Two circular deep-fryers bubble silently behind the wraparound counter at Haco, Keita Abe’s tiny new tempura restaurant in Surry Hills. One fryer brims with a blend of hot vegetable oil and extra-virgin sesame oil. The other holds a shimmering bath of hot pork lard. Head chef Kensuke Yada works briskly between each, plunging in skewers of crisply battered eel and panko-crumbed pork loin. Two more chefs work deftly around him, prepping and serving the evening’s omakase (roughly translated as “I’ll leave it up to you”) menu with military precision.
No matter where you sit, the action in Haco’s open kitchen is a tad thrilling to watch. Abe, who’s also the chef and owner behind respected Japanese restaurants Chaco Ramen and Chaco Bar, says it’s all just part of the show.
“Haco is the Japanese word for theatre. In Japan, we say ‘Let’s go to that haco’ when there’s an interesting show happening somewhere. It’s the image of our concept. And I just took the name Chaco and took the C off. Did you get it?” he asks Broadsheet, grinning widely.
Abe is keen to bring a style of Japanese dining to Sydney that’s rarely seen outside of Japan. “I want to make this place for people who are very interested about the food,” he says. “No one has ever done our style in Sydney yet. It’s very challenging for us, but it’s something I want to eat. It’s not going to tell you a lie.”
To realise this vision, he’s transformed the old Sasaki space on Alberta Street (next door to Alberto’s Lounge) into a flashy omakase counter – the kind of luxe little gem you’d find in Tokyo’s opulent Nishi-Azabu neighbourhood. An American-walnut counter dominates the space, and each of the 12 settings around it are illuminated by hanging spotlights. “If this was a sushi bar, you would place the sushi and nigiri there,” says Abe of the tatami weave lining the countertop.
What’s leftover from the space’s former resident is Yada, Sasaki’s ex-head chef. He’s taken on Abe’s concept, adding “a bit of mischief”. The unlikely star of the show is tempura, a dish both Abe and Yada say most people will surely know. But they’re also spruiking a dish rarely seen outside Japan called kushiage: panko-crumbed, deep-fried skewers of meat and vegetables. It’s a specialty from Yada’s hometown of Osaka. There, it’s sold by both street-side vendors and upmarket hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton, where Yada used to work behind the tempura counter.
“[In Japan] we don’t think about oil for deep-frying. Oil is a kind of seasoning, like soy, mirin and sake,” he says. “I use the light-flavoured sesame oil for tempura because vegetable oil doesn’t add any flavour. And I’m using lard for the kushiage. The panko takes on the interesting pork-fat flavour.”
Aside from deep-frying, the menu celebrates myriad techniques, flavours, temperatures and textures. It lists 20 main ingredients – including eel, Wagyu, lobster and banana – with no descriptions. That’s because Yada will change things up at the drop of a hat if something’s good at the market. In a month’s time, the menu will be completely different to what it is today. “I’m always thinking about creating the menu, the seasons and the market,” he says. “When a chef stops thinking, it means he’s going down.”
Each bite-sized course is presented on a limestone plate, which is hand-hewn from a single slab by a stonemason in the Hunter Valley. When Broadsheet visits, lobster is served as a glistening orb of kombu-cured sashimi. Tuna arrives next – vibrant slices of hay-smoked sashimi, dressed with ponzu and topped with chopped chives and garlic chips. For a tempura course, it’s skewered king prawn encased in crisp, featherlight batter and served with a simple dashi for dipping.
That’s followed by asparagus kushiage, lashed with corn mascarpone and dusted with Japanese curry powder. Heftier courses include a piece of unbelievably tender Kagoshima Wagyu, dipped in the house sesame oil and served on a miso-marinated egg, then steeped in warm and fragrant wasabi sauce. For dessert, it’s tempura banana with profoundly sweet chai-tea ice-cream and “milk snow” – milk flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen and pounded into snowflakes.
To drink, there’s sake by the glass and a few fancier ones by the bottle. There’s also house-made umeshu and yuzushu, plus a couple of beers by Japanese brewery Kawaba and a solid list of European white wines. Settle in with any of the above and enjoy the show.
102/21 Alberta Street, Sydney
0408 866 285