When March bookings re-opened for Sashimi Shinsengumi’s new Crows Nest location at 9am on February 21, the entire booking period was snapped up in 70 minutes. Desperate callers still ring chef Shinji Matsui and his wife Tomoko as late as midnight to try and sweet-talk them into securing them a spot. A restaurant that attracts this level of demand is something most Sydney restaurateurs would kill to possess, but that’s exactly what Sashimi Shinsengumi has achieved – and all Matsui-san did was to do what he’s always done: make darn good sushi. I can’t help you secure a booking, but I can show you exactly what you’ll be missing out on 😉
Date Last Visited: 14/6/2016 (five visits to date)
Address: Sashimi Shinsengumi, 5/11 Clarke St, Crows Nest NSW 2065, Australia
Highlight Dishes: uni, kinmedai, aji, amaebi, tamagoyaki
Price Guide (approx): $70pp, free BYO
The key phrase here is “sushi omakase”. You may think you know sushi, but until you’ve had it omakase-style, you don’t really know sushi. Omakase means “[I’ll] leave it up to you”, and sushi omakase is where the chef meticulously handcrafts individual pieces of sushi for one-by-one consumption. Dietary requirements aside, you don’t choose what you get to eat, but you can be guaranteed that only the best produce of the day is served. Watching the ballet-like preparation of your sushi by the sushi chef is also an integral part of the experience. It is not cheap, it is not casual, and there is certainly a modicum of exclusivity involved. It is the sushi equivalent of fine dining.
As reservation enquiries are reaching stratospheric levels, Sashimi Shinsengumi clearly (though not deliberately) fulfils the exclusivity factor. Where it differs is the price: you’re getting a full sushi omakase experience, but at only $70. We’re talking a starter, a soup, 15+ pieces of handcrafted sushi and a dessert to wrap things up. For the record, this kind of meal is usually a $triple-digit affair. If Tetsuya’s suddenly decided to reduce prices by $100…you get the point. No wonder bookings are sought after like selfies with Justin Bieber (I swear, that was just an example *ahem*).
So what’s the catch – surely Matsui-san can’t serve the best seafood at that price? Enter casual: rather than eating at an opulently fitted venue, you’re in a narrow corridor of a fish shop which, on the weekends, is how Sashimi Shinsengumi operates. The kitchen is barely more than an arm’s length away, and the whole space isn’t much bigger than a shipping container. While there is that type of diner that wouldn’t settle for anything less than harbour views, starched tablecloths and wait staff better-dressed than a groom on his wedding day, Sashimi Shinsengumi exudes a refreshingly informal, easygoing vibe that’s almost like being at a sit-down dinner party. The fact that you can BYO without paying a cent of corkage is just the tip of the iceberg; I myself often take advantage with a bottle of bubbly.
But you want the elephant in the room to be tackled: is the sushi good? The answer will not surprise you: of course it is! Seafood is acquired from the fish markets on a daily basis by Matsui-san, with no two days the same. Some days, you may be lucky and get sea urchin from Tasmania, some days you may not – it’s a gamble, but regardless of what’s being served, you can be guaranteed that it will taste damn good. I can say this with confidence – I’ve been four times!
Given the casual setting and relatively affordable pricing eating at Sashimi Shinsengumi, you’d expect that Matsui-san would do some things a little differently versus a more “proper” or “formal” (let’s just say it – “high end”) sushi experience such as Sokyo. For example, he’ll occasionally give you an extra piece or two if there’s spare fish remaining, or put a little bit of an “extra” on top of your nigiri that you can pick off and eat as sashimi. Oh, that’s not such a bad point of distinction. Damn, there’s just more and more going for this place.
Some nerd facts about the sushi rice (or shari) Matsui-san uses: it is a higher-glutinosity koshihikari with a medium-high sugar profile. Grains are compacted slightly above average, with a medium-to-dense body and a discernibly soft surface. Serving temperature is somewhere in-between lukewarm and room temperature, which served well for most pieces as it really brought out a ton of flavour. Or in other words: it’s tasty, tasty carbs.
Most pieces are unglazed, so DIY shoyu (soy sauce) application is a necessity. Shinsengumi uses is light-bodied, translucent and low-sodium shoyu with a conspicuous but not overpowering sweetness. You can liberally apply it to most nigiri without fear. Onto the sushi!
That a fresh & utterly juicy oyster was provided is almost to be expected. Fresh cubes of tuna with sticky yamaimo is something else entirely. If you’ve never had yamaimo before, be prepared for a shock – this is extremely sticky stuff, and a bit of an acquired taste.
Probably the best miso soup in Sydney. Very home-style in nature and wasting nothing of the scampi earlier, the broth is perfectly balanced with just enough scampi essence without it being overpowering.
We ended up getting this awesome piece twice because Matsui-san is awesome. This uni came straight from Tasmania – fresh AF.
