Tokonoma Lounge – Toko’s Estranged Neighbour

Seriously no kidding, Toko Restaurant and Tokonoma lounge serve pretty much the same food. I’m not actually sure why there’s even a distinction made between the two. They’re right next to each other as well. One’s billed as a restaurant ‘proper’, the other a ‘lounge’ but both has facets of the other.

Eh? Oh well, good Japanese is good Japanese, and the “Toko” duo is one of the best ones available in the Hills. What about Tokonoma?

I’ve been to Toko Restaurant as well before, and I can say that maybe 50% of what I review about Tokonoma applies to Toko as well.

Date Visited: 7/2/13
Address: 490 Crown St Surry Hills, NSW 2010
Go-to dish: beef tartare w/apple skin sushi

Phoooar, behold, the worst food photography I’ve ever done since actually getting into it. I gotta say, Tokonoma is the first and so far, only eatery that has defied my photography skills. Inside, the lounge is almost completely dark. You literally could not make out what the food is in front of you unless you use the provided artificial candle, which presents its own share of problems (namely, completely messing with the colour).

Tokonoma Interior

“But there’s light!” you say. Know that this shot was taken with the ISO jacked up to 3200 already. Ouch.

It’s so dark, not even a 30 second exposure at ISO 1600 can bring enough light to the food. For those of you who know what I’m on about – I know, right? Unbelievable stuff.

In other words, please excuse my horrid photos this time around. Next time, I’m definitely sitting outside.

Tokonoma Exterior

MUCH better lighting outside

We dined with a Spreets coupon which afforded us a 13-course degustation at a price of $99 for two. Usually this set comes in at something like $200 for two, so normally it’s actually very pricey. Repeat: this is not a cheap restaurant.

Tokonoma Steamed Edamame

Steamed Edamame

I’m kind of disappointed that this starter is counted as a “course”, but as I was to find out later, many courses are as diminutive. Nevertheless, it’s good edamame

  • Not much to say here – not steamed for too long so bean texture remains
  • Good amount of natural flavour, with the salt provided should you crave more

I always love a good bowl of Edamame. It’s one of those things I could eat a kilo of before realising what just happened.

Tokonoma oysters tosazu

Oysters tosazu

Tosazu sauce is a Japanese vinaigrette that’s made with soy sauce, vinegar, bonito dashi and a bit of salt/sugar. Basically Japanese dressing for oysters/other seafood.

  • I could still taste a bit of the yuck ocean flavour but that’s me and my rather unusual sensitivity with raw seafood
  • Nevertheless, texturally they were quite good – slippery and chewy but going down so smoothly
  • Tosazu is a brilliant dressing to go with oysters. You really need to get the dressing right with me – I just can’t do raw unflavoured oysters (props to those who can/do)

A reasonably enjoyable set.

Tokonoma salmon tartare

Salmon tartare

Salmon tartare is one of my favourite non-sushi ways to enjoy salmon. It’s just soooo delicious, what else can I say?

  • Despite the cubing, the salmon’s texture remains alive (thank goodness that didn’t apply to the fish…bad joke) and is firm
  • There’s ever a slight hint of spice, probably from cayenne/black pepper which I very much appreciate
  • Good amount of acidity and umami with the dish, a spoonful is just enough to make you crave more

This dish is welcome any time.

Tokonoma deep fried soft-shell crab

Deep fried soft-shell crab

Well, it’s soft-shell crab. No big surprises here; thankfully it’s all smooth sailing.

  • The deep fry wasn’t too oily actually – there’s a good absorption process that’s going on somewhere or maybe I just wasn’t tasting it that night.
  • Crab itself is crunchy, but lacks a bit of flavour. I would have wanted more seasoning on it
  • Due to the underwhelming seasoning I found myself tasting the “raw” taste of the crab a little too often for my liking

Well, there’s better elsewhere, but there’s no major bones to pick here really.

Tokonoma seabream nigiri

Seabream nigiri

Next up we have two pieces of nigiri (well, one each). The stuff on the right is actually another course which I’ll get to later (oh you so sly you, Tokonoma, serving two courses on one board).

  • Seabream is not nigiri I have very often, I’m rather impartial to its taste. It tastes kind of like…not much really, unless it’s paired with the right shoyu.
  • Still, this is good quality nigiri from a technical standpoint. Good construction, rice doesn’t fall apart easily and a generous slice of fish on top
Tokonoma beef tartare w/apple skin sushi

beef tartare w/apple skin sushi

Since I wasn’t given a menu, I’ve had to pretty much guess what each thing would be called. That’s why the names of the dishes seem so…prescriptive.

Okay, this would be my go-to dish for sure. It’s brilliant, really. A thin layer of apple wraps around a cylinder of rice, topped with some pretty awesome wagyu tartare.

  • Love my tartare, and it’s a natural pairing to turn it into sushi. The resultant texture is very complementary, and taste the same too
  • The apple adds this unexpectedly sweet zing to the morsel that’s just awesome

It’s simple really, not much to say on it. But simplicity counts when it all comes together.

Tokonoma Selection of sashimi - salmon + kingfish

Selection of sashimi – salmon + kingfish

Whoa, such massive slices of sashimi. That’s not a good thing. I’d definitely prefer the same amount of raw fish but in twice the number of slices.

