We’ve taken a seat at Koku Culture, a new sort-of Japanese cafe in Ashfield, in Sydney’s inner west. A couple sit down at a nearby table and with every break in the conversation they look over in wonder. “What is that?” they eventually ask.
They are pointing at a matcha pancake topped with the custard and the crunch of a crème brûlée. The other dish is wok-fried eggs, which are crunchy and come with bacon, cabbage and a field of bonito flakes. Picture okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) – it’s like that. We’ve also ordered a piece of Alpine salmon that’s served with miso and a soba salad. These aren’t regular cafe dishes.
Kenji Okuda and Donna Chau never planned to open a cafe. They left their day jobs (well, more night jobs) at Lotus Group – Okuda was head chef at Lotus Barangaroo and they were both at Billy Kwong before that – to make miso and soy sauce, with the aim of selling it to chefs. “We wanted to make miso and soy sauce because we found there wasn't much produced here; it's all imported from China and Japan,” says Chau. “It started at home, but we needed a place to produce it and store it.”
That’s how they came across this spot just off Ashfield’s main drag. “We saw there was a front space that could be turned into a cafe, so we put all the things we've learnt in all our years of cooking and hospitality and put it together.”
The simple space has Japanese influences, with light-coloured timber furniture and wall fittings and not much else. Despite this and the menu Chau and Okuda maintain it’s not a Japanese cafe, but an Australian one with a few twists here and there.
For example miso dressing on the smashed avocado toast, (secret) miso in the granola, and banana bread served with a yuzu sour cream instead of butter. “[When we decided we were going to do the cafe] we were beaming with ideas. We ate so many things we weren't supposed to eat – three pancake dishes at night. So many failures too,” says Chau with a laugh.
Although you can try the organic and locally sourced miso and soy sauce on Koku’s dishes, you can’t buy the products at the café yet (you’ll see empty jars lining the wall). But they’re available at their market stall at Erskineville Farmers' Market, which runs on Saturday mornings. Keep on top of their social pages for updates on when they’ll be in stock at the cafe or online.
Koku Culture Cafe
355 Liverpool Road, Ashfield
0402 697 475
Mon to Fri 7am–4pm
Sat & Sun 8am–4pm
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on June 6, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.