An amazing piece, and what unique preparation too!
Sweet & fatty, alfonsino is still not a well-recognised sushi fish, but it really ought to be – it’s easily one of the best-tasting pale fish!
A very chewy & stringy fish, gurnard is all about texture and bite. I got plenty of bite from this one.
Literally living up to its name, you’d think that these little guys were marinated in sweetness. Ah, if only they grew ’em bigger!
A failsafe piece made even more unassailable through torching & sweet glazing – how could you go wrong with salmon?
The best part of a kingfish, this fatty piece hit the spot – like most other pieces have been doing so far.
No glaze required, no critique possible – it’s toro, after all. This one’s not really melt-in-your-mouth, rather being more of a slow release of flavour that far outlasts its size.
Calamari nigiri, or calamari tower?
Half of an aji fish served as two pieces of nigiri, this was amazing. I’d consider it to be one of Matsui-san’s signatures – nobody else makes it like him, and I haven’t had a better-tasting aji either.
Requiring a fair bit of gari (sushi ginger) to balance out, Spanish mackerel’s always had a fair bit of a pungent kick. It was well-managed in this instance – particularly as I loaded up extra wasabi (that’s a pro-tip, by the way!)
I rarely encounter sayori, with this time being my first having it in Sydney. Extremely firm and chewy, this one’s a jaw workout. It was enjoyable almost by virtue of it being so different, though wouldn’t be a favourite of mine.
Matsui-san’s tamagoyaki (egg omelette) is pretty special: he’s the only sushi chef I know that makes it close to serving time, and thus by extension makes Sashimi Shinsengumi the only restaurant that serves it hot. The result is a markedly bouncy, wholesome texture. Eat it straight as a dessert, or dip it into the shoyu for a bit of a savoury kick – both work equally well.
You’ll want to pull my arm and insist on me giving some criticisms, so I’ll call them out. One: Matsui-san is incredibly fast, one of the fastest sushi chefs I’ve seen. However, this does mean that sometimes, you’ll get a thicker/thinner piece of fish which may/may not throw out the balance with the amount of rice used. You might also be jealous of a friend who got 2x as much sea urchin as you. Two: I have on occasion received that one errant piece which was too out of balance (either too much/little fish and/or rice). This is probably the only criticism that matters, and it only happened thrice in four visits. Three: Matsui-san can sometimes go nuts with topping up your nigiri to the point where you can’t actually eat it in one bite like you’re supposed to. If you care about proper sushi sizing (one nigiri = one unawkward bite), this may seem like rule defiance. To me, it simply means more fish – and I can always take some off to eat as sashimi, so no big deal.
You can see that I was struggling to think of some cons to list in order to make this a balanced post. In the end, remember that all this costs $70, and often I end up getting 20+ pieces of sushi because Matsui-san is one of the nicest guys behind the counter.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t want to write a post on Sashimi Shinsengumi. We all have our secrets, the little gems that we delight in keeping to ourselves, and yes – perhaps selfishly at times. Then again, the fact that there’s a sushi master running a fully-fledged sushi omakase experience for $70-per-head is not the kind of thing that stays hidden for long. If the cat wasn’t out of the bag before, it definitely is now – and it’s hungry for some fish. With sushi this good for the price you pay, I would be doing a disservice to rate this restaurant anything less than excellent, and it is one of my most-recommended places to visit if Japanese food is on your radar.
That is, if you can secure a booking. Best of luck!
June 2017 Visit
Not even going to bother saying too much here: Matsui-san’s sushi is as good as ever. Note the new plate changes bearing Shinsengumi’s name – upgrades!
Disclaimer: I am friends with a close friend of Matsui-san and am also on good terms with him. My opinions may be subject to unconscious bias. However, as this post is based on four independently-paid visits to Sashimi Shinsengumi, The Usual Disclaimer does not apply to the same extent.
Still hungry for omakase? Check out my reviews of these other sushi restaurants in Sydney:
Minamishima (honorary Melbourne mention – and my favourite restaurant in Australia)
- Near fine-dining level sushi, up there with Sydney’s best.
- $0 BYO!
- Slight inconsistencies with the quality of the sushi across the course of the meal. Part & parcel of its “casual vibe”
- Slight inconsistencies with service.
- Gari (ginger) is not to my tastes – it’s a little bit too sharp and sugary.
- Setting & ambience might be too casual for some.
Would I return: I’ve already been back four times – you tell me.
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.
F8 | S4.5 | A2
Still keen for some more seafood goodness? Check out these related posts below:
Masuya – Seafood Sensation
Seafood Brunch @ Saint Peter | Paddington
Quick Bites November | Sushi, Soft Serves and Waffle Burgers
Still Hungry in Kanazawa | Ishikawa, Japan
Omakase at Kaiseki Kichisen 京懐石吉泉 | Kyoto, Japan