  • So yeah, too big means it gets unwieldy and you don’t want to spend a long time chewing the same piece of fish in your mouth – it begins to lose flavour and just ends up mushy before you swallow. There’s a reason why most sashimi is of a standardish size.
  • Flavour-wise, it’s great. Fresh fish is what you need, and fresh fish we get.

Definitely need to cut it smaller next time.

Tokonoma chirashi temaki

Chirashi temaki (as the waitress told us)

It’s kind of weird, because this kind of sushi is neither chirashi, or temaki. Chirashi sushi is deconstructed sushi in a bowl, while temaki is a hand roll, often in the shape of a seaweed cone with the ingredients inside. I’ve no idea why this was called it, but the reality is that it’s just maki without the outer nori layer.

  • But boy, terminology aside, it tastes awesome. Putting the salmon on the bottom with some kind of cured apple mix on top is utterly insane on the tongue. It’s similar to the beef tartare dish above, but with salmon, and a bit saucier.
  • It just becomes butter in your mouth, really, really delicious stuff

My second favourite dish of the meal, for sure.

Tokonoma Scotch fillet w/smoked miso

Scotch fillet w/smoked miso

Cooked medium-rare, this cut of steak is a bit of a mixed bag.

  • It was quite tough, and I didn’t have an enjoyable time cutting it up or chewing it
  • Flavour was good, smoked miso never disappoints when cooked correctly

Overall, I can’t say I liked this one, it was just not doing it for me on the texture front. Shame, since the flavour has so much potential.

Tokonoma grilled scallop apple

Grilled scallop apple

Mmm, I was wondering when the scallops were going to arrive. They always do in a deg like this.

  • Searing of the scallops was sublime. Just awesome really. The fact that they’re great scallops helps along too
  • Topping it with apples/applesauce…now that’s really special. I’m getting the impression that apples can be used with so many seafood dishes now that I think about it. Whatever it is that makes it work well, it’s doing great.

Love this dish!

Tokonoma Grilled zucchini

Grilled zucchini

Didn’t really expect this to be a course, but it is. Zucchini, cucumber’s ripoff 😛 (for the record, I prefer cucumber heh).

  • The only thing that really makes this dish is the miso ponzu that’s been used to season it.
  • My problem with zucchini is its rather weak texture. It’s soft, even when biting in from the skin and just becomes a rather unpleasant much. Cucumber suffers the same fate when cooked (which is why I always prefer it raw).

So in concluding that one, my personal tastes prevent me from enjoying this dish.

Tokonoma Grilled chicken wings

Grilled chicken wings

I have my go-to dish of the meal, but I also have my stay-away-at-all-costs dish of the meal. This dubious honour falls to this dish.

  • First off, the wings had pretty much NO flavour. I am not joking – neither my dining buddy nor I could taste anything. It was just…white chicken meat. Aww heck no
  • Speaking of the meat, it was charred far too badly to taste any good even with seasoning. It doesn’t look particularly charred in the picture, but somehow, the taste was just so much worse.
  • The chicken was way too dry, probably from the whole overcooking thing.
  • Chicken wing skewers aren’t a brilliant idea in the first place as they’re incredibly awkward to eat. May as well just serve on a plate.

There was nothing I liked about this dish. Gosh I sound harsh, but this is how the chips fell.

Tokonoma Chef's desserts - chocolate ice cream, strawberry sorbet, Crème brûlée, assorted fruits

Chef’s desserts – chocolate ice cream, strawberry sorbet, crème brûlée, assorted fruits

Always love a good mixed dessert. One’s too boring, but 4 makes an amusing conversation!

  • I question the idea of serving ice cream on a bed of ice. There’s the logic that it keeps it cold, but with each spooning you’re forcing some of the ice cream into the ice. Ice cream you’ll never be able to eat again unless you like eating ice 😛
  • The chocolate ice cream was a bit under par. It didn’t taste particularly creamy and there was this kind of graininess in the cream. I hope I’m not detecting anything artificial…
  • On the other hand, the strawberry sorbet was a winner. Light, refreshing. The way it should be.
  • I don’t remember much about the crème brûlée, but I do remember that its caramel layer cracked easily enough and the custard was of an even, sikly texture. It probably tasted good too

A very nice close to the 13 course overall.

I love Toko Restaurant, it’s one of my favs in the Hills area despite its ridiculously expensive price. So what does Tokonoma share in common with it?

The price.

Overall, despite some clear winners, a lot of Tokonoma’s dishes were quite surprisingly, a letdown. I’m not sure of Tokonoma and Toko have the same kitchen or not, but if they do, then I need to pay a visit to Toko. It’s been awhile since I’ve been there, but there’s been a degradation of quality since then.

Ahhh, so much negativity. Well, if Tokonoma concentrated on keeping its good dishes good, and improving the bad ones…it will easily reach the pedigree of much finer Japanese establishments.

As usual, feel free to leave a comment or three 😀

The Good: those 3-4 dishes that I deemed good, are REALLY, really good. Very nice environment for a romantic date

What could be improved: not camera friendly (I still will not advocate you using flash), many dishes were surprisingly bad and have a lot of room for improvement

I give  a grand total of five and a half Caesars out of ten – 5.5/10

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