When Yu Sasaki embarked on his culinary career over a decade ago, he knew that one day he would open his own restaurant. Twelve years in the making, the traditional Japanese curtains known as noren were finally put in place, marking the entrance to Restaurant Sasaki. Nestled in the concrete jungle between Alberta Street and Nithsdale Lane, it’s in a bit of a hidden spot; it’s about to get a lot less hidden.
Date Last Visited: 31 May 2017 / 3 May 2017 (two visits)
Address: 102/21 Alberta St, Sydney NSW 2000
Highlight Dishes: tofu & persimmon salad, salmon & fennel, gurnard sashimi, takikomi gohan, salt-baked pork, red wine & miso beef cheeks, caramel and nuts
Price Guide (approx): $70pp plus drinks
These days, chefs with profile pieces written on them exhibit two common traits: a rich and colourful pedigree of experience, and they are on a mission to bring something different to our fair city. Yu Sasaki possesses both of these qualities in spades. On the first point, he has worked at famous institutions both overseas (Thomas Keller’s French Laundry) and locally (Marque & Universal).
And then there’s Yu Sasaki’s unique creation that he calls his own – Cafe Cre Asion (heh). Painstakingly built up over six years to immense success, this hole-in-the-wall establishment is quite possibly one of the best Japanese cafes in Sydney, serving highly unique, but at the same time familiar fare, with some of the best matcha (powdered green tea) products in Sydney. Sasaki obviously knows how to cook.
That’s Sasaki the man; then there’s Restaurant Sasaki itself, encapsulating three core philosophies: homaging the memories and simplicity of home cooking, finding beauty in the every day, and as a platform to raise awareness of his origins. See, Sasaki himself hails from the Shimane prefecture in Japan; all wares – crockery, cutlery, and fittings at Sasaki hail from master craftsmen working in the region. The result is a restaurant fit-out that, other than being incredibly authentic, also translates into a portal to Shimane – all in urban Sydney. If you haven’t been to Shimane (and like me, you probably haven’t), you certainly will have after visiting Sasaki.
To say that attention to detail is everywhere would be exactly that – the individually unique artisanal crockery; the in-hand feel of the fired ceramic sake cups; the pinpoint, surgical-thin chopsticks and even their mottled hashioki (chopstick rests). It was difficult to resist being drawn in; I couldn’t help but marvel at all the detail even on my second visit.
Of course, in the end, the ‘restaurant’ part of Restaurant Sasaki is what draws diners. The menu stays true to the core Japanese tenet of carefully selecting ingredients at their peak, and presenting them in their purest form with minimal processing. However, while Sasaki could easily have modeled itself after a high-end kaiseki restaurant, it has instead opted for a kappo style of menu delivery, characterised by a series of small to medium sized courses that can be shared, but do not necessarily follow a rigid, traditional pattern as is the case with kaiseki.
That said, as of late-May, Sasaki offers an 8-course omakase menu which is in-line with a degustation of sorts. At $80, it is a steal; however, if you are a group of three or more and don’t mind sharing, you’ll get more variety for the same money by going down the a la carte route.
Should you choose to create your own menu, you’ll find five simple categories from which to order: meat, seafood, vegetables, side dishes, and desserts. Prices are a good guide of portion sizes: two digits = two people. There are only 5-6 items in each section, with a good chance you’ll find new menu items with each visit: I’ve been to Sasaki twice now within the same month, with many changes noted.
Come early, come often.
Let’s begin – itadakimasu!
When it comes to drinks, a sake from Shimane was an appropriate place to start. I don’t remember the exact price (low $10’s for 90ml), but its light, zesty taste was unforgettable. It’s not unlike one of my favourite sakes – Dassai 50, with many of the same fruity characteristics, albeit a little bit more of a flinty note. Very easy to drink. If you’re buying into Sasaki’s promise of a look-in to Shimane, definitely ask for its sake.
Restaurant Sasaki – Vegetable Dishes
Vegetables are never considered second-class citizens in Japanese cuisine, so at Sasaki, you shouldn’t treat them as such. A great pick would be the appetite-opening salad of tofu, cabbage, persimmon & walnuts. Strange yet familiar, it tastes like a crunchy salad with a light & refreshing dressing at first. However, the differences are made known in short order: the use of tofu mayo with its creamy soy flavour, and light sweetness & custard-like texture of persimmon together elevate this dish beyond what could easily have been “yet another salad”; Sasaki has made this dish his own.
