After sampling various local high end/ fine dining restaurants (if you can call them that) we find ourselves keep coming back to these two. Granted, they're still not inexpensive all things considered, but at about $50 per head (fully fed with drinks) it's relatively acceptable in terms of having a good night out. Of course, this could blow out quite a bit if you choose to have a more expensive drop, or order the absolute most expensive dishes from each course.
We feel that many of the so-called high-end restaurants are just not good value for money. Either in terms of the food quality, quantity, the service quality, attitude, even the atmosphere are nowhere close to what is expected at their price point. And this is a cryin' shame. We've kinda lost faith in these kinds of places and are happy to stick to the following two favourites.
There are quite a contrast between the two places, and depending on your mood, you can choose from having a quiet evening or a lively atmosphere.
Part 1: Quiet Night Out in Willoughby
A la Façon de Shimizu
537 Willoughby Road
(02) 9958 8782537
The name roughly translates to "The way of Shimizu". This is a 'French' influenced place run by a Japanese Chef. But it felt more like a Japanese/ French influenced fusion western style restaurant. I don't think I can pigeon hole this place, and that is part of their charm. From the looks of it, all the staff (including kitchen staff) are all Japanese, so you immediately get that extremely polite Japanese service. It is not one bit pretentious which we really like. If you ignore what's going on outside (it is on Willoughby Road after all) you could imagine yourself in a little rustic European back alley restaurant with stone paved roads outside, and fire crackling in the fireplace. They are genuinely welcoming and appreciative of your patronage in a very Japanese kind of way, and there is a warmth in their greeting that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Now the dishes aren't exactly what you'd call 'fine' but again, there is none of that over-the-top presentation and plating up that we're so accustomed to from these far-from-realistic cooking/ competition shows. You don't get a big empty plate with the food stacked 30cm tall in the middle. None of those artistic spreads of bright/ matching colour sauces nor the little dabs here and there that leaves you confused as to what goes with what. The presentation is functional like a Toyota, but it's reliable and won't age over time.
Of course, being a fairly small restaurant with minimal staff, there can sometimes be a bit of a lag between courses, and this is more noticeable when the restaurant is fuller and you can almost see the kitchen straining at the seams. However, when you're with good company (and this is a place you would take good company to) the lag won't be as glaring.
Grilled Lamb Cutlet with Miso Sauce
To the dishes. For those who are accustomed to the "full-on-hit-by-the-train" flavour of the Chinese takeaway, this place is most definitely not for you. Their flavours might be light, but certainly not lacking. I find them balanced and intricate, and you want to take things slow and savour each mouthful, for fear of possibility missing out on something.
Although they do have a special set menu - a bargain at $35 for 3 courses, for the past few visits, my slightly high maintenance palate has found me a set of "usuals" that I have ended up ordering upon each returning visit.
Fresh Salmon Tartare - Fresh salmon and avocado tartare with dill, capper and olive .Served with wasabi-mayonnais and bread
The soft texture of the salmon and avocado is juxtaposed with the crunchy bread with a soft centre. It's presented in almost a grid of salmon, avocado and the mayo that you don't want to mess it up. But you should.
Ragoût of Beef Cheek - beef cheek marinated in red wine overnight and stewed for three days. The speciality is the tenderness of the meat and sauce richly flavoured by the vegetables.
This dish has that warm, homey feel. I think this would be great for a winter night. After coming in from the cold, this is rich and soothing and immediately relaxes you and makes you feel at ease, and forget the all about the trouble outside. It take you back to the innocent childhood where everything is ok. And, for those few moments, everything is ok. The beef is soft and tender and almost melts in the mouth.
Main course is served with a side dish of tangy Japanese style noodles and salad. The carrot in said salad is to die for! soft and sweet and it's done in a way that I thought carrots cannot be done. Maybe I shouldn't hype the carrot up so much, but for me, it is that good.
By this time I'm done. No room for dessert. But if you do feel like a dessert, the green tea crème brulee is the pick of the bunch, or go for something simple like green tea ice cream with red bean paste. But be warned. The ice cream is quite substantial. I'd however, skip the coffee. It's never been a strong suit for the Japanese, and sadly, is the case with Shimizu.
There are other numerous great dishes, the muscargot is just like the real deal, but with mussels, (a must have for the missus) the duck leg confit is tender and juicy, the grilled salmon is perfection… I could go on, but I'm too hungry now just thinking about it.
I feel that this place is a hidden gem, a fairly well-kept secret. It's not to everyone's taste, but I feel that they deserve a shout out here, so that more people can come and discover this gem for themselves.
Stay tuned for part 2 - for when you want a lively night out.