Sunday, 6 October 2013

Sono Queen Street Mall - tranquility in the heart of the city

I've lost count of how many times over the years I have walked up and down the Queen Street Mall, it literally would be in the tens of thousands.  This may seem like a lot of times, but when you live in the CBD and in Queen Street in particular, the visits to the mall easily add up.  There are not a large number of restaurants in the Mall and the restaurants that are there, generally cater to tourists and are a little over priced. When walking through the mall, it's hard not to notice the stairs that lead up to Sono Japanese restaurant and for many years I resisted the temptation to walk up those stairs and try it out.

It's not as if I don't love Japanese cuisine, I really do.  I've even been out to Portside to visit the Sono sister restaurant, Sono Portside, which is a very lavish affair (see post here).  It's more to do with the fact I visited Sono in the mall a long time ago and didn't think it was very good.

Fast forward a decade and the lure of those steps became stronger and stronger until I decided that I needed to check out Sono in the CBD again.  As I mentioned, it's actually pretty hard to miss Sono in the CBD, the entrance is so brightly lit, it's like a beacon on the mall at night.  The restaurant is in the same historic building as the exclusive mens club Tattersalls, only the restaurant is a little easier to get into, a quick call and a reservation is all it takes.

There are some differences between the two Sono restaurants in Brisbane that run deeper than their locations. Sono Portside is the newer of the two restaurants and is considered a fine dining location, with an Australian Good Food Guide chefs hat to go along with its beautiful setting and lovely menu. Sono on Queen Street has been around for much longer, with a menu that seems a little more traditional and certainly not as extensive.  Where Sono Portside is huge inside and very plush looking, the CBD version is more compact and just a little tired looking.

As we walked up the stairs and entered Sono, we were greeted warmly and with a traditional 'Irasshaimase' although it must be noted that it was much more subdued than most other Japanese restaurants I have been to lately.  Looking around the restaurant, I was glad I made a reservation, the place was filling up quickly and those tables that were empty all had reservation signs on them.  We were taken to our table and I was pleased to see that I had a decent view of the chefs at work in the kitchen area.

As soon as we sat down a waitress in traditional Japanese dress brought over a steaming washcloth, which was a lovely touch and allowed us to freshen up a little before the meal.  As soon as our spent cloths were taken away, they were replaced with our menus.  The menus at Sono are more akin to books, and with many many amazing looking options to chose from it was really difficult to decide on what we wanted.  The menu is split into starters, entrees, mains and hot pots and we ended up getting a little bit from each of the sections.

One of the starters that jumped out at me was the wagyu tataki, seared Kobe cuisine wagyu striploin beef, sliced and served with a citrus soy sauce.  I'd had this same dish at Cha Cha Char recently and wanted to see how a traditional Japanese restaurant would put it together.  The two dishes were very different with the Sono version looking very traditional, while the Cha Cha Char tatati was very contemporary and refined.   The beef was incredibly tender, with clear marbling on display, and full of flavour.  The citrus soy sauce was very subtle, I could hardly pick up any citrus notes at all, but it did help enhance the flavour of the beef

Our other starter was the kani cream korokke which were deep-fried croquettes made with cream and crab meat.  The korokke were beautifully presented on a triangular plate and the contrasting symmetry of the perfectly spherical korokke was stark.  While the korokke were deep fried, it was hard to tell as they were so light and fluffy, with a wonderfully creamy texture.  The sweet notes from the crab were clear on the palate and the cream was not overpowering at all.  There were just the right number of korokke on the plate to leave you wanting more, and they were delicious.

One of the more interesting looking dishes I have seen in some time was the crab syumai, home-made steamed crab meat dumpling syumai, served with ponzu sauce.  The delicate looking dumplings each had a crab claw sticking and was a little bit confronting, like the crab was trying to claw its way out of the dumplings.  The claws were easily removed but the crab syumai were so delicate, they were a little difficult to eat as they broke apart with the chopsticks.  There was no way around this, it was finger time, which made it a little easier to eat but a bit messy.  The predominant flavour of the dumplings was the sweet crab, which was not overpowered by the dumpling casings.

