This restaurant has closed.
Add otsumami to your international snack lexicon. Alongside tapas, stuzzichini, mezze, cicchetti, canapés and whatever else you'd care to name, they're Japan's contribution to the world of small things you can eat while you drink. In this case it's out with the sherry, jamón and olives and in with sake, cold tofu and fermented squid. Beer, happily, is still beer wherever you go and, as is the case worldwide, fried things and salty things are major accompaniments. Then there are things on sticks, for which Japanese cooks - sticklers for finely graded taxonomy - have quite specific names, depending on what they are and how they're cooked.
Otsumami are the focus at Azuma Regent, the new restaurant owned by Kimitaka Azuma, long one of Sydney's most respected Japanese restaurateurs. Azuma-san opened his first restaurant on Falcon Street in Crows Nest in 1996. It was famed, initially, for the impenetrability of both its Japanese-only menu and the density of cigarette smoke in the room. Both were dispelled with time, and a sushi menu appeared in the early noughties to complement the acclaimed sashimi. In 2002, the operation moved to the ultra-corporate surrounds of Chifley Plaza in the city, and it has been a firm favourite of city types and high-flyers ever since, a glance at the reservation list at any given lunchtime revealing a world of acronyms opaque to anyone less than familiar with the Forbes 400.
The new place is in a similarly glossy setting, the Regent Place shopping centre under the new Norman Foster-designed block next to the cinemas on George Street. The Japanese force is strong in this one: the complex also houses a Japanese pharmacy, a J-youth-culture-oriented amusement arcade/boutique, and Ton Ton, a rather good casual ramen bar that is also owned and operated by the Azuma crew. Azuma Regent itself fronts the escalator of a soaring glass-ceilinged arcade. The keen-eyed will note the overhang of what is presumably the skyscraper's swimming pool just above the entrance.
Entering the restaurant, you've got sake fridges on your left and the glassed-in kitchen to your right, with the unclothed tables and corporate-sombre palette of the dining room beyond it. There's a room with booths to the side. They're not the full shoes-off tatami production, but you may nonetheless encounter difficulty scoring one if your party numbers fewer than four. Or you might not. The level of English spoken by the waitstaff varies a good deal; whether this accounts for basic lapses in service such as prompt filling of drinks or the timely delivery of each and every dish ordered, I can't say. It's not a strong point, at any rate.
The strong points are, in fact, the sake and the things that go with it. You'll want to go at dinner, not simply so you can get away with drinking more, but because most of the really interesting stuff isn't served during the day. This includes the kushiyaki, kushi meaning skewers, yaki meaning grilled. You might be more familiar with the term yakitori used in a similar way - in strict use, I'm told, this refers solely to poultry; but certainly there are lots of bits of chicken on Azuma Regent's menu. There's no offal on offer, but wings, flattened-out thigh fillets, tsukene meatballs and, perhaps the most interesting, hiza, or 'soft kneecaps', all appear. The kneecaps are crunchy and intensely chicken-flavoured, while the thighs, seasoned with little more than salt, are crisp of skin and juicy of flesh. The kushi-yaki are sold by the single stick or by five-piece tasting plates; they're priced between $2.50 and $4 a stick, though, so I'd suggest you order two of whatever's on offer on the day. I can vouch for the tallowy richness of the wagyu, the shell-on nuttiness of the prawns, the dry flakiness of the salmon and the pleasing squish of the shiitakes stuffed with prawn mince. The asparagus wrapped in thinly sliced pork belly is a must, as is the unexpectedly interesting konnyaku, a firm, bland jelly made with the flour of the starchy corm of the konjac plant, topped here with a miso sauce.
There's a subheading under the otsumami section of the menu that's like a red rag to this bull: 'unique side dish for sake'. The 'uniquely fermented salty squid' isn't on offer tonight, but the shuto, 'uniquely fermented bonito', is. It presents as a small bowl of diced fish on a decorative shiso leaf. It's intensely flavoured and seriously salty, but comes to life in the mouth when it's followed by a sip of sake (and I imagine it would be sensational with a frosty Asahi). The same section of the menu brings us the gyu-suji nikomi, a heavy little iron pot, its contents topped with a wealth of garlic chives. Underneath lurk slices of beef tendon, braised tender, their densely gelatinous texture contrasting with the fluffy delicacy of pale cubes of silken bean curd. ("This dish," the menu adds, helpfully, "contains a lot of collagen, which is great for your skin." If you wear it as a mask, perhaps.) Again, it's something that comes into its own, naturally enough, with the suggested complement of sake, shochu or beer.
If all that talk of tendons and kneecaps isn't your cup of genmaicha, seek solace in the chawan mushi. Rendered here with particular elegance, it's a savoury steamed custard studded with shiitake, prawns, chicken and gingko nuts. The tsukemono, or homemade pickles, are another favourite at the Azuma mothership, and here daikon, turnip, greens and cucumber, among others, are a fresh, acidic foil for the richness of the kushiyaki. Again, a fine complement to the full-bodied nature of sake. The daikon dengaku is perhaps less so - in culinary terms 'dengaku' designates a dish topped with miso paste and grilled. The most common rendering in Japanese restaurants is nasu dengaku, grilled eggplant topped with miso (and sometimes minced chicken) and grilled again. The effect with the simmered daikon is sweet-on-sweet, and perhaps a little too close to candied for many.
Speaking of candy, Azuma Regent endeavours to break free of the poor reputation Japan has for sweets in the West, but with limited success. Desserts are picked from a Japanese and Japanese-French selection from a glass case in the window: all the mochi you could dream of, plus overdecorated little raspberry mousses, cherry-topped Mont Blancs, fiddly St Honores, chocolate fondants and orange chibousts. They're not bad, and someone has obviously taken a great deal of time to make them, but they're fussy and sweet in a way that seems a bit time-warped.
The menu is long, and even a couple of visits can barely scratch the surface. I can tell you that the sushi and sashimi exhibit clear signs of fresh and well-chosen ingredients prepared with both understanding and care, but I'm yet to try a whole host of other interesting-sounding dishes - tuna chazuke, or rice in tea soup topped with tuna, for instance, and hiya-jiru, a cold soybean paste soup with sesame paste and ground fish, poured over warm rice. I want the deep-fried duck and the abalone steak dressed with soy and butter and the mussels steamed in sake, not to mention the zosui, a Japanese rice dish with a texture somewhere between risotto and congee.
Azuma Regent proves that there's still so much more to the food of Japan than is dreamt of in our philosophy, and does so with an argument that persuades through its substance as well as its elegance. And that's worth raising a glass to.