After a whirlwind month in Shanghai, there was no better way to get back into the mix of things in Perth than to enjoy the things that I missed most about home. Besides my love for all-day breakfast, I definitely missed having all kinds of Japanese food, from affordable bentos to fresh, premium sashimi at my fingertips. Not to say that Shanghai is short of their own supreme league of Japanese restaurants, but in all honesty, I was too busy scoping out the dumplings and scallion noodles to explore those options further. I had a great number of Japanese eating experiences around Perth last year and am already beginning to compile a short list for 2013's most impressive.
Whilst I was in Shanghai, I received an email from Urbanspoon informing me of a 50% off special at a familiar sounding Japanese restaurant. I decided to make a reservation for the housemates and I sometime in August - not much thought was given, just a simple dinner for 6 to mark my homecoming. I generally travel for months at a time and despite my internship in Shanghai being relatively short, I found myself caught in a brief lull of post-travel depression. I longed for the Perth dining scene to once again surprise me and shake things up.
I guess the food gods may have heard me as within days of returning, I was kindly approached by Shiro Izakaya to review their restaurant. As a supreme appreciator for serendipity and the delightfully unexpected, after connecting the dots I realised that I had managed to book myself in for two subsequent dining experiences at Shiro Izakaya.
I enjoy fine dining very much but it is a pricey affair - especially in Perth where a standard degustation menu usually starts from $100 and over per person, excluding drinks. Between my two visits, I decided to conduct an experiment of consistency - I wanted to know whether Shiro Izakaya could deliver on food, service and ambience regardless of whether I came as a blogger or not.
The first time I dined at Shrio, I visited "undercover" as a regular customer and in the following visit a week later, I brought 11 other guests with me as part of an official invited tasting. On both occasions I sampled Shiro's Tasting Menu which is originally priced at $95 per person and I will be commenting course by course and drawing conclusions from both visits.
I appreciated the efforts that the Shiro staff made to accommodate so many of us on the night of the tasting. One half of the upstairs dining area was set up exclusively for us and it gave us the privacy and space to relax, move around and enjoy each other's company. A lot of my favourite Japanese restaurants around Perth won't take groups of more than 6 customers at a time, so I found this to be a very welcome change.
COCKTAILS AND SAKE
On my first visit, we each ordered our drinks separately which unfortunately were not included in the Urbanspoon 50% off special. During the invited tasting, my guests and I were offered two complimentary bottles of house sake and mocktails for non-drinkers.
The most disappointing cocktail was the Fuji Sunset; which actually turned out to be more of a rather unpleasant mocktail.
None of the lemon and too much of the maraschino came through, whilst the taste of the sake remained non-existent.
Cocktail prices are ridiculous in Perth and paying the equivalent to what you would pay for an entree should constitute receiving a drink that is well crafted and actually highlights the specific alcohol listed. Too many times have I paid for very expensive "fruit juice" or very expensive "Sprite".
The redeeming factor of Shiro's cocktail menu was the Tokyo Drift, which stole the show on both occasions - I'm a massive fan of Elderflower in cocktails so this was a sure order for me. For $19, I still think that it's a bit of a stretch, but at the very least I really liked it and appreciated the unique additive of aloe vera.
The Tokyo Drift sans alcohol also doubles as the restaurant's only mocktail that was eagerly passed around the large table and enjoyed by all. It's a fresh, sweet crowd pleaser that I definitely would like to enjoy again.
If you like to throw a stronger one back, I recommend ordering the Blushing Geisha.
Ironically, it doesn't shy away from delivering on taste, as the punch of strong liqueur really comes through, unlike the rest of the cocktails on the menu.
It's all liquor and minimal garnishes that provide complimentary freshness to the strong, fruity flavours of the concoction of spirits and sake. As much as I prefer hard liquor to beer or wine, the burn of the alcohol unfortunately undid any potential flavour profiles that I would have enjoyed.
On my first visit, two of my house mates got a large bottle of Apple Sake to share. Alcohol wise, this is probably the most price savvy option as one 750ml bottle can easily be shared between the whole table. I really liked the fuji apple flavour and would definitely be open to trying the other flavours they had on offer in future like lychee or raspberry.
I learnt from my visit to Fuku Omakase and Teppanyaki that premium Sake should be drunk chilled instead of warmed. After ordering both varieties for comparison, I definitely can vouch for chilled sake being far superior.
Although Perth hasn't quite caught onto Singapore's craze of dousing everything and Fries in Truffle Oil, I do appreciate it when it's makes an appearance on menus here. The pairing between grilled edamame and truffle oil is perfect; the charred skins of the beans and the earthiness of the truffle is the ultimate definition of delicious umami. Although the salt didn't have a distinct "green tea" flavour, it was still very moreish and a perfect starter to enjoy at the beginning of the meal with our drinks.
