Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Lost In Translation, (aka Emon, Surry Hills)...

Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, is the bane of my bloody existence. Cleveland, of red lights and Cleveland of gridlocked traffic at any time of the day. Cleveland of the sort of pollution that makes existence a generally demoralizing affair and Cleveland of the exceedingly untoward behaviour of terrible taxi drivers who manage to cut you off while simultaneously collecting the contents of their nostrils with an agile pinky and a fervour that is almost, but not quite, fretfully forensic. But every cloud of exhaust fumes has a silver lining, and Cleveland is no exception. Exceptional Japanese has the ability to redeem almost anything, and Emon, a little known Tats Temple of Taste, is serving up just that, clean food with authentic flavour. The place is delicious and decidedly local, although always crowded, it doesn't yet have the reputation beyond Surry Hills that it clearly deserves. The name means, 'fortune comes in by a merry gate':... ? I think it has something to do with the ethical cooking that inspires the divine menu and the gentle and kind service and thoughtful cooking. My new gorilla tripod joined our little intimate dinner for three, and my difficulty in setting it up explains why most of these shots are of almost completely devoured dishes. Nevermind, my curious CakeKnifeSkis, the time to jump off the sushi train is now, because this is as about authentic as it gets in Sydney.

The Miso rule holds true here, good miso = good Japanese. Lovely light and salty in HotHotHot beautifully brothed miso whets your appetite for the delicate and delicious flavours that are a wee-ish wait away. Brown rice is probably my favourite food of all time (even more than cake) and I love that they serve it here, steamed genmai brown, as well as white rice, and with some crunchy, lightly toasted sesame seeds atop. This little stunner is the Emon Special Bakudan, a breezy, beguiling mouth waltz of market fresh assorted diced melting sashimi with perfectly steamed rice (I requested brown) and a half cooked egg. It is so light and translucent to taste, so delicate and healthy and delicious. It comes with little shavings of toasted nori and willing globs of ripe avocado, mix it up with your chopsticks and sink into some seriously good food that is seriously good for you. All that fresh, raw fish and brown rice and you'll be glowing in no time. Besides, all that lightness just begs for something heavier to follow...

...and follow it does. Jesus Japanese Christ!! Chicken Namban is like a proverbial kick in the gut: just one innocent hit and everyone groans and stops, startled. This chicken is epic! Screw Helen, if Paris ever got a mythical, ancient Greek gob-full of this, he would have let her fall long before Troy. This is luscious chicken, crispy chicken, delicately deep fried with none of the over oiliness and all of the beautiful depth. Succulent chicken with a thin crust and a bountiful dose of just about the creamiest, most sharp tartar you'll ever try and a sweet and sour sauce, with some mixed salad to lighten the load! Argh! It is de--liciously-lect-able. I meant to try just a little of Tatsu's and couldn't help myself, he had to part with much more namban than he ever intended. Dan loves this as well, he is usually a Teriyaki boy, but now my manman is all about namban. Make no mistakes, this isn't skanky, cheap chicken. Just like a Bris ceremony, it is a choice cut, and one that warrants a very merry gathering - straight up meal mazal tov!

All of this Jazzed up Jap is a little slow coming out to you, but places where they take quality seriously very rarely come with speedy preparation. It's a very relaxed service, sometimes we have been kept waiting for a while, but it is so completely worth it in the end. Theirs are very caring methods of cooking, with very clean food and amazing ingredients. The Udon noodle soup here, with tempura prawn and chicken, is the best I have ever had. It comes in a traditional ceramic bowl with a ceramic lid, precious and earthen, and is a steamy, light and delicately flavoured soup. Dan was right to point out that most Udon soups are heavily seasoned in a very artificial way, the first few mouthfuls are heaven, but the more you have the less you appreciate it. Not this ooooh-don, no, no. It is so nuanced and subtle, a beautiful fresh egg, gently cooked, floats placidly in a silent broth amidst some plump shiitake and a fabulously fresh, fleshy, tantalizing tempura-ed prawn. The udon itself is perfect, chewy, strung and strong, and the broth is so simple and understated, and all the more wonderful because of it. I add a few spatterings of chili flakes and a little soy for sharpness, then it's slurp central for the next fifteen minutes. Great udon, and so clean and light, you feel gorgeously warmed and fed afterward.

That's not just a gratuitous/glutinous close up, it's also proof of how thoroughly made and specially prepared every meal here is, even down to the rice. Nothing feels quickly shlupped together or rushed. Everything is beautifully and carefully prepared, and tastes like it is. It is beautiful to look at, so evidently put together with so much skill and care. They respect food here, it's not just a business to them.

This dried and shredded fresh white daikon radish cooked with carrot and tofu is a sharp and rich side. The texture of the radish is beautiful, for those of you who don't try anything too different at Japanese, this is a safe and scrumptious side step. It's wonderfully chewy and perfectly seasoned and has a rich oiliness to it that tempers the freshness of the daikon.

That miserable looking shot is the only photographic testament I have to one of the most delicious meals I have ever had the privilege to scoff. This Is, or rather, That Was, pork belly kakuni. It is a tender, aching, softlysoftlysoftly melting pork with mustard, cooked for over 4 hours until it gives absolutely luscious way, served with a special sauce. Pork isn't something I am too batty about generally, but seriously, this dish was the culinary equivalent of a tubby, gorgeous, friendly three year walking up to you and throwing their arms around you for a random hug. So surprising and so fatty in a lovely, gentle way! I loathe fatty meat and food in general but this dish is puddinged proof of that art that Japanese cooking shows off more than any other: balance. Skilled Japanese chefs are able to take ingredients that are very rich and overpowering and to temper them with sharp and commanding flavours and cooking techniques. This pork is rich and wonderfully flavoured without being at all overwhelming or too much. Savour it. I think this was what Signor T. Reznor was on about when he said hey pig yeah you hey pig piggy pig pig pig...What.. no NIN fans? Anyway...

Emon is exactly what it promises to be, excellent food with natural ingredients, made freshly. It's completely authentic. You will pay a little more than most low key Japanese eateries, but my, my, you really do get what you pay for here. I have never had a meal here that didn't make me want to come back again. A lovely tea menu with robust greens and a gorgeous punjabi chai rounds off what is always a phenomenal meal. They also have a decent sake list.

Emon happens at 432 Cleveland St, Surry Hills. Call to book on 9698 0778. They open Mon-Sat from 6.30pm - 10pm and are closed on Sunday. They even have a cooking school. The website with full menu is here.

At Emon, it's always Suntory time*.

*for those of you who actually thought about it and concluded that that made no sense and I just wanted to end with a Lost in Translation reference: well done.

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