Samurai Japanese Cafe

MY dear mates Mr D and Mrs V are Balmain locals who know the Darling Street restaurant strip fairly well. They have seen restaurants come and go and have a good feeling for value and what’s hot, what’s not and what’s gone down hill. So I knew I was in pretty good hands when they took me to Samurai Japanese Cafe one warm Balmain night.

The restaurant is in an old two-storey Victorian terrace conveniently across the road from the Cat & Fiddle pub where you can get something to BYO (and you have to because it’s not licensed). There is seating for 32 in the main dining area, tables in an outside courtyard, and a few smaller tables on Darling Street’s footpath (and on a balmy Sydney night there is no better place to be). The main dining area is uncluttered but beautifully decorated with antique-style Japanese prints on one wall and, a large specials blackboard on exposed brick on the other. Hand-painted parasols in front of uplights emit a warm gentle and colourful glow to the room with its hardwood floorboards and dark wooden tables with tealights.

The waiting staff bring with the menus a little individual appetiser for each person. The menu combines mainly Japanese classics with some more innovative, contemporary-styled dishes using Japanese techniques. There’s some 66 dishes on the menu such as assorted sashimi (12 pieces for $21); prawn tempura ($8.50); teriyaki chicken ($12); kakuni (scotch fillet braised in ginger and soy for $12); and the Samurai dinner boxes (containing sushi, sashimi, tempura, teriyaki and other staples from $22).

What caught my eye on the menu, though, was that there was no charge for BYO and a statement that all items were 10 per cent cheaper if a takeaway order. No charge for BYO and a discount for takeaway? This is Sydney – what the ….? (December 2012 update – corkage is now $2 per person which is still ridiculous).

As a guest of Mr D and Mrs V (and as they are Samurai Cafe regulars), I left the ordering to them (on the condition we got the yakitori). They chose well.

The yakitori ($6.50) were a couple of skewers of grilled chicken pieces basted with Samurai’s own teriyaki sauce. They were juicy and moist and packed full of charred soy flavour. Typically a late-night after-drinking food in Japan, they weren’t amiss as an appetiser.

The next plates to arrive were the California rolls ($8) and age gyoza ($7). The large hand-rolled sushi (cut into eight pieces) contained decent slices of top-grade salmon (not crab which is the usual ingredient), and avocado. The rice was tender and still sticky and the salmon fresh, with that melt-in-the-mouth feel. Surprisingly good (I tend to be sceptical of and disappointed by sushi these days). The gyoza were five plump crescent pillows stuffed with minced chicken and diced vegetables that were lightly steamed and then pan-fried to give their bottoms that traditional fried crust. They were firm, juicy and moreish.

Mr D suggested as it was a warm and balmy night and the riesling was flowing liberally that we each get a serve of salmon tataki ($17). Mrs V squealed with delight. I now know why – the salmon tataki was simply sublime.

The dish featured a row of salmon rectangles that were ever so lightly seared on the outside. These sat atop a salad of onions and greens (such as mizuna). This and the plate was drizzled with Samurai’s miso mayo sauce. On top of all of this was a scattering of deep-fried noodle strands. The sum of all these parts equalled sheer pleasure. The tender salmon was enhanced by the peppery mizuna and all this was in turn enhanced by the miso dressing. The fried noodles added a pleasant texture to the ‘salad’. This is Samurai Japanese Café’s must-try dish and like Mrs V I also nearly had one of those Meg Ryan When Harry Met Sally coffee shop moments after finishing it. I was tempted to lick the plate of all that wonderful miso dressing (but it wouldn’t be the done thing in trendy Balmain).

I was so impressed with my first visit to Samurai Japanese Cafe that I wandered up the street on two other occasions with the discerning young Miss Gob and Miss Pla in tow when I had to move into a Balmain house for a week while builders took over my digs.

The waitresses were attune to the needs of little people – out came colouring-in sheets and coloured pencils, chopsticks were replaced with forks, and smaller bowls replaced the white square plates.

The age gyoza and California roll were again the starters with the dumpling aficionado Miss Pla giving the gyoza the smile of approval.

I also decided to order okonomiyaki as another entrée. There are two to choose from – a seafood ($11.50) or vegetable ($8). I went for the vegetarian. Okonomiyaki is a dish famous in Osaka – it translates as “what you like” and it’s essentially a ‘doughy pancake’ filled with what you like – in this case an assortment of shredded vegetables (potato, cabbage, pumpkin, and onion) which is then grilled so that it is crisp on the outside with the vegetables all nice and sweet and tender inside. It was topped with a lattice of mayonnaise. It was firm and crispy with layered vegetables inside that were not overcooked. It wasn’t too oily and was a very good example of this Osaka favourite.

Gob and Pla gravitated to sharing a tuna (cooked) sushi roll ($7). No problems here – they were gobbled up almost instantly.

As tempted as I was to again have the salmon tataki I ordered the beef and asparagus ($17) as a main. This was a well-presented dish – long logs of thinly-grilled beef rolled around steamed asparagus spears which were arranged to form a layered box. This structure was surrounded by a wasabi mayonnaise. It was a nice creation using traditional Japanese methods and ingredients with the grilled beef combining well with the asparagus. An interesting – but not mind-blowing – dish but certainly a different option ideal for diners who wish to stray from the predominately classic Japanese-dominated menu.

Waiting staff are perfect in every way – they glide around the room look after every need (and seemed not too fussed constantly mopping up after little people sitting at another table).

I’m indebted to Mr D and Mrs V for letting me in on a Balmain secret – Samurai Japanese Cafe is one of the best-priced (and decent) Japanese eateries in Sydney.

Update November 2011: Mr D and Mrs V dined with me and the ordering was left to them. The old favourites above were again enjoyed (no faults at all) but my hosts did introduce me to the beef kauni ($15) a marvellous piece of scotch fillet that had been slow cooked in ginger and soy until it was falling apart. It was served with wilted spinach. It was moist and tender and truly melt-in-your-mouth meat that was über flavoursome. I was suprised that beef was used – kakuni is a cooking style from Nagasaki that is usually used for pork belly (though no complaints – innovation is good and is probably done to appeal to the masses).

Update December 2012: Mr D and Mrs V have spent the past 12 months living the high life in London so on a recent visit by Mr D to Sydney he dined with me and the Baroness. The kakuni ($15) and salmon  tataki ($17) were exceptional as always. Something none of had before was the seafod okonomiyaki ($11.50) – this one with a mixture of calamari  fish and prawns and shredded vegetables with a wonderful, rich smokiness to it. A must try. Mr D went back too London happy to have been back to Samurai (and donning his new Samurai Cafe T-Shirt).

The verdict: Well-executed traditional Japanese favourites with some innovative, contemporary inclusions. By the crowds it’s obviously a local Balmain favourite. No BYO fee and 10 per cent off for takeaway menu are definite positives.

What: Samurai Japanese Cafe, 493a Darling Street, Balmain NSW 2041 Australia. Phone (02) 9810-1426. BYO ($2 per person). Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 6pm to 10.30pm.

Ate there: 26 February, 15; 19 April 2011, 17 November 2011 and 11 December 2012.

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