Tetsuya’s in Sydney is an institution. Always well spoken of and quite revered amongst culinary circles; it was always going to be difficult to do justice when describing this meal.
Duncan and I were fortunate enough to have had our reservation organized by a close and dear friend of Tetsuya himself. The absolute luck and gratitude we have for this is beyond words.
Unfortunately the photos accompanying this post are not the best. I had my DSLR with me that night, but with the way in which we were granted our booking meant we were gifted with a prime table in the middle of the room. To bring out a large clunky camera seemed intrusive, especially considering how much we were all paying to dine there, so my small point and shoot camera it was.
Tetsuya’s is located on a quiet stretch of Kent St in the Sydney CBD. Hidden in a house set back from the road behind some trees, there is only a small brass plate sign to indicate what lies there; it looks more like a stately private home rather than a restaurant. Walking up the driveway to the entrance, we were greeted, coats taken and shown to our table. The restaurant is almost is an L-shape with 2 main dining rooms; both with large glass windows overlooking a traditional Japanese garden. All tables are pointed towards the garden, creating a peaceful, serene setting.
The only menu on offer is the degustation menu at $210AUD per person. No menu is presented, however staff give a quick run-through of key ingredients used, including foie gras, seafood and meats. Any ingredients not able to be eaten for various reasons whether they be dietary or ethical are happily removed or substituted. In a 10-course degustation, there will always be a few courses that jump out immediately as favourites while others seem to serve as fillers. Happily at Tetsuya’s there was more hits than misses.
First dish was a cold pea soup with a scoop of chocolate sorbet. The sorbet was more bitter than sweet, helping to add a richness to the soup.
The second course was one of my favourites, a dish hard to find here in London, chawanmushi. Chawanmushi is a savory seafood custard and Tetasuya’s version was stunning. Light, delicate and soft texture, it tasted of the sea. As I was eating it, I remember not wanting it to end, so mesmerizing was the flavour. Avruga, similar to caviar, but is generally a very close substitute, gave the right amount of texture while simultaneously enhancing the flavour.
Next up was a nice fat piece of tuna, decorated with rocket and finely sliced daikon for crunch and freshness.
Raw scampi was accompanied by a blob of smooth chicken liver pate. The sweetness of the scampi contrasted against the rich livery pate, creating a combination that worked surprisingly well. Walnut vinaigrette added nuttiness and tied the elements together.
And then came the famous signature dish; Tetsuya’s Ocean Trout confit which has been on the menu for the last 20 years. So dedicated is Tetsuya to this dish, he actively worked with Ocean Trout farmers in Tasmania to ensure the quality and size of fish. For a dish that has been around for 20 years, it is still modern to the palate. The ocean trout so delicately confit it still had the impression of being raw. Upon cutting into it, showed a slightly firm texture with an almost meatiness to the fish. A salad of fennel and scoop of trout roe accompanied the trout, which had been crusted in konbu and chives adding umami richness. It was easy to see just why this was his signature dish. All the elements worked together; colour, taste, and texture were all there.
Spanner crab followed, the flavours seemingly almost muted after the brilliance of the former ocean trout. Largely void of any real texture, the spanner crab was mixed with foie gras, curd and junsai, a Japanese water plant. This dish was sweet and a little creamy from the curd, just a little muted in any bold flavour.
After 5 seafood courses, the degustation moved into the red meats with my favourite of all the poultry choices, duck. Like all the red meat to follow, the duck was cooked perfectly. A quenelle of eggplant on the side and a rich jus to tie it all together.
A dish of lamb, with kale and sheeps yoghurt took the menu from a Japanese-French direction straight into the Mediterranean. The yoghurt gave the dish a tang and I’m almost embarrassed to say this, but the flavours were reminiscent of the poshest, fanciest kebab you could ever imagine eating. I loved it, and this along with savoury custard and ocean trout were my picks for this meal.
Seared beef with mild mustard seeds made up the last of our savoury courses. The wasabi that made up part of the dish was undetectable, but the beef was cooked perfectly and was as tender as you could ever hope for.
