Glance at the menu at Haco tempura restaurant and the thought may cross your mind that 20 courses of deep-fried food might not be the best idea. Overcome it, however, and the experience is eye-opening.
Lotus root, lightly battered, comes topped with hand-picked swimmer crab and dashi-vinegar jelly. A fried, soft-yolked quail egg holds a spoonful of caviar. Braised pork belly crumbed in panko is kept in check with shishito salsa.
“For me, I want the customer to enjoy lots of characteristics of deep-fried things,” says Haco owner Keita Abe, who has provided Sydney with one of its first tempura omakase restaurants by opening a tiny 12-seater four weeks ago near the Surry Hills end of the CBD. Even so, there’s a natural limit.
“You can’t keep eating tempura all the way to like 10, 12 or 20 dishes,” he says. “So we serve, deep-fried things, let’s say about 10 dishes, then five dishes are tempura and five are kushi-age [crumbed and fried meats or vegetables on sticks] so you can enjoy a lot more diversity.”
Diversity is very much the lifeblood of omakase. Effectively translating as “I’ll leave it to you”, the practice places diners in the hands of the chef, who will typically present course after course of small seasonal dishes to a handful of guests.
While in Australia the term is more associated with sushi, in Japan it can extend to many disciplines, befitting a cuisine where dedication to a single craft can win you a global following – Abe cites Niitome, a tempura restaurant in Nagoya renowned for its fine batter, as one such example, while Tokyo’s Tempura Uchitsu is celebrated for its variety and spare seasoning.
Haco is by no means the first of its kind in Australia, either. Tempura Hajime, Shigeo Yoshihara’s 12-seater in South Melbourne, has run a tempura tasting menu since 2007. In Sydney, chef Hideaki Fukada capitalised on the success of his sushi-focused Kuon Omakase in March by launching Tempura Kuon, which serves a $230 tempura menu to 10 people at a time in Darling Square.
At Kuon, chefs coat ingredients in a traditional Ginza-style batter, fry them in vats ringed by hammered copper, and pass the dish over the counter straight to guests.
At Haco, head chef Kensuke Yada takes a similar approach, with one eye on showmanship, the other on quality. “We make the food in front of the customer, so what they see is like a tempura show,” he says. “If tempura gets cold, the taste and the texture is going to be disgusting, so we cook it and serve it to the customer straight away.”
Abe made his name with Darlinghurst’s Chaco Bar, specialising in yakitori and outstanding ramen. He continues the thread here, with a menu that looks more to Osaka and kushi-age sticks comprising about half the tempura section. These are flash-fried in lard, while the tempura is dropped into a specially blended sesame oil.
Far from being heavy, the choice of oils and the temperature keep things crisp and light, and fried dishes are balanced with courses of bonito sashimi, kombu-cured lobster and savoury egg custard topped with raw scallop.
A seat at Haco doesn’t come cheap, or without planning – the Alberta Street restaurant, which runs a $185 menu, is full until June – but for Abe, the appetite for something smaller and more intimate is only natural.
“It used to be all high-cost set-up, 100-seat fine-dining restaurants such as Tetsuya’s and Quay, but now people are willing to have a more personal touch,” he says. “Personal touch, that’s the difference.”