Like entering many stores in Japan enthusiastic exclamations of ‘Irasshaimase’ welcome you as you arrive at Sokyo at the Darling at the Star. Unlike the discreet doorway, this rousing chorus makes everyone know you have arrived.
The décor is dark and moody, with touches of Vegas glam – much as you would expect from a restaurant at the Star. Sokyo Lounge is romantically lit – appropriately sleek and sexy with polished lacquer surfaces and a little gilt here and there.
My chef and server for the night is Chase Kojima, former Nobu Executive Chef and wunderkind. He greets me at the bar with his preferred option for the Good Food Month Bar Hop – Gari, a cocktail of Tanqueray, pickled ginger juice, lemon and house-made ginger beer matched with Cuttlefish Tempura with Tarragon Ponzu sauce and a gentle dust of chilli de arbol. This dish is so perfect I have to put the brakes on so I can leave room for the Omakase menu that Chase has personally chosen for me.
After travelling the world, working for the Nobu group, Chef Chase was seduced by Sydney. Nobu Matsushisa’s loss is Sydney’s gain. He is a second-generation chef, originally from San Francisco. Chase’s goal (according to his twitter bio) is “To make Sokyo at the Star…….. #1 Japanese Restaurant in Sydney!……… Other than that I’m humble chef”.
Flying solo tonight, I sit at the Sushi Bar flanked by Chase and Sydney’s Sushi Master, Takashi Sano. I don’t yet realise what I’m in for– a non-stop hit parade of Sokyo’s finest dishes. The sushi bar is the place to be if you love watching how a kitchen really works. This is the engine room of a very well oiled machine. Yes, you expect precision and artistry in a good Japanese restaurant but here it is delivered with more than a solid dose of Zen.
Kingfish Miso Ceviche with green chilli and crispy potato is another triumph. Here it is as much about the texture as the flavour – the crispy strands of potato encircle the kingfish providing just the right amount of crunch to the softness of the miso doused fish.
Next it is full artistry on the plate with Maguro Tataki – seared aged Tuna with pickled mushrooms, asparagus, smoked ponzu and teardrops of quivering and translucent ginger gel. Underneath lies a carbonized leek aioli that ties all the elements together and it is garnished with dainty violas and micro herbs. This is without a doubt the finest tuna I have ever eaten.
By about now, you understand what Chase is getting at with this menu; not wanting to use the cliché f word – this is so much subtler than East Meets West. It is a marriage of Japanese cuisine’s clean, fresh, bright flavours and exhaustive technique enhanced by modern American or Mexican ingredients, such as poblano or chilli arbol, transformed into aiolis and mayos.
Next from the Robata grill is an uber smoky, perfectly cooked Kurobuta Pork Belly skewer. On first inspection you think the melting double cooked pork is extra fatty but on tasting you realize it is alternated with Daikon with a mustard aioli and anointed with sansho pepper. This is where I exclaimed on Instagram, “So now it’s just getting ridiculous – I’m in food heaven at #Sokyo – pork so meltingly tender it’s like a warm smoky jelly”.
DengakuMan is simply described as caramelized miso cod, with a Japanese salsa and cucumber salad. But it is so much more – the oh, so sweet, tender and flaky fish is anointed with a sweet essence of miso –all umami goodness. The salsa and cucumber provides the requisite freshness to accompany this mighty piece of fish. This is a dish to be savoured slowly.
A selection of sashimi prepared by Sydney’s Sushi Master, Takashi Sano is unbelievable, but by this time, even in the interest of research, I am beaten. I taste all 4 selections (some are seared) and they are out of this world, but I do know my limit. The kingfish belly is unctuous and buttery. There is harmony and beauty in every morsel.
Chase offers dessert and of course, I say yes, even though I know I can only taste. Dessert at Japanese restaurants is quite often an afterthought, but at Sokyo, they push all the buttons. I get to try the Yamazaki Caramel Macchiato – a not too sweet coffee ice cream, with coco nibs and finished like a cappuccino with whisky foam. The Yatsuhashi kyoto mochi is a green, glutinous rice ‘dumpling’ that provides an interesting texture and is filled with a delectable frozen strawberry milkshake.
Everybody is enjoying themselves in a dining room buzzing and close to capacity on a Monday night where service appears speedy and attentive. Do yourself a favour and snare seats at the Sushi Bar – close to the action and somehow part of it all. The humble Chef Kojima puts on one helluva show and it could be the best Japanese show in town.