I used to work with a guy who was an absolute fitness machine. He competed in ironman competitions (that's a 4km swim, 180km bike ride and 42km run - non stop...) and 24-hour solo mountain bike races, and even fought in amateur MMA competitions. I went and watched him fight once, just after he'd grown a beard, and without his shirt on he looked just like Wolverine, albeit without any photoshopping (no offence Hugh Jackman, I know you're pretty ripped too!). Oh, and he was in his mid-40's.
For him, food only meant one thing. Fuel. When you train and compete at that level, it takes a lot of planning (and eating!) to get enough calories into your body just to replace what's been expended (let alone what you'd need for normal functioning), so you just view food as something that will give you energy to train again tomorrow, and repair your body overnight. I suppose that's why he was able to guzzle down protein shakes blended with chicken breasts for morning tea, not too concerned by everyone else stuffing themselves with muffins and sausage rolls, a.k.a. E10 petrol.
Right over on the other end of the spectrum is a group, which is growing bigger and bigger, that savours every aspect of the whole dining experience (and then shares it on Instagram immediately!). Their experience starts from the moment they walk in the door (or even beforehand); and when it comes to the food, it's not just how it tastes, but how it's presented and how they interact with it. A pasta finished at the table in a hollowed-out wheel of parmesan cheese. A perfectly cooked chocolate fondant or poached egg that oozes out over the plate. Live prawns put to sleep with alcohol and cooked, right in front of your eyes. The theatre of food.
Nowadays, some restaurants offer an exclusive 'Chef's Table' dining experience (in Sydney, these include Aria, The Apollo, Pei Modern, The Gantry and Glass Brasserie), where you get a table in open view of the kitchen (sometimes even in the kitchen), watch the chefs do their thing during a manic dinner service, and even interact with them. It's perhaps the ultimate dining experience (short of being able to have a two-way conversation with the head chef throughout the entire night), and just like any voyeuristic attraction, it'll cost you a pretty penny.
Of course, there are other ways to get the Chef's Table experience - and one of those, which has been around since the 1940's, is by going to a teppanyaki restaurant. A concept that was popularised in in the U.S. (where else!), many of us would be familiar with sitting around a large flat griddle, watching a theatrical chef entertain us with his or her elaborate knife skills and upside-down salt writing, and getting egg and rice thrown at us. All that's great for a bit of fun, but at its heart, teppanyaki simply means ‘iron plate’ (Teppan) and ‘grilled’ (yaki).
Kujin in Elizabeth Bay is a restaurant that embraces the more traditional approach to teppanyaki, without the theatrics, flaming onion volcanoes, or bad jokes. It's located not far from the nowadays-subdued Golden Mile of Kings Cross, and has a fairly unassuming entrance, with a small overhanging sign and a decal on the wall telling you you're at the right place. Curiously, it's the only restaurant on the otherwise-quiet street, with all of the other commercial space nearby being occupied by professional services and daytime retail stores.
The lack of evening foot traffic doesn't seem to be affecting Kujin at all, and as we make our way inside behind two other couples who are also just arriving, the restaurant is full and buzzing with energy. We're lucky enough to get a seat right in front of the teppan chef, giving us a great view of all the action. I'm immediately mesmerised by everything he's doing (even just transporting the meat from the grill to the plate) - although the downside of our great view is the food envy we'll soon be experiencing as we see all the dishes being prepared that are going to other tables!
I'm told that Kujin has a great selection of sake - and the menu even has the sake meter value (SMV) for each selection, which indicates whether the sake is dry or sweet based on the density of the sake relative to water. The average SMV is +3, and the higher it goes, the drier the sake. Science is cool, huh? But knowing that we'll be sampling countless gins and vodkas at the Fine Spirit Expo the next day (more on that in a future post), Miss T and I opt to keep things low-key with a couple of cold glasses of Asahi.
Kujin has an extensive menu, with plenty of popular starters like sashimi, sushi rolls (listed on a separate menu), salads, edamame, chicken karaage and gyoza. And of course, the main event is everything else that's done on the teppan - grilled vegetable, seafood and meat dishes, teppan noodles and rice, and okonomiyaki (a grilled savoury pancake with cabbage and an array of fillings - less delicately known as 'Japanese Pizza' in the U.S.). Kujin also make their udon noodles in-house, and depending on the season you can choose whether you'd like them served hot or cold.
