Vanessa: Double Bay is generally not high on my radar for places to dine out but the more I go there, the more I discover that the dining scene is one worth exploring. Case in point, myself, Bianca and Alex were recently invited to sample the winter menu at Niji Restaurant & Bar in the heart of Double Bay and to say we were impressed is an understatement.
We arrived on a Tuesday evening for our 6pm seating and I instantly notice that the wooden interior and barrel-vault ceiling creates a stylish, yet homely, ambience. Niji’s chef, Shekhar Aryal, formerly of Surry Hills’ Toko, has created a menu that fuses traditional dishes and flavours with a modern flair.
We settled in and eagerly awaited the dishes that were in store for us. Japanese food is something that each of us individually enjoy but not a cuisine that we frequently eat collectively as a group, so it made for a nice novelty. Bianca was also coming off the back of her meat free week so it was a subtle way for her to transition back to being carnivorous!
As the first dish was set down in front of us it had an instant wow-factor in its presentation that flowed throughout many of the dishes. This generous serving of tuna tartar infused with a soy truffle dressing and crispy lotus root set the standards high for the evening. The tuna was cubed with such incredible precision into tiny morsels that made it easy to scoop up and eat with the crispy lotus root. The lotus root tasted like a kettle chip and complimented the tuna surprisingly well. The tuna was fresh with the right amount of dressing that made for a very satisfying way to kick the palette into gear for the dishes to come.
The next dish for me was one of the stand outs. The wagyu beef carpaccio was exquisite. Sliced almost paper-thin and drizzled with spicy soy honey and fried quinoa, this was a dish that hit the mark both on flavour and style. What a great dish for Bianca to break her meat fast with!
The Niji Signature Nigiri was another delight for the senses with its trio of nigiri including caramelised wagyu with miso butter, scampi with foie gras and kingfish with orange honey jelly. Considering wagyu and foie gras happen to be two of my favourite things and I have never had either on a nigiri before, I was pretty wowed. The flavours of all three were fantastic and the Chef’s creativity with mixing and matching ingredients really shone through.
One could say the next dish presented to us brought the theatrics into the dining experience. The salmon maki roll consisting of seared salmon, prawn and avocado, was set down in front of us and then lit up in a flame. This resulted in a warm, delicious maki with a crystallised top (from the sugared roe) that had a creme-brulee like texture to it. The maki was sitting on a generous smear of wasabi cream which Alex and I found rather intense and overpowering but it sat well with Bianca.
The quail karage came out next and it had all the elements of success but sadly I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have hoped. A unique combination, the quail had been coated in bonito flakes, marinated in soy and ginger and sitting atop a bed of pumpkin puree. Bianca loved it for its crunchy texture and its overall flavour. Personally I found it to be too oily for my liking and the fishy flavour of the bonito didn’t appeal to me.
Moving on the foie gras which was pan seared and served with rice cracker and shiraz glaze. I wanted so much to love this dish, particularly as it was so beautifully presented and as previously mentioned I have great love for foie gras but I can’t say I did. The flavour was definitely what you would expect of foie gras, rich, bold and creamy but personally I found it a little too oily and frying it tends to release the fat which then changes the texture. I did love the rice crackers and thought that they complimented the foie gras extremely well. I tend to think people feel strongly about foie gras one way or another, including the way it is served.
Things turned around very, very quickly when the grilled 7+ wagyu beef was set down before us. A generous serve of thinly sliced wagyu served with a amayaki sauce and cherry tomatoes was hands down a crowd pleaser amongst us all. Delicious flavour, just the right amount of marbling throughout the meat and perfectly matched with the sauce, this was a dish done so simply yet so so well.
The feeling of satisfaction after that wagyu continued as dessert was brought out to us. Once again the chef’s ability to create interesting flavour combinations was on display with the Miso Cream Crunch. A crisp brandy snap filled with oven-baked miso cream and accompanied by creme fraiche ice-cream was certainly a dessert that pushed the boat out in terms of creativity, texture and contrasting elements. Overall the combined elements worked really well together. The slight saltiness of the miso was balanced by the sweetness of the brandy snap and don’t get me started on the creme fraiche ice-cream – where has this been all my life!?! A fantastic way to balance out sweetness with the subtle flavours of creme fraiche in an ice-cream format – genius!
The rhubarb pudding served with individual mini dough balls and ice-cream was not comparable to the previous dessert in terms of creativity but brought its own to the table. Personally, I’m not a fan of rhubarb but I imagine if you were then the pudding would be a real hit with its warm, smooth consistency. The bite-sized dough ball was comparable to the old-school cinnamon donuts you may have found in a milk-bar – warm, sugary and satisfying.
Niji certainly takes traditional Japanese fair to a new level and you can’t fault it for its style, precision and creativity. I would not hesitate to recommend Niji if you are in the mood for Japanese food, keeping in mind that prices tend to be a little higher in Double Bay. Having said that, the type of ingredients used, the freshness of the dishes and the blending of European fusion bring the value. I was still thinking about that wagyu the next day!
Photos by Alex
*For Foods Sake dined as guest of Niji Restaurant & Bar. All opinions and thoughts however are our own.