We hear a lot of incredible stories working on “Local Knowledge”. Tales of hardship from chefs who’ve escaped war, tips on poisonous ingredients that can only be eaten after being buried in ash, and stories about the eateries that have been the centre of Sydney’s different cultural communities for generations. This isn’t one of those – Nikujiro is popular because it’s cheap.
Takeshi Yamada’s yakiniku (the Japanese word for restaurants where you grill your own meat) serves the same marbled cuts of beef you find in all the high-end Japanese and Korean barbeque restaurants but at a lower price. He knows what they use, too; Yamada worked at the most high-end barbeque joint in Sydney, Rengaya, for 14 years and is using the same Japanese Wagyu supplier, Osawa, at Nikujiro.
It’s easy to see where he’s cut costs. This is an unremarkable-looking restaurant: just three black walls and a facade that opens onto an audibly busy road (Military Road). There are none of those metallic worms hanging from the ceiling to wick away the cooking smoke, nor any in-built cooking stations, just a bunch of portable electric grills. “Barbeque restaurants are very expensive, one table [with an in-built barbeque] can be $10,000. The whole restaurant – one million dollars. This is my innovation,” Yamada says pointing to the grill, laughing.
Of course, price alone doesn’t make a restaurant and Nikujiro gets extra points from the Japanese community for its selection of meats. It’s not easy to find a restaurant in Sydney handling marbled cuts, outside skirt steak and cow intestine. “We have mostly Japanese customers here [plus] many famous Japanese chefs [come] too; I sit and drink with them,” says Yamada.
If you want to do as the Japanese chefs do, look to the blackboard: Yamada announces the most popular orders. Each cut comes with a choice of salt, miso or barbeque sauce (a mix of sake, mirin, vinegar and soy) but Yamada has provided us a cheat sheet for the best combinations. “[Offal] is always with miso, ox tongue is always salt and pepper, Wagyu beef with loin salt and pepper, pork neck with salt and pepper, beef ribs and outside skirt with barbeque sauce.”
If you want to eat the Japanese way, Yamada says that’s also the order you should have them in, except get offal at the end. “Side dishes, [eat them] whenever you want. The most typical is kimchi. Some Japanese like chilled tomato and corn with butter.”
If you like to cook, get one of the front tables on the street; that’s where the charcoal barbeques are used. Charcoal will impart more flavour than the electric ones used inside, but on those a total novice is unlikely to turn their skirt steak into a blackened husk. “You have to be a good chef to sit there,” Yamada says pointing to the front tables before laughing again.
79 Military Road, Neutral Bay
(02) 9909 2011