Nestled in the vibrant heart of Crown Street, restaurateur Ibby Moubadder has wielded his magic wand to utterly transform the once-familiar Cuckoo Callay eatery into a restaurant for Japanese cuisine aficionados and thrill-seekers.
I am sitting at a window seat overlooking the Christmas tree in the small park below, putting a forkful of eggplant into my mouth. It’s possibly the most perfect mouthful of eggplant I have ever had (sorry Ottolenghi). It’s unimaginably brilliant. The dish arrives as a half eggplant, deep fried, soaked in dashi, then fried and layered with a sesame tahini surrounded by a clear pool of tomato Kaeshi made from soy sauce, sugar and mirin.Its the Japanese version of a consume. The eggplant is topped with rice bubbles, a by-product of sake rice grains which have been deep fried. If that all isn’t enough to make your brain explore, well my taste buds may never recover. It’s silky, creamy, savoury, crunchy. Insanely great.
It’s a beautiful room, most of the seats are upstairs with banquets running lengthways, and smaller tables overlooking the streets. A kimono graces the end wall, adding a touch of traditional elegance. The staff are warm, friendly and at midday almost all the tables are full.
So what Japanese genius is in the kitchen? I am expecting a sushi master maybe from Osaka due to the street food smarts on this menu, but no, it is Erik Ortolani who grew up in the Northern Italian lake district, then headed to Sydney to fine tune his love of Japanese. He’s best known for his work at Cho Cho San then ESCA group (Nour, Aalia). Ito for me has parallels to Soul Dining (Korean/European). This is a menu which is firmly Japanese, but there are moments of flair, innovation and respect. Flavours are well thought through from a swap of lemon from ponzu. Erik’s leans on his heritage with new combinations to create a new layer of experience.
Our meal didn’t start with eggplant but with Shio Kombu bread- gloriously golden, ridiculously soft. We follow with a well styled sashimi plate and onto spring tempura, with a citrus dashi emulsion for dunking. Raw Hokkaido scallops have a clean ocean flavour and silky texture, lying on a kombu-garlic milk, which is balanced by green apple. Two skewers of Tako-tori alternates confit chicken with octopus. The medley is studded with nduja showing how seriously they take their charcoaled on hibachi grill. This is an example of a Japanese switch on a classic Italian chorizo/cuttlefish pairing.
Mains bring a medley of flavours. Koji chicken is a brooding, dark shimmering chook sitting on a soba cha mash with thyme tare (pronounced [ta-reh] )yakitori sauce made of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar. These are powerful flavours. My dining companion (Jen) is loving the mushroom don. It’s comfort food in a bowl of pecorino, black pepper topped with a golden yoke. Charred Roman beans are tossed in a barley miso with a generous furikake shower. One of my favourites is the market fish katsu using the known – gurnard. Panko crumbed white fleshed tenders are best wrapped with a sheet of nori and dunked in a creamy sauce -this is fun dude food.
As I savour the last morsel of the fish katsu, I can’t help but be impressed at the culinary journey Erik Ortolani has orchestrated. It’s an explosion of tastes owing to his restraint. He has not been lured by the temptation to turn this into fusion food. Ito is the work of a culinary alchemist who has turned an eggplant into a masterpiece! Watch this space as we can see a hat coming it’s way in 2024.
Ito, 413–415 Crown Street, Surry Hills
Hours:Mon & Tue 5.30pm–9pm, Wed & Thu midday–2.30pm, 5.30pm–9pm
Fri & Sat midday–2.30pm, 5.30pm–10pm, Sun midday–2.30pm, .30pm–9pm