Kaya Sydney, Darlinghurst: Japanese Izakaya

The first thing you notice when you step into Kaya Sydney along Oxford Street is the tantalising aroma of the binchotan-fuelled robata grill followed by the warm welcome of the host.

Kaya Sydney
Kaya Sydney

Opened in late September 2012, Kaya Sydney is located at the old Rambutan site in Darlinghurst. Owners Tim Lackey and James Pollard bring over 24 years of combined hospitality experience and a unique concept in Japanese Izakaya dining with an inventive menu by Head Chef Stephen Lim that shies away from the ubiquitous focus on sushi and sashimi. Their philosophy is to create a place for diners to go to, relax and enjoy great food in a casual and unpretentious environment.

Kaya Sydney
Kaya Sydney

High stools, cypress pine tables, bare walls and a dark ceiling add a casual element to the space that is the work of Melbourne’s Splinter Society responsible for the design of Cutler & Co. There is seating by the open window which is ideal for small groups of friends to share dishes and work their way through the drinks menu.

Two sake are on offer, with Dassai Sake – Junmai Daiginjo ($11) and the drier style, Gin Sake – Junmai Ginjo ($10) offered by the glass. There’s a sizeable selection of local and imported wines and seven beers including three from Japan.

The cocktail list ($15 each) takes a Japanese focus with Asian flavours that complement the food menu. Fresh ingredients are used in the drinks, with all juices squeezed on the premises.

Kaya Sydney
L-R: Yuzu Shoes, Bonzai Massacre

Start with the Bonsai Massacre, a textural cocktail with tropical fruit flavours. The drink is made with Wyborowa vodka and Cointreau with chunks of muddled lychee and blood orange and Aperol jelly. If you prefer a drier style of aperitif cocktail, the thirst-quenching Yuzu Shoes is tangy, refreshing, and will make you want to order another one.

The standout cocktail is the Saketini (see below), a savoury and easy drinking dry style of martini that goes well with the dishes. Made with a combination of gin and sake, muddled coriander root, the white part of a spring onion and a slice of chilli, this is a cocktail one can drink all night.  You get the aroma from the coriander at first, followed by the flavour of the sake, the gin and it finishes with a little bite from the chilli which strengthens the longer it macerates.

Kaya Sydney

The food menu is designed to be shared and while you decide which dishes to order, nibble on the spicy edamame ($5), served with a house sauce made of chilli, ginger garlic and mirin.

Kaya Sydney
Hawkesbury pacific oysters with salmon roe and ponzu

The Hawkesbury pacific oysters ($4) are freshly-shucked, served with ponzu sauce, and crowned with salmon roe caviar. The creaminess of the oyster is counterbalanced by the tangy flavours of the sauce, making it an appetiser worth ordering.

Kaya Sydney
Kaya Sashimi Selection

The Kaya Sashimi Selection ($18) has rice wine cured kingfish and ocean trout with a fermented seaweed ponzu sauce. Each morsel is topped with a slice of ginger and ocean trout caviar and sings fresh and zingy flavours. The dish is worth serving with a spoon if only to enjoy the last drop of the ponzu sauce.

Kaya Sydney
Shell grilled scallops dressed with citrus ponzu

Shell grilled scallops ($12) are cooked on the robata and dressed with yuzu ponzu and green shiso with fish roe on top. The scallops are plump and juicy with peppery notes from the green shiso.

Kaya Sydney
Venison tataki

The venison tataki with cherry tomatoes, garlic chips, wafu aojiso and ponzu ($14) sings delicate flavours. The meat is pan seared and just cooked to the point that is very tender and retains its gamey flavour.

Kaya Sydney
Shiitake mushroom and garlic butter

It’s hard to resist the earthy and sweet flavours of the shiitake mushroom and garlic butter ($9) sprinkled with sesame and cooked on the robata.

Kaya Sydney
Braised pork belly, green shallot and pickled carrot

The standout dish is the braised pork belly with green shallots and pickled carrot ($10). The pork belly is twice cooked for thirteen hours before it is sliced then put on the robata and basted with teriyaki sauce and shiso pesto. The pork melts in the mouth and you get the best piece last.

Kaya Sydney
Eggplant with aka miso

Another favourite is the eggplant with aka miso ($9), a sweeter style of miso, flame torched and served with a side of rice. The instructions are to mix it together with the rice releasing the lovely, sweet flavours as the eggplant melts in the mouth.

Kaya Sydney
Eggplant with aka miso and steamed rice

Kaya Sydney
Green tea Chawanmushi

Leave room for dessert as the green tea Chawanmushi ($10) hits the right spot with the earthy flavour of the green tea. Meaning “cooked egg”, the dessert is served with a lemon yoghurt ice cream which can be dividing if you’re a crème brûlée purist.

Kaya Sydney
L-R: Saketini, Smoked Manhattan

Finish on a cocktail that showcases the creativity and ethos of Kaya Sydney. The Smoked Manhattan is made with robata and hickory smoked Makers Mark bourbon stirred with Antica Formula vermouth and bitters – a sensational combination of flavours best enjoyed at the end of the meal.

Kaya Sydney
Kaya Sydney

Kaya Sydney may take the casual approach to dining but it does so with attention to detail and a collaboration of textures and techniques that put the wow factor in the dishes. The flavours are fresh, the menu is exciting and the vibe is relaxed with smooth tunes that create the right mood.

On weekends, the recently-launched Tokyo Underground beneath Kaya Sydney comes to life in a space that has its own bar and can be used to launch events and for promotions. Starting at 10 pm when the restaurant quietens down, the bar, which has a back entrance from Foley Lane, serves the same cocktail list but with a bar snack menu.

There’s much to like about Kaya Sydney. From the innovative cocktails to the creative dishes enjoyed in the right ambience, the venue is welcoming and accessible.  And with happy hour on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 pm to 11.30 pm coupled with a 3 am licence, it is set to become a popular late night destination.

Kaya Sydney
96 Oxford St
Darlinghurst 2010
Ph: 02 8354 0057
Open: Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday: 5pm – 12am
Friday: 5pm – 3am; Saturday: 5pm – 3am

UPDATE June 2013: Kaya Sydney has closed. You can find Hello Sailor at the same address.

About the author

Corinne Mossati

Corinne Mossati is a drinks writer, author of GROW YOUR OWN COCKTAIL GARDEN, SHRUBS & BOTANICAL SODAS and founder/editor of Gourmantic, Cocktails & Bars and The Gourmantic Garden. She has been writing extensively about spirits, cocktails, bars and cocktail gardening in more recent years. She is a spirits and cocktail competition judge, Icons of Whisky Australia nominee, contributor to Diageo Bar Academy, cocktail developer and is named in Australian Bartender Magazine's Top 100 Most Influential List. Her cocktail garden was featured on ABC TV’s Gardening Australia and has won several awards. She is a contributor to Real World Gardener radio program and is featured in several publications including Pip Magazine, Organic Gardener, Australian Bartender and Breathe (UK). Read the full bio here.