop’ every time you bite into one of the miniature baubles. There’s even a bit of very slight spiciness to it.
I realise that a cold seafood salad that’s powered by just the seafood’s natural sweetness and tomato shaved ice may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d take this over a caesar salad any day. How’s that for caesars out of ten?
Speaking of tea, next up………a cup of tea with a lime wedge!
Oh I’m sorry, what I really meant to say was that we have a dish called dobin mushi. This is a bonito & kombu broth, served hot with enoki mushrooms, taro potato stems, a Crystal Bay prawn and a few pieces of bar cod.
The reversed teapot lid serves as the drinking cup, and after squeezing the lemon into the pot for taste, we’re ready to go.
It’s deceptively simple, but wholeheartedly delicious. It’s simply about umami here. The kombu provides plenty of it, while the bonito also adds its own fishy umami which doesn’t overpower, and works quite well with the seafood inside. The bar code tasted just like an ordinary piece of fish to me, while the Crystal Bay prawn was much, much juicier and thus, tastier.
I find it interesting that mushrooms also have a huge predisposition to soaking up umami flavours. I had no problems mopping them up – how’s that guys? I can totally eat mushrooms without issue now!
Please don’t dare me to eat a whole heap of mushroom 🙁
At this point, no matter how good the previous dishes were, you have to wonder – where are the classics? The sashimi? The sushi? Wait no more – and thank god because it’s been two hours already – the sashimi is coming! Above we see the filleting of a yellowtail fish. Things are getting serious in the kitchen.
Even at Sokyo, I wasn’t able to see too closely how sashimi was prepared, as we didn’t get central seating, not to mention a counter was in the way. At Raita Noda, we get the whole show – who’d have known you’d have to painstakingly use tweezers to remove every last bit of bone? I guess it’s obvious when you think about it, though one still must admire the effort.
With the yellowtail prepared (back row – bar cod in front row), it’s time to cut up the akami (lean tuna). We all got giddy when we saw the red fish come out – it’s a sign that truly great things are coming.
So close, yet so far…
Since I had time, I shot some videos on my phone which show Raita in action. Here, he’s blowtorching a slab of salmon. Yep, we’re getting a few pieces of our pink friend too!
All this preparation took quite some time, but our thinning patience demanded to be subdued when we saw the plating happen. It’s one thing to receive a fully plated dish, it’s another to see it happen step by step. At times, I wish I had a tripod-mounted GoPro so I could show a timelapse of it all.
Oh, where did the salmon go? What’s underneath that dome? Hmmm……
Raita actually smokes the salmon by injecting smoke into the glass dome, then cups the salmon before serving each plate in front of us. This is a technique he has used at Ocean Room before, but on beef dishes. It would make sense that it works on fish as well. On the outside, we have bluefin tuna, yellowtail & bar cod sashimi, in case you uhh, didn’t notice that from before 😛
The sashimi set, I’m afraid to say, is a bit of a mixed platter. The salmon was probably good enough by itself – I didn’t feel the smoking improved the flavour very much, though I will say that it definitely does add something. Smoke, I guess. I’m usually a fan of smoked meats, but I don’t think the smoke ever truly infused into the fish, despite leaving it for several minutes. The salmon itself is quite nice – very, very tender and buttery like salmon should be.
The yellowtail sashimi was my least favourite. I will actually go so far to say that it was a little repulsive. Yes, it hurts to say this about Raita’s handiwork, but each of the three pieces of yellowtail were extraordinarily fishy, to the point where I was half ready to gag. It was not easy to deal with, but I did manage to wash it down with water that I thankfully remembered to ask for. Yellowtail has never tasted so…against my palate. Some of our dining companions agreed.
The bluefin was very smooth and consistent in texture throughout. It was also oddly soft in a way that reminded me of a chewier than normal gummy bear. I don’t think tuna sashimi is meant to taste like this, but I didn’t think too much it – it went down with soy sauce as easily as most I’ve had. However, I would not describe it as particularly good.
The bar cod was my favourite piece – there’s a very sinewy, chewy texture to it that made it quite fun to eat. You could describe it as tough but I would say this is for the better. I definitely rate this particular piece of fish, even as the others were mildly disappointing at best.
At this stage in our meal, we were wondering what would come next – sushi? A savoury main? A meat dish? How about none of the above?
How about some agedashi tomato instead?
First, it was the agedashi-ish tofu from Work In Progress, now we’re talking tomatoes? When will the madness end?
After I finish this tomato, that’s when. The dish has a gelatinous texture which while not wholly crispy, does have that addictive ‘thick corn starch’ feel. It’s not everyone’s thing, but I kind of grew up used to eating similar textures, so this dish is calling on some pretty established memories. It’s quite hearty as a result, and the crunchy baby broccoli at the top completes it. I don’t think this is in any way a replacement for agedashi tofu, but it’s worth a first try. The softness of the tomato however does mean that it’s not particularly palatable for me to reorder if I ever had the choice.
You should always look forward to a beef dish at a Japanese restaurant, because they really, really know their cow. From the sounds of the frying to the first whiffs of ‘beefy pepper’ coming our way, we knew this course was going to be something else.
