"Ichi! Ni! San!" It's Japanese for "One! Two! Three!", but it's also the countdown (or up) to the detonation of a Sake Bomb. The Sake Bomb? It's a wholly untraditional concoction, probably more American than Japanese, whereby you fill a glass with beer and balance a shot of sake over it with two chopsticks. As you get ready to drink it, you count to three in Japanese and then pummel the table or bar either side of the glass with your fists. The shot glass drops through the chopsticks, the beer foams up, you down it, and mirth ensues.
It's about as far from the calm and composition of formal Japanese dining as you can get, yet there's still something undeniably Japanese about it. The Sake Bomb appears on the drinks list at Saké, a new Japanese restaurant at The Rocks, though admittedly there's a note suggesting that it's best enjoyed after the meal. Saké is generally a tonier experience than the presence of Sake Bombs may suggest, but they speak of the thread of fun here that sets the place apart from the growing ranks of post-Nobu restaurants that are proliferating in the Western world. "Post-Nobu" is an apt phrase here because chef Shaun Presland considered Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, the man who brought a touch of Hollywood sparkle to the sushi world, fusing South American flavours to those of his homeland, something of a culinary idol, and was chef at one of his restaurants in the Bahamas. It was Presland who first popularised the durable joys of "new-style" sushi and other ideas at Sushi E, and the parallels between Sushi E and Saké are numerous.
But where Sushi E occupies a slice of a room mostly given over to a lounge bar on the top floor of Establishment, Saké sprawls across a stone-walled, low-beamed former wool store on Argyle Street, just near the steps to Bel Mondo. It's a nicely lit collection of rooms, rich in timber and scattered with literal decorative notes such as the sake barrels lining one wall panel. It encompasses multiple private areas, booths, sushi bar seating and a cocktail bar of its own. The feel is upmarket, certainly, and serious money has been spent, but it has been directed with care and taste enough to keep the place from feeling like a Manhattan nightclub sushi barn. The chopsticks are disposable, but they're the fancy sort that don't introduce splinters to your diet, and there's a Forest Stewardship Council logo on the menu which, presumably, means they're not made from sequoias or Wollemi pines or what have you. The napkins are paper, as are the menus, which sit on the table folded like maps.
In the manner of post-Nobu restaurants everywhere, the menu itself is big, running to separate sections for hot and cold starters, kushiyaki and kushiage, mains, salads, rice, soups and noodles, sushi and sashimi. There's even a kids' menu, a single-item listing of a baby bento box, whose lacquered layers reveal rice cakes, edamame, tamago (the sliced omelette you see in sushi), potato salad, fruit and your choice of chicken teriyaki, crisp fried chicken or grilled or tempura kingfish. Fifteen bucks well spent, and hell, it even comes with a drink.
Maybe it speaks of the grazing trend, but the main courses just don't seem like something you want a plate of to yourself. The teriyaki beef - slices of sirloin, rarer than the advertised medium-rare, laid across the plate with shredded daikon, bok choy and yakiniku sauce - is fine, but a bit one-dimensional as a main plate.
The nigiri sushi is more than competent, the rice just so, the selection of fish strong, its preparation assured and clean, whether it be lustrous salmon belly or fatty tuna, that pale-pink wallet-buster. The maki I've seen - the Nixon of grilled eel, avocado and crunchy tempura, the Philadelphia of salmon, amusingly heavy on the cream cheese - are inside-out rolls of considerable ricey heft. I don't think it's drawing a long bow to suggest that the more unusual, acid-tweaked likes of the kingfish petals dressed with yuzu soy, jalapeño slices and coriander, or the jewfish (snapper on this visit) presented new-style, scalded with hot oil, bathed in ponzu sauce and decked in chive blades and hair-thin slices of ginger, will be the true hits here, just like their counterparts at Sushi E.
It's the offer of anticucho sauce, a Nobu-inflected dressing that takes its lifted flavours and heat from Peruvian ají chilli paste, that make the kushiyaki section all the more interesting. The grilled skewers of prawn, cuttlefish, chicken, beef, eggplant or zucchini can also be ordered with perfectly good classic teriyaki (read: barbecue) sauce, but the spice does them all kinds of favours. Kushiage sees the skewers at play again, only now you've got a mixture of ingredients, covered in magically short and crisp Japanese breadcrumbs and deep-fried - the pork and onion number comes to life when you dip it in mustard.
If fried things are your bag, there's much to like here, and with Kirin on tap and a battery of other Asian beers (not to mention Three Sheets Pale Ale from the Lord Nelson up the road) close to hand, what's not to like about popcorn shrimp, or deeply spiced kara-age fried chicken pieces with attractively sharp South American salsas, or one of the better and more interesting renditions of salt-and-pepper tofu you'll find in Sydney. The pick of them might just be the little balls of rice, made slightly spongy and resilient with bamboo, soy beans and springy shiitakes, deep-fried crisp with more of those panko crumbs and served with a yuzu-zingy wasabi mayo.
The kitchen has not quite cracked the Japanese desserts dilemma. The list fuses some Japanese flavours to a mostly Western base, but the result, whether it be the emphatically sweet green apple mousse layered with crisp pastry or the just-plain-silly matcha bombe Alaska with its suspended-animation core of green-tea ice-cream, doesn't show either tradition in its best light (or maybe I'm just thrown by seeing the word "green" appear twice on a dessert menu).
You can eat perfectly well solo or as a couple at the sushi bar, but in a room well-stocked with tables for six and eight, and with a booklet of banquet options, sharing is clearly the way to profit. Skip the mains, go hard on the hot and cold entrée pickings, smash a few sake bottles down (or indeed sip them delicately and considerately, taking down tasting notes in haiku form as you go), make the sushi chefs work for their money, and then retire to the bar for a Sake Bomb or a Count Camilio Returns, a Negroni made with shochu in place of the gin that's not half as wrong as it sounds.
The sake at Saké is far more than set-dressing, incidentally. The restaurant has partnered with the Nakashima Sake Brewing Company to present a list of nine different Kozaemon sakes available by the glass or carafe. Only one is served hot, and the others may surprise in their scope, some showing lifted freshness not a million miles from sav blanc, others nutty, rounded and rich. There's help and enthusiasm aplenty available on the floor, too, if you don't know your honjozo from your junmai, and the same goes for the bar, where you can drink sake and shochu (the Japanese white spirit commonly made from wheat, barley, sweet potatoes or rice) in traditional or modern manners.
I'm making my visits fairly early on in the piece and the restaurant is never more than half full. The speed with which the food issues from the kitchen is almost disconcerting nonetheless, dishes firing out machine-gun-style, pow, pow, pow. You get the sense of a brigade almost champing at the bit, raring for full rooms and the clatter of chopsticks and the detonation of Sake Bombs. I'm guessing, too, that that's exactly what they'll get. Think of it a little bit like Sushi E mingled with North Bondi Italian Food and you're some of the way there (the bill can add up very quickly in the same way, that's for certain).
Saké appears to be set up to cater to groups and cater to them well, so that's a big win for this end of town. All together now, "Ichi, ni, san…"