In fact, it was so good, we ordered it on our second (May 31) visit as well. This newer instance of the same dish differed slightly in that some type of parsley (perhaps Japanese mitsuba) was used, which added slightly heady spice notes to the salad. I preferred the salad without it, but the highlight tofu & persimmon elements (plus the crunch of walnuts!) impressed twice.
If the prospect of eating a salad is too summer-like, then don’t feel afraid to take advantage of the heartier side of things with a team-up of cauliflower, potato, brussel sprouts & pumpkin.
Spend any amount of time poring over recipe cookbooks and cauliflower soup is bound to come up at some point – it’s a staple that should be in any home cook’s repertoire. Add in comfortingly moreish gnocchi-like chunks of potato, brussel sprouts browned to a charred, sweet perfection, and then add in the sweet overtones of pumpkin, and you get a soup that is quite honestly one of the best I’ve had in living memory.
The tofu & persimmon salad was the “ooh”. The cauliflower soup was the “ahhhh”. The mushroom, egg & cheese? That was the “ohhhh YES!”
Completing the hat trick of vegetarian dishes is an unabashedly sensual calorie bomb of deep-fried mushrooms, soft-boiled egg yolk, soy, and an amount of cheese sauce that pretty much flips the bird to your attempted diet. Somehow, the cheese, sweet soy, and meaty mushrooms all balance each other out. Sure, it is heavy, but at the same time, it’s winter.
Hah, diet. If you want to keep that up, better not order this one at all. I would have licked the bowl if I could; if only my big head could fit the bowl!
Restaurant Sasaki – Meat Dishes
The kangaroo, ginger & yam bean presents itself as four shiso leaf-wrapped rolls of meaty goodness. The term “fusion” notwithstanding, this is certainly one of Sasaki’s more adventurous dishes, blending an iconic Australian ingredient and marrying it with Japanese flavour. That said, the strong notes of soy & ginger, coupled with crunchy mizuna scented with shiso meant that this was still a decidedly Japanese morsel. The biggest test: juicy, well-cooked kangaroo, was passed with aplomb.
While I liked the dish, I think the ginger was a bit overwrought, and I couldn’t help but wonder what these rolls would be like if served warm.
The menu reads veal, okra & witlof; but a better description is veal tataki. Partially seared veal is diced, marinated in the slimy goodness of okra and served tartare style on bitter witlof leaves. It’s not going to be a crowd pleaser, but the dish cleverly encapsulates the way Japanese cuisine plays with the texture of slime (think tororo, natto etc.), allowing the individual pieces of diced veal to fully fill the palate without leaving an overly oleaginous aftertaste.
The relatively light texture is well-balanced with equivalently light flavours; soy and herbal shiso are applied with precision – no more, no less.
Given winter has officially arrived, a warmer, heartier dish of duck two ways w/soy & leek was an order that promised great reward. Of course, the risks were there: under/overcooked duck, unrendered fat, and so on.
Man, what was I worrying about? Sasaki knows his way around a duck. The marvellously pink, fragrant, thinly-sliced pieces were an absolute joy to eat. Then there’s also the chewy duck sausages which, stuffed with shimeji mushrooms and yam bean, wrapped by an ingenious duck skin ‘casing’, made for an incredibly moreish textural hit.
While the dish might receive little enhancements over the weeks & month, I can’t see it going off the menu any time soon. I sure hope it won’t.
As anyone who’s watched more than a few episodes of Netflix’s foodie favourite Chef’s Table knows, cooking food in salt crusts is nothing new – it’s just not very common at Sydney restaurants.
What Restaurant Sasaki has done to pork baked in salt crust was nothing short of awesome: this is pretty much one of the juiciest pork dishes you could order in a Sydney restaurant. The tender, succulent and tender the flesh is pretty much sous-vide level; I had to slow down just to savour it properly.
While you may be tempted to skip the fatty layer (I did), do try and take a nibble of the top-most part: it’s got a crispy and charred layer that belies its looks.
My only criticism of the dish is that flavour was somewhat one-dimensional. Many bites in and it is effectively salty pork. Yet, because of its amazing texture, I would still re-order this. Yeah, it’s a win by overwhelming textural awesomeness.
As one would expect of a Japanese restaurant, most dishes coming out of Sasaki’s kitchen are light enough to eat without imparting bloat. The beef in red wine & miso is the exception that proves the rule.