Ah. just fantastic. When it comes to a MBS9 wagyu rump, simple is best. The only seasoning is a dash of salt & pepper, with additional salt and a lime wedge on the side should you require any more.
This dish underscores the importance of produce and technique. As long as you have the best ingredients and use the right methods, you don’t need a world of seasoning or fancy tricks to deliver an amazing experience. The butteriness of the marbled fat, the char, the sweetness of the beef. It’s all there. Probably the best dish of the night alongside that soft shell crab taco.
At this point, we knew were going to get sushi when we see Raita scoring nigiri-sized cuttlefish. I also saw sushi rice coming out of a wooden drum, so I think it’s safe to say we’re about to arrive at the best part!
But of course, he has to make it first. The anticipation kills! Oh the anticipation…
In the end, we receive five pieces of nigiri, each prepared in its own way.
My favourite out of the five is the cuttlefish. I’m not sure how it was prepared, but it’s remarkably creamy while maintaining a good deal of that chewy bounciness, a hallmark cuttlefish texture. It’s also quite sweet, and extremely flavoursome as a result. The sushi rice it sits on is more acidic and mushy than other nigiri I’ve had before, which make the entire sushi also mushy to eat. While this generally isn’t a good thing, I felt that in the case of the cuttlefish, it actually worked as it was a fun mashup of flavour, with the texture of the cuttlefish and rice matching.
The second piece is bonito, but here things go downhill. The bonito itself is quite tender, readily falling apart with each bite. There is a good wasabi kick from the fish, with a sharp acidity at the end. Unfortunately, because the rice is so mushy, the nigiri doesn’t balance well in the mouth, and you’re left with a gelatinous feeling in your mouth that isn’t crash hot.
The akami looks very, very legitimate. There’s a stronger wasabi kick to this one compared to the bonito (I’m so glad I took detailed notes), and the soy coverage means the tuna’s flavour is well covered. However, do you remember the rather gummy-like texture I described with the tuna sashimi earlier? That applies here as well, and is exacerbated with the similarly spongy rice.
You can see how important rice is to a piece of nigiri – it does after all make up half of the entire piece, and so must be as good as the fish. The rice is beginning to undescore a weakness in Raita Noda’s sushi, and in this particular instance, is further hindered by the inferior, gelatin-like texture of the tuna used.
Oddly enough, despite the earlier yellowtail sashimi being far too fishy, the yellowtail nigiri is lacking in any of that fishiness. A good sign! It was mostly OK but there were two major niggles. One: far too much ginger. Two: flavours were not evenly distributed. While I was chewing I could tell that some parts of the fish were well-seasoned, while others didn’t taste like much at all. It’s a bit haphazard.
Oh, and that rice again. Dangit.
The last piece is the salted aburi salmon. The texture of this salmon is absolutely killer. It practically melted in the mouth, more tender than any piece of fish before it, and even rivalling Sokyo’s salmon from a textural perspective.
The problem? Too salty – in preparing these pieces, we noted Raita rubbing a finger of salt over each piece. It turned out that may not have been necessary at all, as it resulted in a salt explosion, the rice not helping very much in mitigating. As such, a potentially great piece was not so.
The sushi was, I’m sad to say, mediocre. Perhaps the last course of dessert will bring my hopes back up!
For the sweet stuff, we have a spicy cherry & mascarpone mousse w/umeboshi sour fairy floss. I really liked this dessert, but not for the usual reasons. For one, the beetroot (the red bits) were gratifyingly crunchy, with a sweet & sour edge to them that kept me hunting every last scrap down. I even finished Isaac’s portion because it wasn’t his thing, but it’s so, so mine.
The mousse was also quite enjoyable – not too heavy, not too sweet. There’s a hint of cherry there, though not much of a spiciness to it. I think the beetroot captured more of that.
The fairy floss was a bit more of a non-event: yes, it tasted a bit sour from the plum-like nature of the floss, but I was never a fan of fairy floss to begin with.
I always seem to write way too much when it comes to experiences like these. In the end, there were lots and lots of misses to the food, or that it was merely ‘ok’. For $120, you do expect something much, much more. You do get more in some respects – such that of the experience of having a private chef in Sydney is rare to find. In addition, the omakase experience itself will cost you. Is Raita Noda worth $120? I can’t confidently say it is. As always, that’s up to you, dear reader, to decide.
This post is based on one independent visit to Raita Noda Chef’s Kitchen
Got anything to say about Raita Noda? Have you been and had a vastly similar/different experience? Do you still want to give it a go? Let me know in the comments below!
- It is very nearly like a private chef experience, and indeed that’s what it is meant to be
- The start of the meal was top notch, about half the menu is highly enjoyable
- Many of the dishes are truly unique, creations I have not seen anywhere else
- The other half of the menu, do not make good arguments for spending $120
- First-timers may find it uncomfortable to have the chefs work in such close proximity for such a long period
- Raita Noda could be something so much more if the raw seafood was improved. As it stands, it is after Sokyo’s heart
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.
F5.5 | S4 | A2.5