There's something just so theatrical about sitting at a sushi train and watching all those plates of delicate, artfully crafted sushi trundle past your wondrous eyes. The sushi trains I remember when I was younger were more about the experience rather than the ambience, but it looks like they've undergone a contemporary makeover of late.
Many have expanded their menus from the classic baby rolls and plain nigiri to include sophisticated mouthfuls that are as delicious as they are appealing to the eye. They've fast becoming more contemporary places to feed your hunger for Japanese food.
Stepping into the dimly-lit space of Sushi Train in Neutral Bay, away from the traffic of Military Road, it is not immediately obvious that you've arrived at a Sushi Train chain. The interior is a mix of deep mahogany wood, lit at night by deep chocolate drop-down lights which create an intimate atmosphere. An island kitchen station in the center of the space is where most of the action takes place, around which the train is set up. Comfy, padded booths line one side of the train, and the other is home to more conventional high-perched seating.
The menu is not just limited to conventional Japanese restaurant offerings. Nigiri are topped with rather out-of-the-ordinary sashimi such as raw squid and octopus, and sushi rolls are taken to the next level.
Owner chef Ken greets us with a special dish of grilled salmon with miso and cheese. The fish is grilled to perfection, and although the cheese sounds like an unusual combination, it works surprisingly well with the umami miso and dark, sweet, salty sauce it's accompanied by.
Seafood parcel ($9.80)
A recent addition to the menu is this seafood parcel baked en papillote with a miso sauce similar to that which is used in nasu dengaku - sweet, flavoursome and almost teriyaki-like. Opening the paper reveals a layering of white fish, calamari, octopus and salmon, as well as sweet onions and fresh shallots. This style of cooking typically locks in moisture, as the contents are gently steamed in the sealed paper, however some of the smaller pieces are a little dry. If you're a Washoku Lovers member, you can get this for $5 by redeeming your online coupon.
Miso garlic salmon + scallop ship ($5.50)
If you thought sushi trains were all about sushi rolls and nigiri, you thought wrong. Sushi ships, or gunkanmaki, are round or oval-shaped sushi commonly wrapped with nori and served with a variety of toppings - the most well-known being ikura (salmon roe). This sushi train offers some specialty ships, the first one being this salmon-wrapped scallop ship. The fresh fish is every so lightly grilled, but by far the best bit is the sweet, crunchy garlic chips sprinkled on top.
Salmon volcano ship ($5.50)
Also wrapped in grilled salmon, this ship is built like an overflowing volcano - a creamy, springy seafood stick mixture forming the 'lava' which trails out the top. A sweet, soy-based sauce provides the perfect balance of flavours.
Salmon & Ikura ship ($5.50)
A mouthful of glory, fresh salmon is draped around a filling of creamy, jelly-like salmon roe which release a wonderfully oily, rich burst of flavour when bitten into.
Tiger roll ($5.50)
Who doesn't love a good piece of light, juicy tempura? Thick tempura of prawn is wrapped into a generously-sized roll, draped with artful slices of avocado, a drizzle of mayo and crunchy pieces of light, crispy batter.
Along with the innovative sushi ships, nigiri are also given a little twist. Of course, there is the standard salmon nigiri, but also variations like baby clam (tsubugai), spicy squid tempura and roast pork.
Chicken and avocado nigiri ($5.00)
Salmon nigiri ($5.50)
Ika sugata (baby squid, $4.50)
Japanese cuisine is perhaps one of the only ones in which you can have the pleasure of eating many different kinds of raw fish. Baby squid is served nigiri-style here, which is very fresh and tender with a slightly chewy, springy texture.
Raw scallop is sweet and silky smooth, a delicacy in the world of sashimi.
Duck nigiri ($4.50)
A fusion twist on peking duck, the skin on this is rendered and the meat tender and rich - an interesting combination when paired with the mayo and shallots.
A lot of the sushi train items are made in the central kitchen area, including these gyoza. This sushi train branch has its very own gyoza cooker - a specialised hot plate with an attached lid that enables steaming and frying at the same time to get that important scorched, crisp bottom and juicy filling.
You can also see the chefs at work grilling away behind the train. Top quality wagyu beef is torched just so that it remains tender and pink to form nigiri.
Chicken katsu roll ($4.00)
This sushi train classic does not disappoint. The chicken is moist, tasty and has a golden outside; and the rice is very well seasoned.
Spider roll ($5.00)
An extravagant plate, this is full of different textures provided by the crisp carrot, soft crab meat and light, crunchy crab legs.
Ippin sake (50mL)
From the Ibaraki Prefecture, this sake is served in a vessel called a Tokkuri, comes along with an ornately decorated, mini cup that is the perfect shot size. The sake is quite strong and full-bodied, and a drink to really appreciate.
Although the restaurant may have a more sophisticated feel, at the end of the day it's still the same fun, entertaining experience that makes sushi trains everywhere so popular. This Neutral Bay branch puts it's own unique spin on such a successful dining concept.
I was lucky enough to dine at Sushi Train Neutral Bay thanks to Washoku Lovers, but all opinions are my own.