How many Japanese restaurants can Hobart sustain? Are we turning Japanese?
Or are we just becoming sophisticated enough to appreciate the nuance, the endless pursuit for perfection that represents Japan? Osaka Izakaya may be the newest kid on the block, but the owner, Alex (Yang) Zhao knows his stuff.
And the birth of this place wasn’t easy.
It’s in Elizabeth Street, North Hobart, and had in a previous incarnation, been a huge wet fish outlet with some cooked food as take away. Taking over the space, it was a little jagged to really get operating in the form that Alex needed, to realise his dream of having a large, airy clean space that ticked all his boxes.
And it does has a great feel. Alex obviously is a guy who doesn’t do things by halves either. He’s got the largest collection of sake in the south of Australia, and Efay, his sake sommelier, has the deep knowledge to back this massive investment. It’s interesting this place– a work in progress, and evolving as Alex himself is evolving as a restaurateur and chef. One big issue I have though, is that Alex keeps jetting over to Japan to “study more Japanese cooking”. Well, you know what? I think that he needs to stay at home in Hobart for a while and focus on getting his business ship shape.
You can’t run a good business by proxy, especially a restaurant, and while the night we went the food and service was terrific, on other tries? Not quite so good. And in the volcanic firmament that is Hobart’s dining scene at the moment, that’s crazy. After my first visit I interviewed Alex later and got to know him a bit better, and I hope, really hope he settles down and stays focussed. Because at Osaka izakaya he’s got a good thing going.
Three of us schlepp in one night to give it a try, and Efay hits us up with the “3 cup sake tasting”, $35. And we say, why not? He selects different sakes for us so between us, we could have 9 different sakes to try, but we do find favourites, and tasting them one at a time, settle on about 6 different sakes between us. The best for us? The yuzu sake, and the umeshu, or plum sake. There’s another very complex one made from the best rice, but we can’t remember the name of that. Needless to say, take a taxi if you intend to go the sake route.
Have a look at the sake menus – OMG. One could get lost in translation here, the sake choices make my head spin, so we’re happy when Efay suggests the tasting option.
The dishes are divided into category on the menu, so the menu is quite large. On the whole, we find the prices very reasonable, the food is great, and cooked with flair. The stand out dish was the soft shell crab, at $14.50 a steal, but the pork belly, or Buta no Kakuni, $14.70, was a close second. Gorgeous, silky melt in the mouth pork and fat that satisfied even the pickiest palate.
Then there was the “Large Assorted Tempura” which at $21.50 was Louise’s favourite dish, and we all loved the “Tebasaki Karaage” $14.50 or Alex’s version of Karaage chicken. Crisp, tasty, juicy. The miss of the night, was the Ika No Shio, $15.70, or squid in white sauce, which was patchy. The squid had parts that were tender, but some were tough. Probably not an issue in Japan, where I used to be served hard as rock cold squid in batter for school lunch, but here, we’re used to it being soft.
Efay is solicitous to a fault, and fills our sake cups to overflowing, checking our progress, and making sure we are happy. And how good are the prices? $62 each for great food, superb sake, so we leave sated, and happy. Gotta love that. When I finally get Alex down to a time to tell his story, we are days later, sitting in the space where he leaps up and down cooking and overseeing this very demanding baby.
Our conversation takes incredible twists and turns but always focussed on the food, the balancing act he performs every day with the variation of every delivery of produce. Adjusting his recipes and ingredients to always get that perfect balance of flavour, and he adjusts portions to people’s bite size.
As an homage to the perfection seeking, bespoke cuisine that is Japanese, Osaka Izakaya stands alone. Proud, obsessive, pure.
A true multicultural – Alex – or Yang – was born in China, moved to the UK, back to China, then Australia. In between, he has trained in Japan every year in Osaka, and Sakai, before he even touched Japanese cuisine. His first restaurant was Aki Modern Japanese Restaurant in Battery Point, but the landlord wanted the building to renovate, so he had to move.
Traditional Japanese food is his passion, but he’s found that those complex flavours and textures are not necessarily easily accepted by western palates. In that scenario, he has had to change some things. He’s been a qualified chef here since 2010, he knows what local tastes want, so it’s a balancing act, between purity of product, and staying true to Japanese tradition, but also nodding to his market.
Osaka Izakaya is his baby now, and he’s still staying true to his training – so sushi is a battle ground to keep to the traditional standards. Osaka is not made to cheap local takeaway demands – it takes 3 days on the stove to make ramen broth, he makes his own noodles (24 hours at least), and he had a whole teriyaki fight with his chef, who was more familiar with bastardised Australian style.
His chef insisted that his teriyaki wasn’t right (well, no, it’s pure Japanese here in Yang’s place), and then there’s sushi. Traditional sushi is made with a fermented rice vinegar, (not mirin) that is infused with kombu and has castor sugar to balance.
So there you go, folks, sushi ain’t sushi until you’ve wandered into Osaka Izakaya.
It’s a major process here, and if you want sushi, please book that 7 days in advance, because you are going to get the real deal. He sources the fish fresh, often flown straight from Japan and struggles with customs to get it through.
His sommelier Efay, is a character, and handles those sake tastings with knowledge, aplomb, and a gentle air.
And why, of all places, is he here? Alex laughs delightedly. He loved Australia, and wanted to immigrate, and discovered that being a cook was an easy option to get a job. Lucky for him, he discovered that he loved it! Something in that kitchen process, the raw produce, the heat, the fire, spoke to him deeply, and it was a revelation.
Yang had found his métier and pushed himself to learn, absorb and inhale the history and skills with regular trips to Japan. He does a stage every time, upgrading his skills piece by piece with a kind restaurateur who supports his passion and willingness to learn. In an exchange, he teaches them western cooking, so his visits are win/win. He angles to be introduced by friends, testing a place’s food, and if a dish is great, he goes back and offers his labour for a few days in exchange for their recipes.
How did that all happen? He recounts the original story of his learning to cook the perfect ramen:
He was wandering lost in Osaka, it was dark, his phone was out of battery, so no Google, (and just FYI, there’s no street names in Japan – it’s just a thing) and he finally came upon a ramen shop. He was hungry. When he asked for ramen, and the girl said in English ‘which one?” he said, the special. He made it clear that he loved what they were doing and wanted the recipe.
Of course they refused, and Alex offered them 4 days free work to learn. He turned up the next day, and told to scrub toilets. He did. Good? Okay, then mop. As Alex was mopping, he was looking behind, trying to see what the chefs were doing, but they were hiding and being incredibly secretive, so Alex did the next best thing. He had the same thing – their ramen special for 4 days, seeing what he could, and then worked on it until he could replicate it – and he did. That first night, when he finished work, with no battery left in his phone, the staff took him to his hotel.
He never went back there, but remembers that visit fondly, and heads each trip, to other places to learn different skills. They always, for some reason, accept him and are kind. But they do guard their secret recipes jealously. Tradition is alive and well in that ancient yet modern land.
Alex has ideas for extending his dining area, and he’s always busy importing, cooking, tasting, experimenting. Working on his passion is a permanent fixture in his life, like so many chefs I know. As we leave, I ask him what is his grand plan? “Surviving,” he answers simply. “To feed my son, my baby girl and my wife. It’s a long term goal, and a serious investment.”
That it is, Alex, that it is. Thank you.
Osaka Izakaya & Grill Restaurant / 285 Elizabeth Street, North Hobart, TAS 7008 / Ph: 03 6289 6248 / Open 7 days / www.tasosaka.com / [email protected]