The tamagoyaki ($8 - Japanese rolled omelette) is a specialty at Kujin, so we order it without hesitation. We get to see our chef prepare a couple of others before he gets to ours, and it's a process that requires a fair bit of skill and care. First, a mixture of beaten egg and dashi are poured onto the teppan and shaped into a large rectangle (other places might use a special rectangular frypan... but that seems like cheating after having seen this!). After about 10 seconds, when the egg has just started to set, the chef starts to roll up the egg from one of the short ends of the rectangle, stopping after every quarter roll to push back on the omelette to create a rectangular log (rather than a rounded one). A second bowl of beaten egg is then poured onto the teppan and connected up to the first rolled omelette, and the process continues.
We're salivating by the time our plate of tamagoyaki arrives, and as I grip my chopsticks around one of the pieces, I can tell that it's still incredibly soft and wobbly. Biting into it, I get the sensation of biting into one uniform piece of egg - it's so well cooked that it's impossible to even tell that there are multiple layers or that one side of the omelette got more heat than the other. The dashi in the egg, as well as the dashi soy dressing on the side, adds a light umami flavour, making this an absolute joy to eat.
As sushi and sashimi lovers, it's hard to go out for Japanese without having any seafood, so we go for the tuna tataki with ponzu dressing and truffle oil ($18). Prepared in the back kitchen, the tuna is lightly seared, leaving the lovely pink hues of the flesh to shine, and the ponzu provides a refreshing backdrop to the dish. The only tricky part of this dish is eating the long slices of cucumber with chopsticks (yes, even for a chopstick master like me) - but they've soaked up all that dressing and are too good to pass up.
When Mrs T and I were travelling through Japan earlier this year, we got to have plenty of both the Osaka and Hiroshima styles of okonomiyaki - and to be honest we couldn't get enough of either of them (particularly when they were slathered in kewpie mayo and tonkatsu/Bulldog sauce). Kujin's assorted mushroom okonomiyaki ($13), filled with a mixture of shimeji, enoki and king oyster mushrooms, is just as satisfying, particularly with the combination of textures from the crisp outer batter, firm-yet-tender cabbage, and bouncy mushrooms.
Just like fresh pasta, you can't beat fresh handmade noodles, and having never had handmade udon before, I was looking forward to our kakiage udon ($12, with mixed vegetable tempura). Being a warmer evening, we chose to have it zaru style, which is served chilled with a soy-based dipping sauce.
The elements of the dish are all presented separately, with the udon served in a wooden bowl, the vegetable tempura cake on a side dish, and bowls of the dipping sauce and accompaniments (ginger, grated daikon, spring onion and tenkasu - which is plain fried tempura batter). Similar to tsukemen or soba, you pick up a few strands of the udon and dip them in the dipping sauce, and finish with the accompaniments. The noodles are springy and have a slight chew to them, and are much less dense than store-bought udon noodles; and the tempura carrot, onion and burdock root is crispy and not at all oily.
Note: If you want to try making your own udon noodles at home, check out this post from Not Quite Nigella - you even use your feet to knead the dough!
We can't visit a great teppanyaki place without enjoying a bit of red meat, and the wagyu sirloin with ponzu and steak sauce ($29) fits the bill perfectly. As we watch the chef prepare the piece of steak for the teppan, he pops his head up and kindly asks how we'd like it cooked. "Medium rare, please", I reply, and he nails the brief. Even though there's not much fat in the steak, it's tender and juicy, and I'm impressed by the two even 'cook lines' (if that's even a term) from where the steak has been on the teppan, with the rest of the meat showing a red hue not unlike the tuna from earlier in the evening. Of the two house-made sauces I prefer the 'steak sauce', but maybe it's just because we've had a couple of ponzu dressings earlier in the meal.
A scoop of matcha ice cream (which is free if you're a Washoku Lovers member) provides the perfect end to a great meal, and as we make our way out, I feel like we've had a thoroughly entertaining experience sitting in front of the teppan chef for the night. Even though there hasn't been any theatrics or too much interaction (other than him smiling every time I point my camera at him, and him asking us how the food is), we've enjoyed watching him fastidiously going about his craft, making sure everything is cooked exactly how it should be. It's given us a great start-to-finish dining experience, and even if you only think of food as purely something to fuel your body, I think you'd feel the same.
41B Elizabeth Bay Road, Elizabeth Bay (near the Kings Cross police station, if you're familiar with it!)
(02) 9331 6077
I dined as a guest of Kujin and SDMG Marketing, however all opinions are my own.