Sushi train... sushi-go-round... kaiten-zushi... whatever you like to call it, we're all familiar with the wonderful concept of sitting in front of a conveyer belt, watching plates of sushi pass before our hungry eyes, and picking off the ones that look the best before someone else down the line gets a chance. If I could sit at a sushi train instead of waiting at the baggage carousel for my suitcase every time I took a flight, I'd be a happy man - it's far more delicious and much less likely to result in me having to invoke my travel insurance to buy a new pair of socks and a new toothbrush!
As well as being able to choose exactly what you want to eat, the 'convenience' factor is one of sushi train's big drawcards - as soon as you sit down, you're the master of your own destiny and can start grabbing plates off the belt at will. If you're really strapped for time, you can even be in and out of there in less than 5 minutes (not that I condone eating that quickly!). But with that said, sushi train doesn't always have to be a 'fast food' experience, and Sushi Train Neutral Bay has a different approach to sushi train dining which has made it a popular option with sushi diners.
As part of the original franchise that brought conveyer belt sushi to Australia, Sushi Train Neutral Bay prides itself on offering a unique sushi train experience. Situated along Military Road (just past the McDonalds on the Cremorne side), the restaurant has a much more laidback and intimate atmosphere than the frenetic sushi trains in the CBD, thanks to its dark timber features, dim lighting, and jazzy downtempo music flowing through the house speakers. You feel a sense of calm as soon as you walk in, and looking around at the other diners, everyone's chatting and laughing away and no one seems to be in too much of a rush.
As with most sushi trains, the sushi chefs prepare everything in the 'middle' of the train, with conventional bar-style seating available along one side of the room, and booths on the other side for bigger groups. Mrs T and I were lucky enough to get one of the booths for the two of us!
Along with creating a unique sushi train atmosphere, owner Chef Ken has also put together a menu which includes items that you might not find at other sushi trains. First of all, the restaurant is fully licensed and offers a range of Japanese beer and sake, as well as bottles of plum wine (cho-ya umeshu). We feel like celebrating the fact that it's a beautiful Sydney day (yay!), so we order the Bishonen and Ippin sakes ($8.80 each for 180mL).
Tip: if you join Washoku Lovers (it's free to join), you get a free small serving of sake when you visit...
As well as the usual option of choosing plates from the conveyer belt, Sushi Train Neutral Bay also has an extensive à la carte menu, from which you can order different plates of nigiri, sushi and sashimi; noodle and rice bowls; and izakaya-style dishes such as agedashi tofu, takoyaki (octopus balls), okonomiyaki and tempura. Some of Chef Ken's own creations, which are only available at the Neutral Bay outlet, include the duck nigiri ($4.50), grilled marbled beef nigiri ($5.00), miso garlic salmon & scallop ship ($5.50) and salmon tobiko ship ($5.50) - so we make sure we order those upfront, as well as a few of our other favourites.
Our two varieties of sake arrive quickly, in colourful little flasks and cups. They're both quite crisp and easy to drink, with the Ippin having a bit more sweetness than the drier Bishonen. As our Spicy Tuna & Avocado Roll ($5.00) gets passed over the counter to us, we notice that the chopsticks are even a little different here, with a light brown finish to them compared to the usual off-white colour. I don't know why, but it feels a bit classier with the darker chopsticks!
The duck nigiri has a thin slice of lean duck meat, with a sweetish soy drizzled over the top and a sprinkling of spring onion. My thoughts immediately turn to peking duck pancakes, and so a little slice of cucumber would have made this even better! The grilled marbled beef nigiri has a beautiful smoky flavour to it from the blowtorch, and the meat is soft and tender.
The ikura (salmon roe) ship is one of my favourite dishes of the meal - the ikura is plump and juicy, reminding me of the amazing ikura we had in Sapporo earlier this year (click here to see my $30 bowl of ikura and uni on rice!). I also really enjoy the miso garlic salmon & scallop ship (what a great combination of ingredients), as well as the agedashi soft shell crab, which has two pieces of soft shell crab in a clear yet tasty dashi broth.
About half way through our meal we notice that there are little sachets of kewpie mayo on the conveyer belt! I've never seen single serves of kewpie before so these are a bit of a novelty, and we grab a couple just in time for our crispy ebi fry (tempura prawn) roll.
Just like the grilled beef nigiri, the grilled scallop nigiri has the same terrific smoky taste to it. I could easily have another 2 or 3 of these, but I resist the urge as I know there's more coming (you'd think we'd be full by now wouldn't you...)!
As we sip on the last of our sake, our final few dishes arrive - the salmon tobiko ship satisfies my ever-present salmon craving (we'd normally get a few plates of plain salmon and tuna nigiri but in the interest of trying out some different things we've given them a miss today), the prawn tempura arrives at our table about 15 seconds after coming out of the fryer so it's wonderfully hot and crispy, and the salmon skin nigiri has that great crunch and slightly stronger taste to it (which, I admit, might not be to everyone's liking).
If you're up for some dessert, Sushi Train Neutral Bay has green tea cakes and scoops of gelato on offer, but as an encore, we can't go past the nasu dengaku - crispy cubes of eggplant with a sweet and salty miso glaze. The eggplant is cooked really well - it's soft to the bite, while retaining its structure and shape (whenever I cook eggplant I always seem to cross that line between it being tender and falling apart!).
We've thoroughly enjoyed our meal at Sushi Train Neutral Bay, not only for the quality of the food, but also for the relaxed, intimate atmosphere where we've felt like we could take our time and enjoy everything. With so many Japanese restaurants to choose from on the lower north shore, it still represents a great option given the variety of food they have to choose from. I look forward to going back and trying out their other varieties of sushi (the salmon belly nigiri looked deliciously fatty as it went past on the conveyor belt), as well as their other a la carte dishes such as the spicy chicken karaage and katsu rice bowl.
308 Military Road, Cremorne NSW 2090
(02) 9908 8891 (note that they don't take bookings)
Open 11:00-22:00, Mon-Sun
* I dined as a guest of Sushi Train Neutral Bay and SD Marketing Global (Washoku Lovers); however, all opinions are my own.