I dined with relatively large groups on both occasions (6 and 12 pax) and I think it's important that the initial courses make an impact and get people talking. I was impressed that Shiro was able to do that just with something as simple as Edamame beans.
It still allowed us to freely chat, move around the room, eat with our hands and relax - it's a smart starter and a delicious one. Best of all, it was something different from your average edamame bean. It made us all turn to each other and start talking about it; gone is my preconception of edamame being bland and rubbery. I'm a massive fan of this contemporary twist and would definitely still order this next time if I'm dining ala carte.
The next course showcased clean flavours and great, fresh produce; it's definitely a suitable palate cleanser to prepare your tastebuds for what to come next.
The burst that came from the tart ponzu and the clean flavours of the snapper worked really well together. The dashi jelly also gave the dish some texture, but I think something like black sesame seeds or something to add a little crunch would have gone a lot further than the addition of micro herbs.
The would be crunch from the capsicum pieces actually overpowered the delicate notes of the snapper, so I didn't include them in my subsequent mouthfuls.
Conceptually, it's a great dish but the garnishes were a little too distracting. I found myself pushing them aside and solely enjoyed the fish along with the dressing and dashi cubes.
SOFT SHELL CRAB
Hands down, dish of the night. It still alludes me how they managed to create the crispy baby spinach - flash frying, dehydration? Either way, they're great. The soft shell crab was beautifully crispy both times and much like the previous carpaccio course, it was the dressing that really elevated the dish beyond your average delicious fried morsel. The fresh burst from the watermelon was a perfect ending to the course and exactly what I needed to refresh my tastebuds. This course not only excited me because it was delicious, but it was creative and the components were all very well thought out.
Consistency wise, I did notice that this dish happen to be served in two different plates. It doesn't impact on the taste whatsoever, but I was still surprised. The deep bowl definitely faired better than the plate for retaining all the sweet juices from the balsamic dressing and made the dish seem more generous in appearance.
SHIRO STYLE PORK BELLY vs. SALMON ABURI
The next course offers diners a little choice - thankfully, with so many of us, I managed to get a taste of both as picking a favourite between the two is like splitting hairs!
Shiro impressed me again with their eye for presentation for this course. On both occasions, I went with the Pork Belly option and wasn't disappointed; it could definitely give Nobu's famous Caramel Miso Pork Belly an oink for it's money. If you gently press each caramel coated piece into the herbed salt on the side of the board, the flavours that follow will be exceptional.
The Pork Belly's beautiful counterpart is by no means inferior either - the balance of flavours are well perfected on both dishes. The burst of salmon roe and the sweet mayo go so beautifully together with the slightly charred salmon pieces. My advice? Bring a friend and share, because there's no way anybody should miss out on either one of these dishes.
GRILLED SNAPPER AND PRIME BEEF
I think this was the dish that got everyone moving around and talking throughout the course; not because it was exceptionally good and not because it was devastatingly bad, but because it was the only chink in the armour for the entire meal. It's a decent sized main course with many components, but the flavours and preparation behind the meal didn't match up to that of the other courses.
Whilst our orders were being taken, the waitress also noted down our wellness preference for the prime beef. I understand that when you're dealing with a mass order for larger parties, that it immediately complicates the plating process - however, on both times more than one person on the table was disappointed.
We all ended up inspecting our meat and swapping plates amongst ourselves. My first plate came out Medium and my housemate's came out Medium Rare; it's not a big deal for us to pass a plate over, but in all honesty, we shouldn't have to. Another housemate sent hers back completely because it was Well Done instead of Medium Rare - despite the beef being sliced, I wonder how they didn't pick up on this in the kitchen before it was sent out. That same night, every single Snapper across all 6 plates was also overcooked.
It was a different story on the night of the tasting however, as I found my portion to exhibit both perfectly medium rare beed and beautiful, soft, tender snapper. However, around our table of 12 even more meat swapping and "putting up with" overcooked fish occurred than that of my previous visit. Only when all the components were cooked accordingly, did I find that the main course very enjoyable.
We decided against sending anything back out of not wanting to disrupt the pace of our meal. I managed to speak with the Head Chef after my tasting about consistency in the main course and I think it's something that Shrio should work towards addressing.
If you observe the anatomy of the plate, you will notice the the lemon wedge is placed next to the beef, whilst the herbed salt is placed closer to the fish. After tasting extensively, we all concluded that the lemon would have complimented the Snapper and the herbed salt was more suited to the beef.
Placement may seem like a minute aspect of a dish, but how you plate your components will evidently impact on the tasting experience that your diners receive. It's a very beautifully plated course, but I question many of the components on the plate. We found that most of the garnishes either clashed or remained untouched on the plate. This was a far cry from the immense satisfaction that we experienced from the previous courses.
