Sydney’s Japanese culinary personalities have a curious hobby behind the scenes: they like to play musical chairs. Not quite literally (though that would be an amusing sight), and given they stand all night, certainly without chairs. Instead, they swap kitchens. A few examples: expert bartender & mixologist Yasushiro Kawakubo, from Kuro Bar & Dining to Chaco Bar. Hideto Suzuki, previously of Manpuku, then Ichibandori, and now just-opened Sekka. Add Kei Tokiwa from Chaco Bar also dabbling at Sekka while we’re at it. Chaco Bar sous chef Ryota Kishimoto moonlighting at Chidori Japanese Bistro. And in one of the bigger surprises of the year, Hideaki Fukada leaving the omakase counter in Jizakana to head up Kuon, perhaps 2020’s most anticipated Japanese restaurant opening.
At least it was, because when the music stopped and everyone took their seats (for now), the one vacated by Fukada-san was filled by none other than Toshihiko Oe, of Masuya omakase fame and one of the best sushi chefs in this country. Oh my god.
This post is based on three independently paid visits to Sushi Oe.
Date Last Visited: 25/Sep/2020
22/Aug/2020 23/Jul/2020 (3 visits)
Address: Jizakana Japanese Restaurant, shop 16/450 Miller St, Cammeray NSW 2062
Price Guide (approx): $180pp (omakase only, no a la carte)
This is a bit of a deal, and if you’ve dabbled in this blog, you’ll know why. A quick recap: the omakase scene in Sydney is at best, a pittance – even accounting for the…less than stellar offerings. As such, it’s ECON101 as taught using sushi omakase: the Yin and Yang of supply and demand. Takashi Sano’s omakase at Sokyo is booked out more than a year in advance. Fudaka-san’s Kuon is solidly booked out until October, and Ha Cheung Wai & Michael Fox’s unique offering at Sushi E fill their books at a similar clip. It’s like The Hunger Games except we’re talking about eating sushi. So I guess not all that different.
And of course, there was Toshihiko Oe’s omakase at Masuya – once upon a time one of Sydney’s most popular – booking out 6-8 months in advance at its peak. We’re talking concert-level popularity, for sushi.
To continue the laboured metaphor, all of a sudden on 5 March 2020, the music abruptly cut to a halt: Oe-san announced his last day serving up his signature 30pc course that earned his renown. While the man essentially became a rurounin – a wanderer flitting about doing various sushi & fish-related things – in the interim, it was nonetheless a massive blow to Sydney’s high-end sushi scene. While there were various personal reasons for his departure, it was difficult not to feel a little bit selfish in losing such a giant. A briny tear was shed.
And then COVID happened, which meant Oe-san couldn’t do what he wanted to do with his post-Masuya time. But omakase? That was back on the cards. If life gives you fish and a sushi counter, you show Sydney how omakase is done. I was completely blindsided by the move, but it’s never felt so good.
So here we are, at the sushi counter formerly manned by Fukada-san at Jizakana Authentic Japanese Restaurant in Cammeray. Within, stands Oe-san looking ten years younger ready to go – new haircut, new sushi, new Oe.
We attended one of Sushi Oe’s pre-opening ‘tester’ sessions, which was a chance for us to provide feedback while Oe-san refines the experience. Also present was Narito Ishii, of Wellstone Fish (if you’re not getting your fish from him you’re not getting the best), for ‘Quality Control’ and explaining any seafood-specific questions we had.
The omakase centres on Oe-san’s signature 30pc experience (I’m assuming you’ve read that post by now), with some tweaking that reflect the chef’s evolution. You might think Sushi Oe’s just a case of ‘dragging and dropping’ the Masuya experience over, but here you are getting pure, unadulterated Oe: the itamae handles more or less the entire experience by himself, whereas Masuya’s back kitchen team were often a supporting act with interjectory courses. As such, you can say Oe-san’s truly earned the right to name the sushi experience after himself when it comes to his current residency – Jizakana only lends servers & the venue itself. Of course, it does result in a comparatively ‘simpler’ experience than Masuya, but as with most washoku cuisine, less is quite often more.
