One of the best things about Studio Ghibli movies is the glorious depictions of food. There are some amongst us who have spent an embarrassing amount of time daydreaming about the steaming ramen noodles in Ponyo, those little red lunch bentos in My Neighbour Totoro or Howl's sizzling bacon and eggs. Well, you can cease licking gifs on your computer screens, because Yayoi Garden, the new incarnation of Yayoi on Bridge Street (itself an outpost of Tokyo's Yayoi-Ken), is creating some seriously good fare that comes pretty close to tasting an illustration by Miyazaki himself.
Characterised by traditional blonde wood, hints of red and gold, and cute origami cranes made from pastel pink porcelain for balancing your chopsticks, Yayoi Garden is your new go-to for cosy romantic occasions or after-work sushi sessions.
The impressive drinks menu is an eclectic mix of Japanese and Australian numbers, showcasing wines, sakes, yuzus and shochus. It's hard to pass up the sake flight — three sakes selected to depict the range of flavours. Starting with a light, floral Dassai 50, through to the deeper, fruity Dassai 39 Sanwari Kyubu and finishing on a glass of Dassai 23 Niwari Sanbu, which I'm sure is Japanese for golden liquidy smoothness. Upon finishing the flight, you'll be left with that warm belly buzz that lingers for the whole evening.
It's a well-documented fact that the best pieces of pork belly cause a momentarily clouding of your judgement, and for a brief moment you cease caring that you're actually eating solid fat. Yayoi Garden's pork kakuni ($12), delicately poached in soy sauce, is up there with the best. The meat is so tender, the mere suggestion of a tongue movement is enough to have it melting in your mouth.
The sashimi at Yayoi Garden, meanwhile, is an ode to the quality of Australian seafood. The Kaisen salad ($18) with lightly marinated slivers of salmon and kingfish is perfection, with an accompanying soy-based dressing so tasty you may want to drink it with a spoon while the waiter's back is turned.
The Wagyu Shabu-shabu ($25) arrived at our table in the form of several plates and bowls topped with tiny piles of perfectly cut and arranged delectables. Wafer-thin slices of marbled wagyu were carefully laid alongside a mini mountain of shiitake mushrooms, and a fire was lit underneath the bubbling pot of cloudy dashi broth. Anyone who's dabbled in hotpots before knows that they can be a daunting task, and when you're cooking with wagyu, the stakes are high. It took a few meaty sacrifices before we were able to ascertain the perfect simmer time, so unless you're a hotpot prodigy, we recommend skipping this dish and leaving the cooking to the pros.
The main course highlight was the Gindara Saikyo-yaki ($29) — buttery morsels of black cod marinated in Kyoto-style miso paste, wrapped in cedar wood and grilled — which tastes remarkably like birthday cake. Delicious.
The actual dessert menu is short and simple. I recommend the matcha affogato ($10.50) — two generous scoops of green tea ice-cream topped with a shot of hot green tea.
The dining experience at Yayoi Garden is relaxing and casual. Even when the space is full, it somehow remains peaceful, so much so that you'd be forgiven for thinking you're dining in a ryokan somewhere on a sleepy mountaintop, rather than in the middle of Sydney's CBD.