If there's one place in Sydney to go to for yakiniku (or, as it's commonly referred to, Japanese BBQ), it's Rengaya in North Sydney. Having been open since 1993, it was the first authentic Japanese BBQ restaurant to open in Australia, and has since been an iconic destination for meat and seafood lovers alike.
Rengaya's chef Yamada brings a wealth of experience to the restaurant - he grew up in Nagoya (which you might know of as the home of hitsumabushi, the eel dish that's eaten in a number of stages) and started cooking at just 16. Like many chefs, he's had the opportunity to work abroad in a number of restaurants and hotels, and his career has taken him to the U.S., Canada, Singapore, and now Sydney, where he's been at Rengaya for over a decade.
It's a warm Monday night (yes... Spring is finally upon us!) that Miss T and I make a trip over the bridge for dinner at Rengaya. Having lived quite close to the middle of the city for the last 6 months, it's pretty rare for us to venture outside the CBD and inner suburbs - unless, of course, it's for food!!
Walking into the restaurant, there's a sense of calm (and being 6pm, there aren't too many sounds of sizzling meat coming from the restaurant just yet), and we notice that the fitout is quite traditional - with plenty of timber elements, neutral colour tones and clean lines.
As we sit down, it feels like we very much have our own 'space' within the restaurant - perhaps it's from the larger-than-normal tables (which, after all, have a gas BBQ right in the middle of them), or maybe it's from the generous amount of spacing between the tables. Whatever it is - it works, and has us feeling settled in a way that a busy eastern suburbs cafe on a Sunday morning just can't!
We start off by browsing through the drinks menu, and decide to try their chu-hai cocktails, which have been recommended to us by a friend as they're the only place in Sydney that serves them the same way they're served in Japan. Essentially, chu-hai is a combination of shochu (called 'Japanese vodka' on the menu), freshly squeezed juice (often some form of citrus) and soda, which sounds refreshingly delicious for a Monday night! There's also a pretty extensive sake menu, which includes some pretty premium bottles.
At Rengaya, all of the chu-hai are a DIY job, served on a small platter and allowing you to mix the ingredients to suit your taste, while also being a bit of fun. The grapefruit I've been given for my 'grapefruit and passionfruit' version is super juicy, almost filling the glass up to the top after pouring the shochu in, and leaving a bit of room for a splash of bubbly soda water.
As I mix the ingredients together with the metal spoon, I start to wonder how best to consume the drink. Then, to my surprise, I notice that the spoon also doubles as a straw (the Japanese just think of everything, don't they!). It's a little tricky to use the straw with the passionfruit seeds and pulp, but it does give off a pretty funny sensation as the cold liquid passes your fingers on the way up the straw.
The taste itself, unsurprisingly, is really fruity, with only a slight hint of the shochu taste coming through, making it really easy to drink.
Even though we're at a yakiniku restaurant, it's hard to pass up some sashimi to start with, so we order the Special Sashimi Selection ($43.90). As you can see, it's sliced meticulously and served beautifully, with generous portions of salmon, tuna, kingfish, squid and a couple of other white fish. The quality of the fish is what makes this platter stand out, but in terms of the freshness and the cut of the fish used, so we savour each piece, giving the flavours time to make their way across our palates.
There are also a couple of types of edible seaweed sitting off to the side of the platter, which accompany the fish really well and keep the flavours of the sea going.
The other starter dish we choose starts to align more with the theme of the restaurant, and it's a Wagyu Yukke ($16.90) - which is a wagyu beef tartare, served with finely chopped shallots, sesame oil, garlic, and a raw egg yolk. Rengaya also offers a version of this dish with 'premium' wagyu - but we figure we'll slum it with the regular version this time.
Now, every time I have a beef (or venison) tartare, I'm always astounded at how soft and tender the meat is - it's like I'm eating it for the very first time and just discovering how good it is. I'm glad to say that this Wagyu Yukke is no exception - the texture of the beef is superb (almost sushi-like), requiring very little effort to chew through; and the egg yolk adds a wonderful creaminess to it, almost acting like a dressing. Two thumbs up.