MISO SOUP | SALMON SALAD
Despite being listed after the Salmon Salad on the menu, it was the Miso that was served next. Again, there was some inconsistencies between my two visits but as it's a minor aspect of the dinner, I didn't give it too much thought. It was definitely more rich and flavourful the second time around, however overall it was enjoyable and a necessary part of any Japanese meal for me. We noticed that rice was not included in the Tasting Menu at all and all concluded that it would have been much appreciated if a side of Rice was included along with the Main Course too.
There were a few raised eyebrows when this course hit the table. It's a very minimal serving and perhaps you could argue that one slither of salmon doesn't equate to a dish being a "salmon salad". I also questioned the placement of this course; it just seemed a little out of order as it wasn't served with the main course or along with the other entrees.
However, the miso sauce that the salmon was resting upon was definitely delicious. The flavours of the salad were nice, but because of the serving size, it's easily dismissible. After a setback with the mains, we were all hoping that the next dish would push the tasting menu back on track but this course was not nearly the redeeming factor we were hoping for.
In light of recent courses, it seemed as though our initially delightful Tasting Menu was beginning to fall short. But thankfully, it was through desserts that Shrio managed to recover our faith. Diners were given a choice between Green Tea Ice Cream, Black Sesame Ice Cream and Banana Maki with Yuzu Sorbet.
You can't really go wrong with deep fried banana, except when you're met with blond pastry. It was was far crisper the first time around and whilst it was not undercooked, I did think the banana maki could have been fried longer the second time around. I do recognise that Shrio has some inconsistencies, but in this case it was still definitely not a bad dessert.
I've also become more yuzu friendly in recent years - it is very tart, but as with lemon, it can taste great in desserts when balanced well. It's a relatively "new" citrus flavour and there were various opinions around the table as to whether it was too sour.
I personally found it refreshing and well balanced, but probably not very well paired with the banana maki with caramel sauce. The sour notes of the yuzi weren't very complimentary to the richness of the caramel banana maki. Even if it was intended as a post maki palette cleanser, we all agreed that a scoop of green tea, black sesame or even vanilla ice cream would have suited the desert better.
I do think that the ice creams stole the show - one could dismiss it as "just ice cream", but I'm a sucker for simple things done right. Further more, Green Tea and Black Sesame are generally my go-to flavours regardless of whether I'm out for Japanese or not.
The green tea flavour was intense, authentic and lingering - I loved it! Technically, there could have been more red azuki bean paste, I was too elated with the ice cream's true flavours to care. Another special thing about Shiro's Ice Creams is that they cover the entire serving in what appears to be Crunchy Nut cereal! It became much more than a textural element for us and evolved into a food nostalgia trigger of our favourite past time cereal.
The Black Sesame Ice Cream was my personal choice during the official tasting and definitely my favourite of the three. I love the smokey taste that a rich black sesame ice cream carries! The sweet cereal elevated the earthiness of the black sesame further and I was even more impressed by how large the ball of ice cream was. Almost all is fair in the world of fine dining, except for the characteristically small desserts. Unlike the usual quenelle or bouncy ball size sphere, at Shiro Izakaya, you're served with an icing sugar dusted tennis ball of delicious ice cream.
The dessert course capped off the night quite nicely and I'm glad that we all left full and satisfied.
And so, the question remains - would I come back to Shiro Izakaya?
I'd like to commend them for consistent service on both visits and for having the tasting menu set at a good pace throughout both nights. It's definitely difficult to cater to larger groups but there were no major mixups, delays or issues and our experiences went by very smoothly. The ambience is unquestionable; it's a beautifully designed venue and would be great for any special occasion. The inner photography geek side of me yearned to dine here during the day; the floor to ceiling windows would make for impeccable natural lighting!
The Tasting Menu served it's purpose for giving me an overall insight into the menu, style and standard that Shiro offers it's customers. If I were to come back in future for ala carte dining, I'd stick to my favourite aspects of the Tasting Menu such as the Soft Shell Crab, Salmon Aburi, Pork Belly and the Edamame starter, as well as their iconic Ocean's 5 Sashimi Starter. But more than anything, I'd love to come back to try their $150 Omakasae menu; which must be ordered 24 hours in advance and probably requires a 24 hour fasting period before consumption anyway!
I sincerely hope they address the consistency issues we experienced with the Main Course; it is a shame to have the centrepiece of what was a beautifully executed degustation menu fall short. I'd also like to thank Arianty Sutanto for reaching out and inviting me to Shiro and Edwin Hartanto for carefully overseeing both of my visits. Till next time, I will continue to hold that one very special Soft Shell Crab dish very close to heart...
After a brief few days in the workshop, my Macbook is now at full operating form and more writing can be done! I'm amazed by how quickly August has flown by and I'm wondering what project I should undertake in September! #CoffeeOfPerth is now in it's third week and honestly why should it stop at August? Even after I stop drinking a coffee a day, I'll still be looking out for more recommendations from fellow local coffee addicts!
Keep up on Instagram by following @dinewhitme or tracking the #CoffeeOfPerth hashtag!