Where did we find an oasis of calm during fashion week? Where did we find a few hours to sit down, away from the madness and unglamourous and tragedy (of parking tickets and forgotten memory cards, among other things), and be taken away to somewhere so perfect and simple, in the way that only good food and great cocktails can? The answer to that question is Toko, Sydney's best and most innovative Japanese restaurant, tucked into the heart of Crown Street, yet with the atmosphere and feel of a restaurant like nowhere else.
Because it has such style. The cocktail list effortlessly blends Japanese flavours (there's a shochu caipiroska, and their famous bellinis add a dash of sake to the prosecco and peach juice mix), a sign of good things to come from the kitchen. We mused that it would be an excellent place to go on a date - streamlined and slick, how could it fail to make the best possible impression? - and we looked enviously over our shoulders at the family of six celebrating a birthday milestone with their signature dessert plate and sparklers. Toko is a restaurant made for celebrating - and celebrating in real style.
The revamped and reinvigorated menu is a charming reflection of this. Featuring venison, baby squid and quail, tempered by Japanese flavours such as miso, ponzu and dashi, head chef Ben Orpwood has taken Toko back to its roots, with locally-sourced ingredients and exciting (surprising, even) flavour combinations. The slippery Garfish, rolled elegantly into a coil and seasoned with yuzu and ginko nuts was warily approached but swiftly embraced; the flavour a sophisticated play of fresh sea-water and fragrant herbs. One of our most-loved dishes of the evening was the spiced tofu squares, effortlessly partnered with an avocado salsa. We also made room for Toko's new favourite dish - pork belly with apple relish - well worth the hype. Even after plates of this (as well as maki rolls, seared wagyu beef, vegetable tempura and scallops) we indulged in one of Toko's beautiful desserts (well, when in rome!). The coconut pannacotta - all light-handed creaminess, pierced through with the lovely acidity of strawberries - was the perfect end to our meal. We started on the short walk back to our hotel and back to reality (late-nights editing photos, writing reviews and putting together blog posts) but we felt refreshed, revived and, well, lucky. Not everyone gets to go to Japan for dinner on a Wednesday night.
We stole a moment with new head-chef Ben Orpwood to talk about fresh produce, new blood, and cooking at home:
1. How would you describe Toko's cuisine?
I like to describe Toko's food as authentic yet not traditional Japanese... by this I mean we use authentic Japanese ingredients, authentic Japanese cooking and serving techniques, and we pair this with contemporary cooking and flavours to cater for the western palette while staying true to our Japanese roots.
2. What can diners expect from Toko's new tasting menu?
The tasting menu is notoriously hard to change, as it’s kind of a Toko favourites menu... we have added a Venison Carpaccio which has been received incredibly well. We did this to try and get people interested in new flavours and different meats. I grew up in the country side and Venison was a staple for us, so I like to introduce people to different flavours in a palatable way. The new pork belly dish with apple and wasabi is flying out of the kitchen.... It’s our version of pork and apple sauce, again a familiar flavour done in an authentic Japanese way.
3. How did you get your start in the restaurant business?
When I was 16 I applied for an apprenticeship at Queens College Cambridge... In hospitality you get bitten by this bug and you stuck with it. My old catering manager would say to my you get out what you put in, so after I qualified as a cook I went to London to put in and see what I got out. I came away with an amazing journey that took me from London to Istanbul, to Dubai and Sydney...
4. What is your favourite item of produce that you work with at Toko?
What makes it so special? The best produce to work with at the moment would be the local seafood; Garfish, Baby Squid and Mackerel. I’m very much about supporting the local fishermen and local industries. Being able to use fish caught locally is a wonderful privilege. In Dubai most of the food is imported from France, UK or Australia and you’re dealing with the middle man sales person, for me, this is sad. I like to be able to talk with the guy as close to the produce as possible, at Toko we are very lucky to work with some of the best in the business, Frank from De Costi and Ishisan at Wellstone.
5. What is your favourite meal to cook at home?
Cooking at home is a bit of a luxury as my wife works in the restaurant business as well, so we are really never home.. But when I am, I love baking... I bake bread and pastries, there is normally a tart of some kind in our fridge. Also we have a small garden, so cooking with what I have grown is something I really enjoy... The last thing I cooked at home was butter milk fried chicken with a coleslaw with kohlrabi, radishes and cabbage from the garden.
Thankyou for having us Toko!