As far as Oe-san’s own style goes, there are three main changes I’ve so far observed. One – there are more non-nigiri morsels, a welcome change for those that don’t have I’m Still Hungry-level appetite. Some are sashimi-only, such as the shockingly-textural octopus sucker, the incredibly sweet baby Aomori scallop, or even a single piece of okra, which takes serious cojones (and skill) to serve up as there’s really nowhere to hide with vegetables. Pieces like these also break up the monotony of getting piece after piece of neta-on-rice, neta-on-rice, neta-on-rice (neta = sushi topping). Personally, it would be a nice touch if Oe-san retained his starter sashimi platter as per his Masuya days, o-tsukuri style, which sets the scene and whets the appetite – not that a freshly-shucked Pambula oyster is anything undesirable (anything but!)
The second big change is that Oe-san’s shari – the rice used for sushi (AKA arguably the most important single component of sushi) – has changed. He doesn’t make it with sugar any more, preferring instead to emphasise the acidity of the white vinegar used in its making. He has also made the shari’s texture softer (update: now harder again, though not quite al dente), which yields more to the taste of whatever neta is on top. Coupled with the fact that Oe-san uses very little rice per piece and long story short, you’re almost eating a sashimi omakase that happens to have a bit of soft-ish rice.
Finally, it seems that Oe-san’s begun to embrace bolder and stronger seasoning of his sushi – for example the yuzu kosho on the sawara, the spicy, zesty mix bringing out the fattiness of the mackerel. Or the use of mustard (karashi) on the octopus which was unexpectedly potent, or ginger on the pikefish that nullified some of the fish’s funk (and naturally, same with the bonito & iwashi pieces). I’m not ashamed to say I am a fan of this more adventurous Oe-san, as some of his sushi back in the day were a little too subtle for my palate.
There are other little nice Oe-esque touches as well. The inclusion of bright red amazuke daikon (red sweet vinegar-pickled radish) and gobo (burdock root) in addition to the standard gari (sushi ginger) [update: I haven’t come across these in subsequent visits]. The serving of a kanpyo-maki (dried gourd roll) near the end of the course, rarely seen these days as it’s a hallmark of traditional edomae sushi. The serving of fruits to mark dessert (though on this front, I would not say no to something more substantial like an ice cream after 30 savoury courses!). The little things support the big.
It’s early days, but I have a strong feeling that this isn’t Oe-san’s endgame. Oe-san’s got more in him, and gets closer and closer to his zenith with each day behind the sushi counter. With each new visit, Oe-san inches closer and closer to the notional ideal of ‘perfection’. Not in the sense that it is literally perfect with no improvements in sight, but the journey – in and of itself – of progress to reach the unreachable state. As of my September 2020 visit, I am already sufficiently confident that Sushi Oe’s omakase is already one of the best such experiences in Australia. God knows I’ve got my reminders set so I don’t miss a booking – you snooze, you lose. For a sardine-bright silver lining, Sushi Oe operates its availability calendar on a month-to-month basis, which means you only need to be fast to nab a spot, as opposed moving your wedding in two years because you have an omakase booked in 2022 🙄*.
*There is still some queue-skipping permitted, but if you have to ask how…
The price is $180 – a higher ask than was the case at Masuya – but that’s neither here nor there. You’re either in, or you’re out. And I’m all in. Fukada-san may have required quite the daunting shoe size for anyone stepping in, but Oe-san’s skill and unique direction make for some incredibly large feet.
Would I return: see you in
August September October, Oe-san!
Since I can’t update the blog for every visit, please check out my Instagram highlights reel which is kept up-to-date with the latest visit!
This post is based on three independently paid visits to Sushi Oe.