Izakaya Tempura Kuon
It’s quarter past five on Saturday evening, and already, 15 minutes before opening, customers are trickling into Izakaya Tempura Kuon.
Nestled in the quiet Wynyard laneway behind the always-busy bus interchange, Izakaya Tempura Kuon is the latest project of restauranteur Kenny Lee and head chef Hideaki Fukuda. Diverging from the duo’s popular high-end ventures, Kuon Omakase and Irori Kuon, Izakaya Tempura Kuon offers a range of à la carte options, all at a reasonable price point – plus an extensive array of sake.
“Word of mouth is our bread and butter,” Lee tells Broadsheet, as he makes the final checks on the floor before welcoming enthusiastic guests. Since the successful launch mid-August, loyal Kuon fans have been eager to get a spot in the 35-seat space.
“Sake and tempura, or champagne and tempura, are just the perfect combination,” says Fukuda. Hailing from Yokohama, Japan, the chef arrived in Australia in 2000, honing his craft at the esteemed establishments of Masuya and yakitori bar Toriciya, before embarking on the multifaceted Kuon ventures.
“I’ve missed the izakaya vibe where people can casually enjoy sake and snacks,” Fukuda says. “So, when the landlord offered this venue, we just had to do it.”
While tempura has become synonymous with sushi when thinking about Japanese food, Fukuda says the tempura they serve at Izakaya Tempura Kuon is “distinctively different”.
“The difference is in the oil we use. We import the premium Taihaku from Japan, a cold-pressed sesame oil, which costs around $400 a can. You’d think we’re crazy, when vegetable oil costs around $60.”
The seasoned chef says the oil lasts a day or two, just like any other oil, but the investment is well worth it. “You’ll taste the difference,” he says. “It is much lighter, and you won’t smell the oil. It really enhances the flavour of the ingredients.”
While tempura sets are on offer, Fukuda recommends ordering tempura individually to enjoy its delicate crispness, with dishes such as rice-vinegar-pickled tress tomato with shiso leaf in between, to cleanse the palate.
From the classic prawn, squid and sand whiting, to the unique foie gras daikon and shiitake blue cheese, there’s ample tempura to choose from – whether you’re feeling adventurous or not. The tempura anago (saltwater eel, from Tsushima in Nagasaki prefecture) is a must-order for all.
“No other venues in Australia offer the Tushima gold anago as a tempura, although it is common in tempura speciality shops in Japan,” Fukuda says.
While tempura is commonly served with a dipping sauce called tentsuyu, which you can dip into here, Fukuda says it’s best to hold off. He recommends sprinkling salt, shichimi (Japanese seven-spice) or the venue’s homemade curry salt to savour the crisp texture and taste of the ingredients as they are.
If flash-fried snacks aren’t calling to you, there are plenty of non-tempura dishes too. Pan-fried corn rib with anchovy butter, moreish yakitori chicken and cauliflower gratin, to name a few.
Fukuda is not only a seasoned chef, but a sake sommelier as well. Each dish has been carefully crafted to match the 40-plus sake options, which hail from various prefectures of Japan. Some of them are rare in Australia, like the Dassai 23 per cent umeshu.
If there’s room for dessert, you’ll be left to select from the likes of a sugar-sweet sweet potato and chestnut Mont Blanc and a homemade mille-feuille layered with rhubarb and cream cheese. The restaurant is slightly hard to find, but keep walking down Wynyard Lane when you first begin to question your directions, and you’ll find it. Izakaya Tempura Kuon is currently the only restaurant on the laneway.
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