Last of the entrees was the gyoza, pan-fried Japanese pork dumplings served with spicy dipping sauce. The dumplings were presented in quite a boring way on the plate and were the least attractive of our dishes so far. I normally like to see a bit more of a consistent caramelisation on fried dumplings, and a few of them didn't have enough pork fillings and were a bit limp looking on the plate.  The flavour of the gyoza were quite nice, but the dumplings that didn't have enough filling were filled with liquid, which I don't think you want to see with pan-fried gyoza.

The first of our mains was the wagyu suju hattyouni, slow-simmered wagyu beef with rich dark soy sauce and sake to a soft texture with a side of steamed rice (which was extra and recommended).  The slow cooked wagyu was incredibly well cooked and fell apart at the slightest touch.  We were also blown away but the rich dark soy sauce, which was sticky and deep and full of flavour that worked so beautifully with the tender wagyu.  There were some halved quail eggs on the plate that were interesting and also worked well with the soy sauce, but I didn't really think belonged on the plate.

Continuing the trend of ordering wagyu our last main was the wagyu beef houbayaki, which was table-grilled Kobe cuisine stripling (MB6) with a magnolia leaf.  I wasn't sure what to expect with this one but was intrigued to see a miniature kerosene cooker placed in front of me with the instruction to let it cook for a few minutes. Once I could see the soy sauce starting to bubble on the magnolia leaf I figured it was time to start eating.  My first piece was still not quite cooked, but is fine when you are eating such good quality wagyu.  The flavours were nice but I didn't see what added benefit the table cooking process provided and decided it was just theatre (which I am OK with).  I quite enjoyed the dish, but if I had my time again I would have gone for something a little more substantial.

We definitely had room for dessert and I went for the soy based creme brulee with a sake flavoured sorbet. The dessert was presented in a large bowl of ice and interestingly, the sake sorbet looked more like ice shavings that a traditional sorbet.  I was a little worried that the sake sorbet would be overpowering but the flavour of the sorbet was a little sweet and had just a hint of rice.  I'm not sure what I expected from the soy creme brulee but it had a lovely crispy skin from the burnt sugar and it tasted just like a normal brulee, so I quite enjoyed it.

The dessert that SC opted for was a chocolate ricotta cake with almond ice cream, which was artfully displayed on the plate.  The chocolate ricotta cake was incredibly dense and it was very hard to easily cut into bite size pieces.  It was worth the effort though as it was lovely and chocolaty with only a hint of the ricotta cheese flavour.  The ice cream was lovely and creamy with a berry coulis covering which combined beautifully with the rich chocolate ricotta cake.  Just to add some moisture and sweetness there was also some cream and chocolate sauce which was quite lovely.

Our dining experience at Sono in the CBD was enhanced by the very authentic Japanese feel that was delivered throughout the night.  The staff we super efficient and extremely polite in the way only the Japanese can demonstrate.  All of the wait staff were dressed in traditional kimono (well, the female staff members anyway) and were friendly and excellent at their tasks.  The meal flowed very smoothly, which displayed harmony from the kitchen and front of house.

I definitely enjoyed this visit to Sono in the Queen Street mall much more than my last one and I thought, with a few exceptions, that the food was lovely.  It's a very different experience than at the sister Sono restaurant over at Portside, which is fine dining and well deserved of its Australian Good Food Guide chefs hat.  It was amazing how quickly the restaurant filled up and everyone seemed to be having a great time and enjoying the Sono experience.  

Being in Sono in the CBD is like taking refuge from the bustle of the CBD, there is a tranquil feeling while dining, that is no doubt helped by the Japanese garden in the corner of the restaurant.  As we left the refuge of Sono and walked down the steps and into the bright lights of the foyer area, I had the feeling that I wouldn't be so resistant to the lure of the CBD Sono the next time I walked by.

The steamed cloth was a nice touch and was very refreshing
The Sono napkin holder was very cute
The Kaiseki trained chefs in action.  Kaiseki is the highest level of authentic Japanese cooking
The waitresses in their kimonos
The tranquility of the Japanese garden
The foyer to the restaurant is bright and it must be said, a little garish!
Our mains
Our desserts
Our starters
Sono Japanese City on UrbanspoonSono Restaurant

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