We’re sitting down at a bar in HaNa Ju-Rin, a Neutral Bay teppanyaki and sushi restaurant. In front of us there’s a long glass fridge filled with more cuts of fish than most chefs could name. They’re expertly filleted, skinned and cut. A dish appears. It’s a thumb-sized wedge of brown rice covered by a pastel-pink slice of fish with a thin line of bright red skin. The chef puts a single drop of lime on it. Just a single drop, because that’s all it needs. “Alfonsino, soy and lime,” he says.
The chef is Tomoyuki Matsuya, a second-generation sushi master who was last at Azuma, a fancy Japanese joint – with an acclaimed sushi section – in the CBD. Now he is the master of HaNa Ju-Rin’s 10-seat sushi bar. The slice of alfonsino he gave us is one dish in a 16-course, several-hour, sushi-only omakase (Japanese for get whatever the chef wants to give you).
Many of the cuts Matsuya uses are cured and aged. Cuttlefish is aged in a package of fresh kombu; tuna belly rests for two weeks on ice; and salmon belly is cured in a soy-based concoction.
In one night, (Matsuya works with a Japanese fish monger each day to get the best catch) we’re served bass grouper; yellowtail; latchet; imperador; and homemade karasumi (rich, salted mullet roe with a quince-paste-like texture).
Each of these has its own subtle but unique seasoning that amplifies or contrasts with its natural flavour and texture. Snapper is topped with a pinch of pickled crab, shaved bonito and sesame; white fish are served with a small sheet of shiso (a betel-leaf-like Japanese herb); salmon belly is torched and topped with a tuft of fried leek strands; and other cuts are paired with fresh wasabi leaves, yuzu zest or even truffle oil.
Because of Matsuya’s incredible seafood artistry, we’re surprised to hear him say it’s his rice he’s most proud of. The grains come from Emi No Kizuna, a highly acclaimed rice producer from the Niigata Prefecture. What makes it brown is Minosanenzu, a dark, powerful, slightly sweet vinegar that’s been produced in the Gifu Prefecture. “I don’t think my sushi is the best. There are lots of good sushi chefs, but my rice is the best,” he says.