My relationship with Sasaki’s beef cheeks started out like most Tinder relationships: “it’s complicated”. I wasn’t the biggest fan – the flavour balance between the red wine and miso was out of whack, and a consistent under-salting of the beef itself exposed it to be subsumed into the overly strong red wine sauce. But that was May 3. On May 31? Balance returns to the force.
The dish itself resembles a massaman curry, in presentation and texture of the beef. On the other hand, flavours were very earthy from the red wine, imbued with just the right touch of saltiness from the red miso. This comment applies to my latest tasting of the dish; in fact, I think it’s pretty much as good as it’s going to get.
Oh yeah, remember how soft I keep saying it is? Check this out:
The beef dish also comes with a side of potato mash, which is perhaps better described as butter with a side of mash. Oh yes, there’s so much butter in there, it even began to split from the potato itself after leaving it for awhile. The Lady’s reaction (after eating half the bowl) sums it up quite well: “oh god, get this away for me. It’s dangerous.”
Restaurant Sasaki – Seafood Dishes
There’s really not much to say about the oyster & yuzu, and that’s kind of the point. It’s fresh, plenty meaty, and without any sea funk. The yuzu-based sauce on top? Super zesty with enough sugar to let you know it’s not apologetic with the stuff.
It’s four bucks. Come on now, get one.
The salmon & fennel namero is an absolutely gorgeous dish that delivers on its looks. Namero is a type of tataki where finely minced meat is mixed with seasoning and secondary ingredients, not unlike a Japanese version of tartare.
This is a plate of food that’s about the texture as much as the flavour: the fatty, slippery salmon, watery crunch of fennel, and the nuttiness of amaranth & caraway. Then there’s the sweet soy overtones, the liquorice fennel musk (which was carefully managed), and the earthy tones of the caraway seeds. Some pomelo mixed in provides a bit of an extra zing. A seriously good dish, it’s an absolute must-order.
Clams cooked in sake came with it an immense amount of potential, but didn’t quite live up to it. Shungiki – a type of Asian celery – was made into a very buttery pesto that was delicious but overly salty.
As for the clams, they were overcooked. Rubbery tough meat? That’s all I can say. While I don’t forget, I do forgive: Sasaki is still just getting its legs.
Fremantle sweet prawns (amaebi) are served as a ceviche, complete with heads and tails for striking presentation, with a strong follow-through in flavour. A mild apple vinegar dressing brought out the sweetness of the prawns, with cubed apple and coriander rounding out some of the fruitier, herbal flavours. I never knew Fremantle produced such butter-soft amaebi – perhaps another Western Australia trip is in order.
A Japanese staple, Sasaki’s simple name of crab chawanmushi as egg & crab belies just how good this actually is. A silky smooth steamed egg pudding, flavoured with dashi rich in crab essence, this is a dish that technically could, but shouldn’t be shared. It starts with one spoonful, and then it never really ends, even when it does: the umami of this dish takes an age to dissipate. Perhaps order another one just before it does? It’s something I should have done.
One of the best courses in our meal, an exquisite plate of very thinly-sliced gurnard was an experience on the palate. A fish with rather pale flesh, the sight of sliced gurnard doesn’t exactly engenders feelings of lust. But then after countless bites of each slice, and you wonder just how is it that a thinly-sliced fish could be so meaty, so textural.
The soy sauce was of great assistance as well – and with a sweeter, earthier taste, it obviously wasn’t off-the-shelf stuff either.
On my second visit, the gurnard was served with grated daikon/ginger mash as a garnish, but more importantly the dipping sauce was replaced with a white soy sauce. The effect was actually quite cool – there appeared to be no sauce in the dish, but lo and behold it’s there! Slightly sweeter and lighter in intensity, this was perhaps an even better choice for this light fish.
Restaurant Sasaki – Side Dishes
Rice is an integral part of Japanese food culture. In high-end dining, rice is a skillfully cooked dish, and some would consider that one of the measures of a Japanese chef’s prowess is how well they execute gohan (rice).
Sasaki’s salmon & rice is a simple and effective attempt at it. The style is takikomi gohan: rice that is cooked with its ever-changing ingredients in a dashi.
Side note: this differentiates it to another popular type of gohan dish – the maze gohan, which is characterised by mixing ingredients into cooked rice.
