Reinventing The Izakaya: Australia’s Love Affair With Japanese Bars
Izakaya culture - drinking in small bars with great snacks - is huge in Japan. Australia has embraced the concept with gusto, spanning a new breed of bar.
A decade ago, Australia fell for the humble sushi train, setting the ground for an explosion of izakaya – a sexier, boozier Japanese import.
Izakaya (ee-zah-ka-yah), which literally translates as ‘stay sake shop’. A big part of Japanese culture for centuries, we’ve adopted the concept with gusto.
Popping up right across Australia in recent years, izakaya are essentially Japanese sake and whiskey bars. Diners tuck into inexpensive Japanese-style snacks as they drink.
A meeting place for friends and colleagues, the hole-in-the-wall bars can be found almost everywhere in Japan, but especially so around train and subway stations. They often feature grass mat flooring and low to the ground seating, or stools arranged along a lengthy bar. It’s a layout which has served Japan well, but doesn’t always translate well to other places.
In Australia, we’ve taken the spirit of that traditional izakaya, but put a more local spin on it. Sharing while drinking remains at the core, but other aspects have had a major overhaul.
Meet some of the local stars, and find out just what it takes to reinvent a classic:
For Gold Coast duo Nerissa and Mitch McCluskey, it was izakaya-love at first bite.
Keen snowboarders, the couple travelled through Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, as well as some regional areas, and were hugely inspired by the food, culture, and architecture. It was on this trip they first encountered izakaya dining, and just knew it would work in Australia.
The couple, who opened their popular Etsu izakaya in Mermaid Beach just over three years ago, say the rise and rise of the izakaya isn’t at all surprising – and travel is a big reason.
“There are so many Australians travelling to Japan now,” Nerissa says. “And many of them are seeking out izakayas when they return, because they have had such great experiences”
Recreating the izakaya for Australia
The couple designed the restaurant space themselves, having developed a clear idea in their minds of how they wanted the narrow space to look, feel, and also smell.
“We wanted it to feel busy and bustling,” Nerissa says. “And also have a smell of the burning Binchotan [charcoal] from our robata grills, which are intentionally visible to diners.”
The restaurant’s large wooden wave wall was inspired by the ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’, an iconic woodblock print by 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai. The eclectic mix of seating – both traditional tatami style and modern seating – appeals to all patrons.
“Our food is pretty true to the izakaya style; however, our bar menu is probably a little more complex than most,” Nerissa says. “We have an amazing cocktail and wine list, as well as the expected icy cold Japanese beers on tap and a selection of sake, shochu [a distilled spirit made from rice or sweet potato], and umeshu [a liqueur made from ume fruit].”
Must try dishes: sashimi moriawase (a large sashimi platter); house-made Wagyu beef gyoza; and saiko miso marinated black cod, a fresh take on a classic dish.
2440 Gold Coast Highway, Mermaid Beach
Himeji Ramen & Izakaya
At its heart, izakaya dining is about delicious, shareable, and inexpensive cuisine. And that is definitely the case at Himeji Ramen and Izakaya which opened in Adelaide around two years ago.
Owner Shozo Ikeda had seen the popularity of izakaya dining growing overseas, and wanted to bring a taste the much-loved dining concept to the city.
“Japanese food culture is already well established in places such as Europe, and it’s now beginning to have a much stronger following in Australia,” Ikeda says. “We had more Asian customers at first, but are seeing more and more Caucasian customers now.”
Himeji is fast making a name for itself as an authentic izakaya with an upmarket twist, with a traditional long wooden bar and stool areas, as well as more intimate space with sleek black tables and chairs, subdued lighting, and privacy screens – giving it almost a nightclub feel.
The menu features classics such as sushi, sashimi and homemade ramen, complemented by speciality dishes like wagyu with apple sauce, grape, garlic, chives and yuzu pepper.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an izakaya without a great bar menu. This one includes 50 kinds of sake, shochu, and umeshi, along with Yamazaki, Hibiki, Hakushu and Kakubin whiskeys.
Ikeda says goals from the restaurant are to celebrate the fantastic range of fresh produce available in South Australia, and hopefully inspire a greater interest in Japanese culture.
22-24 Grote Street, Adelaide
Also on the Gold Coast, Yamagen has been an icon on the local dining scene for more than 30 years. A recent $1.4 million makeover, however, has seen this classic Japanese restaurant reinvent itself as an ultra-modern izakaya – with an all-star culinary team at the helm.
Located on the ground-floor the colourful QT Gold Coast Hotel, Yamagen has now been divided into three distinct spaces, and the décor has been given a significant revamp.
Designer Nic Graham was tasked with reimagining the traditional izakaya experience, with the added objective of ‘upping the ante’ on an expanded bar area. The result is a blend of “east meets west” urban street style, pop-culture kitsch, and Japanese fishing village charm.
The restaurant now features a main dining area, Table-seki; a sushi counter where diners can enjoy freshly prepared sashimi and sushi, as well as delicate share plates, all selected by the chef; and a new bar, which blends classic cocktails with Japanese ingredients. The bar also features the most extensive range of Japanese whiskeys in Queensland.
Executive Chef Adam Lane, whose resume includes the prestigious Tetsuya’s in Sydney and the Michelin-starred Nobu, says the delicacy of Japanese cuisine is what appeals to him.
“I really enjoy the challenge of mixing ingredients that you wouldn’t usually think of putting together – finding the perfect balance of flavours is what keeps our work exciting,” he says.
Must try dishes: Teriyaki Chicken with crispy skin, warrigal greens, charcoal roasted leeks in teriyaki glaze; Crispy Pork Belly with nashi pear, wasabi, watermelon radish and smoked vinegar.
7 Staghorn Ave, Surfers Paradise
Published 08 September, 2017