Kagura is a new Izakaya style Japanese restaurant located on Foveaux Street in Surry Hills. Passing in front of the restaurant you will see the head of an Oni, a horned demon from Japanese folklore. Don’t let the sinister grin deter you, behind his gates is an establishment with an unmatched expertise of exotic liquors and a passion for serving only the finest quality Japanese cuisine. The Oni summoned me to Kagura one night, and once in his grasp among the wonderful environment, people, food and cocktails, I never wanted to leave.
One of the most prominent characteristics of Japanese culture and cuisine is passion. It is all around you in Japan; a passion for work, hobbies, family and friends. With one look at the bar selection against the back wall, I knew there was no veneer of Japanese authenticity here; it was the real deal. I stood stunned for a moment reminiscing on my Japanese school days; sneaking out at night to visit the local Sapporo Izakaya, wearing my tiger-embroidered Jinbei and pointing to strange bottles I wanted to try. If my memory of the 17 year old Izakaya nights served me properly, I was in for a fun time.
In keeping with the authentic Japanese Izakaya style, the restaurant is modeled on the customary principles of balance and harmony. Everything in the establishment is repurposed with passionate artistry; the tables, stools and tiles all taken from the rubble and given a second life to serve joy to the patrons. The main bar is an old door with the handles still attached covered in painstakingly crafted origami from surface to ceiling. The bar utensils are no different; all silver and brass antiques collected with care to serve up the most intricate and delicious cocktails imaginable.
I was greeted at the door by Flynn Mclennan, owner and bar-man extraordinaire who sat me at the bar and asked me “what will it be?” I don’t go to other people’s homes and tell them what I want for dinner, this was no exception. I said I like Gin and he was off and creating.
He presented a Gin Martini ($12) with a salted Japanese Umeboshi Plum. Umeboshi’s are a great sour and salty alternative to an olive or onion, adding that little bit of extra effort to the drink that makes Kagura such a destination for those seeking a more special experience.
I hadn’t paired the drink with any food yet; and being master’s of the Izakaya style of dining, I felt it was a decision better left in the hands of Flynn along with co-owner and Executive Chef, Yoshinobu Harada.
The first course was freshly shucked Pacific Oysters ($3.5) with micro coriander and Yuzu juice, a rare Japanese lemon know for its floral aroma and tart citrus.
Following traditions utilised in Japan for centuries, Kagura uses the Robatayaki style of grilled skewers for a more casual feel when pairing food with drinks. I was served the Cherry Tomato Stuffed with Liver Truffle Pate ($4). The chicken liver pate inside was savoury, cooked to perfection with faint hints of truffle, butter and port. Biting through the cherry tomato sent a burst of flavours enticing the palate; the sweetness of the balsamic glaze and the succulence of the pate. I wanted to eat the wooden skewer just because it had held the dish.
The Smoked Ox Tongue ($6) was beautifully tender, smoked in-house with a blend of apple, hickory, mesquite, alder wood and tea leaves. Shortly followed by Black Tiger Prawns ($6) served with tom yum sauce and baby coriander.
A signature of the restaurant and crowd favourite on colder Sydney nights, the Chawanmushi ($10), is a traditional Japanese dish consisting of savoury egg custard with prawn, chicken, ginko nuts and dashi; a kelp-based stock which forms the base for many Japanese dishes. Every layer brings a completely unique taste to the palate than the one before. I was told it is a sin to stir the dish as most customers do.
The Seared Tuna ($18) with garlic oil sauce. Kagura prides itself on using only the freshest, seasonal ingredients cooked to perfection and immaculately presented. In Japanese cuisine, sometimes it painful to disrupt the beautiful presentation of a dish crafted by the chef with such care. The aesthetic of the dish was beautiful, but my temptation got the better of me and my guilt quickly subsided after the first bite.
It was around this intermission in courses that Flynn demonstrated his knowledge of, and ability with, Japanese whisky. Mixing and pouring to military precision while explaining the history and significance behind every bottle on his shelf. A true connoisseur of fine and exotic liquors and equally fascinating to sit and watch create. It is dinner and a show that will not disappoint.
I was told the Tulip Chicken Karaage ($14) with a Japanese Shichimi Mayonnaise was among the best fried chicken in all of Sydney; a confident statement I was eager to test. It lived up to every expectation and boast that anyone could claim about fried chicken. I can’t even go within 100 metres of a KFC anymore without wanting to run back to Kagura. Paired with a Japanese whisky old-fashioned, my favourite dish of the evening and a must try for patrons hoping to disprove my un-biased adoration.
Tasmanian Sea Urchin on a bed of Nori seaweed. I have been told that you either love or hate the taste and texture of sea urchin; I have only had it twice, once in Japan and again at Kagura, and found that each was identical to the other and delicious the same. It speaks for Kagura’s authenticity to replicate such a controversial creature to perfection and traditional standards so far from Japan.
Tequila Cured Wagyu Beef ($20) with Nashi pear and fresh herbs. This dish was inventive and delicious. The tequila cured dry-aged Wagyu with its intense, tender marbling just melted in your mouth with the fresh pear to marry with the tender beef.
Octomore Whisky Smoked Scallops ($14) with fresh pomegranate and salmon roe. Using this heavily-peated Scottish whisky as the smoking agent, it gives the scallops a bonfire smokiness that leaves a flavoursome and unique taste unlike any scallop I have ever tried. The pomegranate adds a fruity bitterness while the roe reinforces the seafood component tying the dish together. The dish stands alone as remarkably innovative and delicious, but the showmanship and presentation makes it an experience memorable to any other.
After all of the courses had been served I couldn’t have thanked the chef enough for the wonderful experience, but in the spirit of Izakaya dining no meal would be complete without after dinner cocktails. I ordered the Pumpkin Pie Cocktail ($18) with a home-made Pumpkin reduction and Japanese whisky. Take the best piece of pumpkin pie you have ever had, throw it in a blender with the best whisky you have ever tasted, and what will be created will be a poor mans version of this cocktail.
As I was about to leave I noticed on the specials board a cocktail I wanted to try. Something unique and not found anywhere else that would end the evening with a lasting impression of greatness. It was called a Rum and Plum Blazer ($20). Flynn was more than happy to oblige me.
Many restaurants may be content with mediocrity, but Kagura is not one of them. You can feign passion for a while, but the places truly committed to their craft and serving the best food, drinks and service are the ones that will remain. The knowledge, expertise and passion that I felt dining at Kagura is one of a kind among the Sydney dining scene. Just big enough to accommodate yet small enough for an intimate experience. It seems they have brought every tiny detail of authentic Japanese Izakaya dining to Sydney. If you happen across the Oni demon head in Surry Hills, don’t be frightened, it will lead you to a truly unforgettable dining experience.
84 Foveaux Street, Surry Hills, Sydney NSW
Phone: (02) 9212 1981