Next 2 dishes were brought for each of us. On the left was a pear sorbet acting as a palate cleanser. Sweet and just grainy enough that you knew it was made with real pears. On the left was Tetsuya’s take on Bread and Butter pudding. Not as much bread as the traditional British version; this version was rich in vanilla custard mixed through with chocolate custard. A big bowl of this in Winter, and a blanket and I would be very happy.
An extra course was slipped in before our final dessert; a blue cheese and vanilla bavarois. This was an extraordinary dish. Almost a play on the traditional cheese and fruit plate, the blue cheese was not too overwhelming on the palate and the vanilla added aroma to it, while on the side was a pear jelly providing the only sweetness on the plate.
The final dessert was a floating island with praline and custard. Tucked inside the meringue was a small scoop of jelly. The praline custard captured the essence of praline perfectly. My only disappointment was there was no contrasting texture; it was all soft and smooth.
Brought with a cup of Sencha tea were petite fours. A chocolate truffle each and a tiny bite-sized macaroon; a perfect way to end an epic meal.
As we were preparing to pay and leave, we were approached by a member of staff who quietly said to us, ‘Tetsuya would like to offer you both a tour of the restaurant if you would like’. Yes please! Richard the organic hippy (his description, not mine!) took us to see the new bakery where breads and pasties will soon be made in-house, the new private dining room and the wine room with its stunning collection. I may not know much about wines, but I know a 1945 Chateu Latour is something to be in awe of.
It is superfluous to say that every dish; whether I loved it or just simply liked it was cooked perfectly. No dish was left wanting for either a few minutes more nor a few minutes less in cooking time; each and every dish made it to our table just at the sweet spot, and no dish was left wanting for seasoning. It was all expertly and carefully cooked to give respect to the carefully sourced ingredients.
There is no denying that Tetsuya’s is eye-wateringly expensive, but with no hesitations, you get what you pay for. Staff were helpful, knowledgeable and intuitive to all our needs. One waitress in particular was so lovely, I feel bad I did not ask for her name as she was so happy and smiley; it was as though she understood to eat there was a treat and wanted to make sure everyone was as happy as she was.
In an almost fortuitous timely manner, the night after our 12 course extravaganza, SBS ran a repeat of a documentary, ‘Tetsuya’s Pursuit of Excellence’. It was interesting to see Tetsuya (or Tets, as so many of the people interviewed referred to him as) being held in as high esteem as noted culinary tastemakers as Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria. Truth to be told, and shamefully really, while I personally hold both previously mentioned chefs in high regard, perhaps due to personal ignorance was oblivious to the high-esteem that Tetsuya Wakuda is regarded in culinary circles. It is easy to forget in such an isolated country as Australia the impact people can have overseas. The documentary left me with the sense that Tetsuya is a humble person. Throughout, he expressed his disbelief that someone who arrived in Australia all those years ago, who could not even speak English when he first arrived, was now a respected cook. And it seems that is the key word there – he refers to himself as a cook, not a chef.
The other thing to inevitably mention is the San Pellegrino Worlds 50 Best Restaurants. Every year mention is made of just who has slipped back in the rankings, but truth be told, how much does a slip in ratings really effect business? If the chef in question has created a restaurant out of their own imagination and love, does it really matter where they sit in the ranking? Rankings like this always favour the new, the hip, the one restaurant granted precious column inches, but does it really denote ‘the best’? For all the talk of where Tetsuya sits in the world ranking, it must be noted that on a Wednesday night, the restaurant was full to capacity. While the media may be willing to write articles dissecting the rise and fall of the various eateries around the world, the customers themselves; the very ones who are responsible for a restaurants’ financial successes don’t seem to mind where Tets falls on the list.
Tetsuya Wakuda has created something special in this restaurant to still be successful, even after 20 years of trading. In this day and age where it is not uncommon to hear of great restaurants closing after only a few years, this is a great achievement in itself. The cynics may have moved on, but looking around the restaurant that night, it was clear that not everyone would be classified as falling into the ‘wealthy’ bracket. Many of the customers were like myself – of a healthy disposable income – but still the opportunity to eat at Tetsuya’s was a treat; a special occasion. Awards, accolades and world rankings are all very nice, but to charge $210 per person and have ordinary folk eat at your restaurant and still be fully booked on a weeknight, after 20 years is perhaps accomplishment enough for a humble Japanese cook.