Tokonoma – Surry Hills

Having recently reviewed the Nippon Club, which is like a down-at-heel oriental RSL, it’s curious to then go to Tokonoma, possibly the most stylised bar Sydney has to offer.

With more curves than a 50s pin-up and more blond wood than a 70s Swedish sauna this is a knockout as far as interior design goes, although the swooping ceiling feels so low in places it reminds me of Being John Malkovich (or, at the risk of revealing how ancient I am, Cousin Itt’s room in The Addams Family). But I digress – the real point is, does the food, cocktails and service match Tokonoma’s style?

The first time I came here was by myself several months ago. It was a Friday night and, as I was passing by on my way to a party I didn’t want to go to, I procrastinated by having a cocktail at Tokonoma first.

Loud dance music played as I waded through the crowd at the bar, like Moses parting the red sea (hey, we all have our missions), and after waiting a while without being served I moved to a different position at the far end. I suspect this manoeuvre is the alcoholic equivalent of changing lanes in gridlocked traffic only to discover the other lane has begun moving, since it was all to no avail – and when I was finally served it was by a bartender who refused to smile (I actually have a lot of patience for bar staff who are under the gun and take their time to produce quality drinks – provided they at least pretend not to find me repellent).

Hoping the bartender’s talent would match the attitude I ordered the amaro pisco sour (made with Okinawan black sugar-infused Santiago pisco, lemon, egg whites, sugar and a dash of amaro), which was served in a flute and was decent but not outstanding enough to warrant the service. However, when I come back to Tokonoma again a few months later with friends I find that the atmosphere, service and drinks are MUCH better.

This time I come on a Wednesday night and the music is quieter and the service bright and friendly. We sit at a table and I order the sazerac, made with Old Potrero Rye whiskey and Grande Absente, and it’s fantastic. Admittedly, it better be considering it costs $29 but it is the best traditional sazerac I’ve had so far in Sydney: light, easy to drink and with a beautiful red hue.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine orders the more affordable negroni swizzle ($19). Even though the word pineapple is in the name the menu claims it’s made with Whitley Neill gin, Campari and Antica Formula vermouth that’s swizzled with falernum and orange. Regardless, this negroni is a good variation and its sweet notes are lighter and fresher than with the classic version.

Tokonoma’s food also stands out: the sashimi is fresh and flavourful, the gyu niku no tataki (seared beef, pickled onions, mizuna, garlic chips) looks delicate yet tastes robust and if you like edamame beans then opt for the spicy version here. It’s much messier than edamame usually is – you’ll need your napkin – but once we tasted it we almost left the plain one, which we’d also ordered, alone.

In the interests of professionalism – and sazeracs – I then come back again and this time the service is perfect. It’s early on a Friday evening and the staff are professional, friendly and quick. I order Shorties Sazerac, which is made with both Ardberg Uigeadail and Glenmorangie Astar single malt whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters and sugar that’s served in a caramel absinthe-rinsed glass. The result is smooth, rich and complex – but what I like even more is the Croatian’s cocktail. She picked the Honeycomb and Maple Old Fashioned, which is made with honeycomb-infused Johnnie Walker Gold that’s stirred with maple syrup and served with a slice of orange. This drink seems deceptively simple but it’s like honey to drink – and has inspired me to start making cocktails at home with maple syrup.

Overall, Tokonoma certainly isn’t as affordable or quirky as the Nippon Club but it’s hard to beat when it comes to style and great cocktails. My two suggestions would be to come early or during the week when the place feels more civilised and to come for a meal rather than just drinks. The reason is that even though most people assume Tokonoma is a bar since its sister restaurant, Toko, is just a few metres away, Tokonoma still feels more like a restaurant (albeit one with a more sultry feel than Toko). However, if you’re after an intimate dining space (perhaps for a date) then Tokonoma is certainly recommended.

Tokonoma, 490 Crown Street, Surry Hills. Phone 9357 6100 or see the Tokonoma website. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 5.30pm until midnight

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Now it’s your turn – how do you rate Tokonoma?