Entering Kenny Rens is dramatic. Past the takeaway sashimi and poke bar at the front, entry is through a sliding charred wood door to an intimate space dominated by the smoky aroma from the robata grill.

Known for quick, tasty food, izakaya restaurants in Japan are cosy, busy spots with a tapas-style offering. In the case of Kenny Rens, much of the menu is cooked over the robata, a centuries-old type of Japanese barbeque fuelled by wood charcoal. It is the centrepiece of this open kitchen.

“Seafood is excellent on the robata,” says owner Nick Diamond. “We do a contemporary Australian version with dishes like Balmain bugs and barramundi.”

Head chef Henderson Liu (previously of Coogee Pavilion and Fish Face oversees the menu. For sashimi, the usual suspects make an appearance (tuna, salmon, kingfish). They’re subtle-flavoured and artfully presented with fans of sliced cucumber and pretty butterflies carved from daikon radish.

Balmain bugs and prawns cooked on the robata take on a sweet, smoky flavour that’s a perfect foil for the yuzukosho (Japanese citrus fruit, chilli and salt paste) garlic butter. Chicken skewers are charred and painted with a sticky teriyaki sauce and served next to a stack of crunchy pickles. The wagyu tri-tip is so tender and delectable on its own, there’s little need for the sweet sesame dipping sauce.

The smokiness of robata-grilled food is matched by an extensive Japanese whisky menu.

“Iwai whisky is brewed in the Japanese style. They smoke-char barrels and age the whisky in them,” says bartender Chester Lenihan. “It gives it the same smoky effect of bourbon, but it’s still quite light.” For a cold day try the Akuma, a cocktail named for a Japanese fire demon. It’s made from Hibiki Distillers Reserve muddled with blood orange juice, agave and jalapeno.

Sydney architect Paul Kelly did the design. A black stone bar lined with wood stools gives diners a view of chefs at work. Between the bar and handful of tables, the space seats 20.

Rough concrete render covers the kitchen wall, and the joinery at the bar is made from wooden dowels and shelves secured with leather. Opposite the bar there’s an enormous artwork by local artist Amy Finlayson. Expressive, confident indigo brushstrokes meander across the long whitewashed canvas that hangs the entire length of the room.

Kenny Rens
146 Queen Street, Woollahra
(02) 0363 0219

Hours

Sashimi/poke bar
Mon to Sun 11am–8pm

Robabta restaurant
Thurs to Sun 11.30am–3pm
Mon to Sun 6pm–10pm

kennyrens.com