Sasaki’s takikomi gohan uses koshihikari rice, and on May 3 was delicately flavoured with dashi and hints of salmon, and slightly past al dente – Goldilocks. The flesh of the salmon itself is also perfectly-cooked. The dish was suitable for eating by itself, or with meat.
On May 31, the ingredients have already changed, true to takikomi gohan’s ingredient fluidity. This time, chicken & mushrooms were substituted for the salmon. This is the superior dish; the meatiness of the mushroom and fragrant holmbrae chicken giving it the edge. I also felt that the dashi seasoning used for this rice was a little better-balanced – I couldn’t believe it when I was told it was mackerel dashi!
Salty, cold fish doesn’t sound appetising, but haaaaaaaave you tried Sasaki’s Takimono?
Takimono describes a class of fermented/cured dishes, prepared well ahead of time. Sasaki’s takimono, like its menu, regularly changes. On May 31, we received several generous pieces of mackerel that have undergone salt fermentation for several weeks (if I remember correctly), with rich, salty flesh to show for it. Because it was salt-cured, the usual pungency associated with mackerel was tempered down to an acceptable level (I’m not a fan of mackerel’s pungency), and the result was a bowl of fish I really wish I didn’t have to share.
Mackerel dashi and an addictive fermented mackerel dish? Maybe I can fall in love with the fish again after all.
Restaurant Sasaki – Dessert Dishes
Desserts at Sasaki fall into single serves labelled on the menu as hitokuchigashi (single-mouthful desserts). The potato & butter lived up to its classifier: it’s two fried potato crisps encasing an earthy-sweet ube (purple yam) paste. It did indeed go in as one bite, with a very hard and satisfying crunch in the crisp as the memorable moment. The ube paste in the centre needed more sweetness, and I just couldn’t seem to put my finger on where the butter featured. *thoughtful emoji*
We tactically decided to get the mandarin & pomelo as the final tidbit we would eat on our first visit, hunching that the dessert would end things on a refreshing note.
Oh boy, refreshing would be an understatement. This was a sweet, citrusy blizzard in the mouth – a palate cleansing of Biblical proportions. As far as showcasing seasonal ingredients was concerned, this was one of the simplest, yet best interpretations of the rule – that pomelo was superfluous.
The best dessert at Sasaki hands down, the name of caramel & nuts once again belies the beauty of this little bite. Perfectly balanced soy caramel & a caramel cream, thickened so it holds its quenelled shape, along with mixed nuts is brought together into a traditional Japanese monaka biscuit shell.
It’s a savoury & sweet bite so addictive, you’ll wish that one bite would never end.
A ‘smashed pav’ style matcha-dusted meringue, yoghurt & yuko made for a solid palate cleanser. The meringue was light, as was the sweet yoghurt. A generous amount of yuko emulsion gave it the zing to round out things out.
For the record: I have no idea how yuko – a Japanese citrus fruit very similar to yuzu – differs from yuzu. They tasted pretty much the same to me – that is to say, delicious and godly zesty!
A fairly expensive bite for what you get, Sasaki’s dark chocolate & red miso is more or less a souped-up Pods chocolate, with the Japanese treatment of red miso.
That is a compliment in every way; it’s almost worth paying the price of two packets’ worth of Pods for this one. Treat yoselves, as they say these days.
Perhaps it’s the unfamiliarity of the Shimane region. Perhaps it was the shocking discovery that Yu Sasaki never received formal instruction in a Japanese restaurant. Whatever the case may be, almost all the food at Restaurant Sasaki were undeniably stamped with Yu Sasaki’s own character.
There is definitely work to be done, dishes to develop, refine, and evolve. It’s not yet where it needs to be. I was unsure whether Restaurant Sasaki would succeed at first – Sydney might not be ready for this kind of cooking that’s doing things in a way counter to what Sydneysiders expect of Japanese food.
But after two visits? Consider myself convinced. Sasaki has the potential to be one of the best Japanese restaurants in Sydney. Why do I feel this way? Because I think it’s already one of the best: the food, the ambience are top notch, and the service will eventually find its feet. I greatly look forward to what is to come.
This post is based on two independently-paid visits to Restaurant Sasaki
- Sydney: say hello to Shimane
- Amazing Japanese cooking you won’t find in any other restaurant in Sydney
- An incredible interior
- The service still needs a little work – food arrives with no particular order, often too quickly
- Some of the dishes are presented with a lack of finesse
Would I return:already did, and will do so again
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.
F7.5 | S3 | A3