[restaurant] cannot do without is a hospitable owner and a friendly staff. The quality of any restaurant is determined by the owner’s character. If the owner is good, then the staff will also be good. And that creates a good cycle” writes Tetsu Kariya in Oishinbo
Manga is, as many know, the Japanese equivalent of comic books, and one of the most popular genres is ryôri manga, culinary manga. Even more specialised is the gurume (gourmet) manga and one of the best known of these is the long-running Oishinbo. It is through these pages I have learned to appreciate the complexity and history of Japanese food and drink such as sake, rice and izakayas. Tetsu’s observation about the necessity for friendly and welcoming staff might seem odd but entering a Japanese restaurant or bar and hearing a welcoming Irasshaimase underscores how different the Japanese dining experience is.
The Bird’s Nest (Yakatori) and Bar in West End fuses Australian/Japan cultures by melding a laidback and welcoming bar-type vibe with a sophisticated yet casual menu—and exemplifies the type of restaurant lauded in Tetsu’s quote.Yakatori is hospitable food—chicken skewers grilled over special coals and often served with alcohol. The Japanese traditional greeting, to all who enter, makes diners feel welcome. No matter how busy or crowded, you have been noticed. We were seated at the counter where we could watch the chefs spritz, turn and fan.
As newbies, we were advised to have the Omakase (‘I’ll leave it to you’) Course: an amuse bouche, seven chicken and two vegetable skewers, rice, and dessert. It is a great introduction to yakatori and the Bird’s Nest. Starting with the distinctly non-traditional amuse bouche of tofu, pickled tomato and home-made pate; we knew the Bird’s Nest was trying for a different type of Japanese dining experience. I can still remember the sweet/acid pop of the tomato; the pate smooth and exquisite in its refinement. That’s the word for the yakatori experience at Bird’s Nest, refined.
The first skewer of chicken breast with mango and wasabi mayonnaise was another surprise. Wasabi is an ingredient that demands balance – this blend elevates the chicken and doesn’t bury it. In rapid succession came the other chicken skewers: crispy chicken skin, chicken thigh drizzled with lemon, chicken balls and chicken heart. Heart is easy to get wrong and this heart was grilled to perfection, slightly chewy and yet still tender. Quail eggs always seem to be too much effort, but when someone else does all the hard work, yum. Another outstanding dish was grilled okra. Now my guest does not like okra because it can be slimy, but these tiny grilled okras were slightly al dente-this is not the okra of his childhood, and he’s a convert.
Tofu has a reputation for being bland (okay, in my mind it does); however, when organic tofu is smothered with Katsuobushi flakes and shallots and splashed with lemon, it evolves into something worthwhile. Don’t bypass it. The ginger-infused crème caramel was a fitting finale – light and subtle. To accompany the first half of the set menu, we were directed to their sparkling sake. A fruity, light rice wine, this sake isn’t over-aerated but small bubbles that pop on the tongue. Even the carafe is an aesthetic winner with its ice pocket that keeps the sake cool without diluting it. We followed this with a fuller-bodied sake served at room temperature. Ask the owners for their recommendations.
Normally I prefer to sit at a table but at the counter, we could interact with the busy chefs. Though we could barely hear their comments above the happy chatter and the cool jazz – okay maybe I am going a little deaf. The Japanese love jazz and I could happily sit, sip sake and listen to the music all night. And that’s where owners Emi Kamada and Marie Yokoyama get it so right. Be prepared for a warm, heart-felt welcome. They will smile and guide you through their food and drink menu–it seems that they have all the time in the world to devote to you, even when the restaurant is heaving with other customers. And that, as Tetsu posits, is the secret of a good restaurant.