A man walks into a bar. A woman follows, shaking the rain drops from the long scarf she used as a makeshift umbrella. Their heavy coats are damp from the flash rain that washed over Sydney on a wintry night during the Vivid Sydney festival.
Not exactly the kind of entrance I wanted to make into Saké Restaurant and Bar in the Rocks. Wet and dishevelled, casually attired and carrying a camera bag. Nevertheless, we are made to feel welcome and shown to a table in the bar area that sits above the restaurant.
Saké Restaurant and Bar is a contemporary Japanese restaurant with Executive Chef and sushi master Shaun Presland at the helm. Situated on Argyle Street in the Rocks, it is a long and wet distance from the Sony Lounge at the Opera House where we would have been enjoying a drink had it not been an unpublicised private event.
Inside the designer space, the classical Japanese theme is evident with silhouetted bonsai, floor light sculptures and a rich and dark décor with a warm and modern feel.
The bartender steps out from behind the bar and I inquire about the Glow On Vivid Cocktail, which is available for the duration of the festival.
“It depends on what you like,” Sam replies. He gently steers me away from it and suggests another that better matches my tastes.
Blind Shogun is made with Tanqueray gin, Choya Umeshu Plum Wine, Amabuki Mugi, Lillet Blanc and Shiso Leaves – three out of five ingredients I recognise, and comes served Martini style.
This is a cocktail that starts with finesse and turns serious. There’s a gentle and balanced sweetness from the plum wine and Lillet Blanc which lingers a little on the palate before it delivers a strong kick from the gin – a perfect choice by Sam Devenport, whose cocktail creation was featured in Australian Bartender Magazine earlier this year.
Under subdued lighting, I regard the ‘olive’ in my glass with trepidation, uncertain of how it will complement this cocktail. Mr G, who has an aversion to olives, offers me his. I reluctantly take a bite, only to discover that it is indeed a delicious plum that has been macerated in alcohol and soaked up all the flavours – a surprise element to this cocktail which has Mr G helping himself to my plum.
The long bar in dark tones stretches along one wall with back-lit bottles of premium saké in the fridge and a complement of spirits. There is a curious machine at one end and Japanese-style paraphernalia that look at home on the bar. Our table offers a peek into the dining room below, a large space decked out in dark wood, warm oak floors with drums of saké that remind me of the entrance to the Meiji temple in Tokyo.
We meet Wayne behind the bar as he ensures all patrons are well looked after on the night. We casually chat about cocktails in general, the mystery of Japan and the quaint saké warming machine that occupies a dark corner in the bar. When it comes to choosing the next round of cocktails, we leave the decision entirely up to the man who humbly says he just “works behind the bar”.
The first cocktail is Negroni style, made with a mix of Tanqueray 10, Amaro Montenegro, Campari, yuzu and a secret ingredient with a taste that is a cross between grapefruit and mandarin. I can taste the bitterness of the Campari and the Amaro followed by the zing of the citrus in the yuzu – all perfectly balanced and hitting the right spot with Mr G who has a liking for bitter Italian-style liqueurs.
The second is described as Daiquiri style but one that challenges conceptions and taste buds. The combination of Ron Zacapa rum and Choya Kokuto Umeshu, a Choya blend Japanese plum wine with brown sugar works a treat. This cocktail is rich and decadent, a far cry from any Daiquiri I’ve had with the Umeshu adding a molasses-like element to the drink.
I can’t choose which cocktail I prefer and that is often the mark that they have both hit the right notes. When I ask Wayne what he calls his new creations, he simply says that these are “secret cocktails where you have to be nice to the bartender”.
Behind the Bar: (L) Wayne Shennen and (R) Sam Devenport
Saké Restaurant and Bar has a Japanese-themed cocktail list that is inventive with classic cocktails available on request. You can also enjoy Umami Cocktails and canapés at the bar or leave yourself in the hands of the bartenders to be wowed by their recommendations and creations. Either way, cocktails at Saké only serve to whet your appetite for the complete experience: pre-dinner drinks, Shaun Presland’s cuisine with saké matching from the saké sommelier and a personalised service that makes you feel welcome, even when you’ve wandered in from the wet.
Saké Restaurant and Bar
12 Argyle Street
The Rocks Sydney NSW 2000
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