Now that we're all limbered up, it's onto the main show - yakiniku time! As is common amongst many Japanese BBQ places, there's an array of meats to choose from - beef loin, beef tenderloin, beef rump, beef oyster, beef rib, beef rib finger, beef special rib - the list is endless, and that's before we even get to the other meats! For any fellow offal-lovers out there, there's also a section curiously called 'BBQ Ambles', which includes beef tripe, beef intestine, beef liver, and an assortment of all three.
With all that choice, we decide to make it easy on ourselves and order the Premium Wagyu Assortment ($49.90), which is a selection of five different cuts of wagyu, and is the chef's recommendation. There's wagyu rib, wagyu rib finger, wagyu loin, wagyu oyster blade and wagyu ox-tongue, each served in 2 portions, making it perfect for sharing (or actually - for making sure you each get the same amount!).
If you're not well-versed in telling apart your wagyu oyster blade from your wagyu loin (what? you mean they're not part of your everyday diet?), the platter comes with a handy key that tells you what's what.
To the wagyu beef assortment, we also grab a serve of king brown mushrooms ($9.90), wagyu beef intestine ($14.90) and premium pork loin ($17.90)
So with that covered, all that's left is to get grilling! Here's a short summary of each dish:
Wagyu Assortment: We worked our way up the fattiness scale here, starting with the loin and ending with that juicy, fatty piece of wagyu rib. The loin was a little chewy and sinewy, but still had the unmistakable flavour of a good piece of beef; while the ox tongue was surprisingly succulent. In my haste to make sure no piece of beef was overcooked, I forgot that rib meat usually gets cooked low and slow, so my first attempt at cooking it was waaaaay underdone (and a bit chewy). Once it was cooked all the way through, the meat was a lot more tender.
The wagyu rib, in all its glistening glory, was the standout though - hardly requiring any chewing and plenty of flavour from the marbling (oh, let's be honest, we can call it fat!). And there was something mesmerizing seeing it sizzle away on the BBQ, with each drop of fat dripping off the meat agitating the flames below.
Pork Loin: The thinly-sliced strips of pork cooked in no time at all, curling up slightly over the flames and crisping up on the outside (almost like bacon). The ginger marinade also caramelised quite nicely, adding some extra flavour.
King Brown Mushrooms: I love king brown mushrooms - they're one of my favourite mushrooms to saute with a bit of garlic, salt and pepper, and eat on top of some buttered toast. With that said, I'm not sure that cooking them directly over a flame, and without oil, is the best way to treat them - maybe we didn't place them in the best spot on the BBQ, but they tended to wrinkle on the outside and dry up on the inside.
Wagyu Beef Intestine: Eating intestines probably doesn't sound all that appealing, but one of my favourite childhood dishes was Chinese-style crispy pig's intestines (which is like crispy pork belly... but 100x better), so this version piqued my interest. I found them to be quite enjoyable - slightly fatty, slightly chewy (not unlike the pig version); and again, with a sweet marinade that caramelised and crisped up nicely on the outside to add some texture.
With the meat-feast over (sorry vegetarians, there's probably not much for you here. In fact, if you're vegetarian, I'm amazed that you're still reading!), it's time to cap it off with a little sweet. We don't have much room for anything substantial (we'll have to come back and try the Green Tea Creme Brulee and Sharatama Cream Anmitsu), so it's just a scoop of ice cream each for us.
There are 7 flavours to choose from, and I can't give up the chance to try the Rengaya Shiraz Ice Cream ($5.6) as I've never seen ice cream flavoured with wine. The first mouthful is a bit strange as I try to figure out what's happening on my palate (yes, there is a very distinct red wine flavour here), but the more I have it, the better it gets. It's also served with a handful of dried cumquats, which gets me thinking that a little wedge of blue cheese wouldn't go astray here either!
Miss T goes for the safe route and gets the Green Tea Ice Cream ($5.6), which is, as always, delicious. (I'm yet to have a bad green tea ice cream).
Rengaya is an institution in Sydney's food scene - it's a restaurant that's built on quality and offers a yakiniku experience that's unmatched elsewhere, which is why it's stood the test of time and I'm sure will continue to be there for years to come.
Address: 73 Miller Street, North Sydney NSW 2060
Phone: (02) 9929 6169
* I dined as a guest of Rengaya and Washoku Lovers; however, all opinions are my own.