You no longer need to make travel arrangements to end up in Japan – the most direct route involves just a few footsteps down a Surry Hills alley. Restaurant Sasaki feels exactly like a place you’d chance upon in a country that has a world-beating habit of hiding great eateries in modest locations. The more unassuming the street, the better the restaurant, it seems. The “are you sure this is where it is?” feeling that’s a precursor to every excellent meal you have in Japan is repeated when you wander down Nithsdale Lane to find this venue. On seeing the noren curtains in front of this concrete-and-timber hideout with a small bamboo garden, I wondered if I’d miraculously skipped time zones to end up in Tokyo. This felt like turning a corner in Daizawa or Yoyogi-Uehara and I almost patted my pocket to make sure my passport was there. (Sasaki is doing such a good impression of impersonating Japan that Google Maps will show you a location in the Niigata Prefecture if you search for it.)
In actual fact, Restaurant Sasaki channels Shimane, north of Hiroshima, where owner/chef Yu Sasaki is from. The menu includes two sakes from the prefecture and the teapots are by Sodeshi Pottery, a 19th-century studio based near the Shimane Art Museum. The kitchen includes a hand-made Gyuto knife by Unshu Yukimitsu from Okuizumo, Shimane – the only type in the world. I admire the owner’s unwavering commitment to evoking Japan by sourcing the furniture and homewares from his homeland. (His inability to be crushed by shipping fees also amazes me.) Everything here, right down to the cutlery, is beautiful. There are wooden spoons that look like they’ve been artfully dropped into an inkwell, but are actually carved from naturally patterned timber by Sasaki’s retired father. And miso soup bowls, gracefully reduced to pure white curves and a plainly indented lid, are the most lovely you’ve ever seen. The elegantly minimal design – all simple timber ledges and exposed shelving – has an open-book charm. There is nothing hidden here. Attention is centralised around a timber bar area where there is a low-murmur frenzy every time a waiter approaches the massive double-lidded pot of Salmon Rice ($11), ready to serve the still-warm grains into bowls. (I saw three cameras whipped out on one occasion this happened.)
Like the understated interior design (by Yu Sasaki and his cousin, architect Natsumi Yawata, who have turned a small office into an updated Japanese tea house), the menu is powered by simplicity and a one-of-a-kind charm. Once you recover from your crush on the beautiful homewares and interiors, you will start forming strong feelings for the dishes. Like Restaurant Sasaki’s look, the food is simplified and stripped back – without losing any originality or personality. The chef calls on both his childhood memories in Japan and his Western training (Marque, The French Laundry and Universal) to produce a menu unlike any I’ve seen. There’s a Cabbage dish ($17) that is like a Japanese coleslaw, made with tofu mayonnaise and given a wildcard flavour from fresh persimmon. Cold Eggplant ($19) is set with buckwheat grains and plum jelly, while Asparagus tempura ($19) is topped with shaved hazelnut and served with a plum-like sauce that’s actually made of beetroot. Cubes of Smoked Chicken ($15) are sheltered under a decorative trellis of pickled cauliflower slices. Beef ($24) in red wine and miso, matched with a comforting heap of mashed potato, is like a bistro favourite given a Japanese remix. The standout dish on our table, though, is the Mushroom, Egg & Cheese ($21): panko-crusted mushrooms that have been deep-fried and served with frothy-light fontina cheese and a 64-degree egg. Right at the bottom of the bowl is this super-sweet aged balsamic soy that gives this combination the knockout punch it needs. This might be the best cold-weather dish around right now.
Even the Miso Soup ($10) isn’t one of those lazy serves that’s barely garnished with spring onion – here, it’s seasoned with yuzu pepper and loaded with tofu, carrots and baby turnips.
And given that Japanese food can often be an “oops, there’s fish stock in everything” minefield for vegetarians, it’s impressive that the chef has certified all the vegetarian-sounding dishes as legit fare, by creating a dashi with plum and mushroom that he uses as a vego-friendly substitute.
Restaurant Sasaki sits just behind Cre Asion, the patisserie that Yu Sasaki opened in 2011 and is known for its Asian-inspired macarons – White Miso and Yuzu, for instance – and its Golden Gaytime tribute to his former Universal boss, Christine Manfield. So it’s no shock or spoiler to learn that the desserts here have a very good hit rate. The Hitokuchi-gashi (one-bite sweets) are so snack-sized that even if you claim to be dangerously full, you could “bravely” take on the entire dessert menu. There’s a salty Genmai and Ginger biscuit ($4), a Vanilla and Milk ($5) sponge, with custard run-off that’s primed for a clean-up operation via the two supplied cake halves, and the Potato & Butter sweet ($4) consisting of a glutinous sweet potato ball wedged between sweet potato crisps. I’m not entirely sold on the White Peach & Sake ($6), a peach three ways that channels Goulburn Valley fruit salad a little too much for my liking, but I’m on board with the Mandarin & Pomelo ($6) jelly and sorbet that replaced it a few days later. My outright favourite, though, is the Caramel & Nuts ($6), which is conveyed as monaka shells snapping shut on caramel mousse and a miso caramel nut mix.
These sweets would go well with Restaurant Sasaki’s tea selection, which includes four kinds of Sencha custom-blended right in Shimane (with the yuzu version being my weakness), properly made matcha and the Dokudamicha ($7), which I enjoy for its hojicha-like profile, but also the hilarious (and perhaps overblown) miracle-drug status it has. It’s so apparently healthy that Japan’s oldest elephant drinks it frequently every day to stay well.
There’s also a range of Japanese whiskies, sake, shochu and even some wine to pick from. The beer is hyperlocal, though (The Grifter Bright Eye Pilsner).
I noticed that Restaurant Sasaki has been, on my two visits, filled with Japanese-speaking guests. I asked one of them how she compared the food to other restaurants taking on this cuisine. She had tried the Salmon Rice and the chawanmushi-style Egg and Crab ($11) starter and said they had “sensitive tastes”. It’s true that nothing needs to be amplified here – Sasaki’s food is pitched to make its point eloquently and quietly. Everything is done with hairpin precision and there are no spare parts to any dish. The menu taps into its ingredients directly and without fuss or over-adornment. The restaurant delicately dismantles any reservations you have over the course of your visit – to the point where you can’t recall the exact point where you were won over. Even if occasionally there’s a dish that’s more “interesting” than delicious, you’re still a fan. Put it down to the lump sum of Sasaki’s many charms.
The chef regularly reworks the menu – I noticed key changes between my visit and Helen’s (even though they were days apart), which creates an excellent excuse for justifying return dates. Restaurant Sasaki has been officially open just over a week, but it’s already built up a growing fan club. (Spearheaded by early visitors Edition Coffee Roasters’ Daniel Jackson and Ramen Raff, and maintained by Grab Your Fork’s winning post.)
And when it makes re-entry into Japan so easy, who can resist its transporting powers?