Popular CBD Japanese restaurant Yayoi Sydney is now Yayoi Garden, and while the interior has the same casual elegance, the menu has slightly changed, with set tasting menus introduced to reflect the spring-summer season, while the sake list is even more extensive than before. My previous visit was a pleasant experience, delivering a Japanese dining experience which would rather stick to authenticity than water themselves down for the sake of accessibility; I was expecting no less when I walked through those big doors off Bridge St, greeted by the same meticulous service all good Japanese restaurants deliver.
There are minimal changes to the layout, one of which includes a new 16-seated private dining area. Other than that, it’s the same cosy atmosphere as you sit down and listen while one of the staff detail (and I mean detail) the set menus, while paying particular attention to the sake list. Seasonality and respect for the ingredients obviously mean a lot in the kitchen, and the staff carry a similar passion.
Though you can go a la carte here, it’s a much better option to go with one of two set menus since an experience here, like any authentic Japanese restaurant, is as much about tradition and order as it is about flavour and texture. There’s a six-course option (Nihonbashi) for $65, and an eight-course (Kayaba) for $80. My guests and I went for the eight-course.
Both set menus begin with the Zensai Santen Mori, a delicate assortment of traditional Japanese entrees, with the Kayaba menu also adding some chewy baby abalone for a little bit of difference (and to help justify the price difference). You eat this one left to right, finishing with the beautiful tamagoyaki, which is a rolled omelette and a slightly sweet palate cleanser. Many Japanese chefs around the world aren’t considered masters until they perfect the densely layered tamagoyaki.
Next up is the Hiramasa Usuzukuri which is a carpaccio of very thinly sliced kingfish sashimi; refreshing and incredibly tasty. It’s followed by a dish of Agedashi Tofu deep-fried and swimming in a rich dashi broth, silky and firm with a focus on texture while the broth handles the flavour.
The strength and variety of the set menu continues with Pork Kakuni, a rather unsightly slab of slow-braised pork belly in soy sauce with some peas. What the dish lacks in presentation it makes up for with flavour; this is some of the smoothest, richest pork I’ve had in a Japanese restaurant.
The smaller dishes finish up with Tai Sakamushi; snapper steamed in sake and lemon-shallot oil. The skin is a little bit crispy, covering the beautifully soft and delicate snapper meat which is imbued with flavour from the sake and oil.
The menu starts diverging a bit from then, giving you the choice between two options for each subsequent course. It’s a wise choice to go with the Wagyu Shabu-Shabu. You get some MBS9+ grade wagyu beef, thinly sliced and raw sitting on a plate by some vegetables and a very rich, simmering dashi broth. Use the broth to cook the meat of course, with the thin slices absorbing the flavour well. The dashi broth is so rich and powerful that you’ll likely be attempting to dip everything in the table (that’s edible) in.
The Unagi Hitsumabushi is another fine choice. It’s a rice bowl topped with grilled eel with some dashi broth to pour over the top, a better choice than the rather small Salmon Roll, assuming that you’re not full already. It’s easy to underestimate the amount of food on a Japanese set menu, with all the small dishes adding up to leave you quite satisfied by the end.
As with the above, you get two choices from dessert. The Matcha Warabi Mochi is the most divisive of the two; mochi is coated in sweet matcha for a very bitter-sweet dessert that is more about the texture than the taste. If you care more about taste then go for the Matcha Ice Cream, a beautiful and refreshing end to the meal that has the very clean, stand-out taste of green tea captured well throughout the smooth mound of soft ice cream.
Always welcome the sake lessons from the staff, who detail each pairing as they come and make sure you get a good range of strength and taste, while you finish your night with that unbeatable flavour of plum wine.
A dining experience at Yayoi Garden is peaceful and serene, regardless of how busy they are on the night – when I went, they had a full-house. The restaurant is intimate and endearing, reasonably priced enough to give you a very good feed along with some very good sake (or wine/beer – but sake is the better choice here) to make for one of the best Japanese dining experiences in the area.
Yayoi have recently opened a second Sydney restaurant in The Galeries. More information about either restaurant can be found at http://www.yayoigarden.com.au/
Address: 38-42 Bridge Street, Sydney
Contact: 02 9247 8166