“There was a time when people went out just to enjoy a really good meal. Restaurants’ reputations were built on the quality of their food. That’s all changed. Now, restaurants must provide the whole package. It’s not just about the food. We’re in the entertainment industry. We have to give someone a great experience. Bad service, having to look around to get service, is as offensive as bad food.” Philip Johnson, E’cco Bistro
I’m sitting in a room surrounded by 60 food bloggers when one of Brisbane’s most lauded chefs comes out with these words. I’m shocked: ‘We’re in the entertainment industry.’
This conversation’s touching hallowed ground.
It’s a more eloquent reiteration of the Main Squeeze’s contention that dining out is ‘all about the show’, that it’s the total experience that counts, that food is only one act in the play. As unlikely as it may be, the man who took me to the Workers’ Club as a first date (that’s another story), had hit the target on first throw.
The total experience: it’s what we look for when we dine at a new place, as well as that indefinable ‘je ne sais quoi’ element which might be termed ‘panache’, or even ‘surprise’.
Etsu Izakaya is an experience for all our senses.
Firstly, there’s the feeling of mystique. Like the brown paper wrapped package, it would be easy to walk right past the non-descript wooden doorway, to underestimate its inner contents. Its izakaya signpost, a red lantern outside the fortress-like wooden door, not only attracts our attention; it’s also an auspicious symbol of good luck. ‘Come inside,’ it beckons, and so we do.
We push through the doorway to find ourselves enveloped in the barrel of Hokusai’s Great Wave, a rogue ocean ‘okinami’ which runs along the restaurant. It’s a tunnel-like cavern traversed by a long bar, with a giant bonsai flanking its side wall. A spiky tree provides a centrepiece for a communal table as the restaurant opens up, story-like, into a satirical comic book mural by local artist Mark Wilson.
Amazed and fascinated by the restaurant’s internal landscape, we momentarily forget that we’re here to dine! But the guys’ hunger soon prevails, and we order dish after dish: the freshest Edamame we’ve tasted, Salmon and kingfish tatake laced with seaweed and pickled cucumber, Pork gyoza, ‘Omakase’ mixed tempura with light crunchy batter, Crunchy softshell crab and Amiyaki Wagyu steak.
It’s beautifully rendered classic izakaya fare, paired with a good range of Japanese drinks. There’s sparkling sake to accompany your sashimi, beer (including the crisp, highly drinkable Tokyo Pale Ale) to team with tempura, varieties of sake and shochu, delicious Plum wine and Japanese-inspired cocktails…well, who needs an excuse!
No excuses needed in traditional Japanese sake bars! Originally men-only drinking haunts, Japanese bars introduced food to entice their patrons to stay and drink more, rather than leaving to shop around for better sake elsewhere. So, stay they did!
At Etsu, there’s a different culture and far more focus on the light, freshly prepared food. Good food builds reputation, and Japanese chefs are on view at Etsu behind the robata grill, reinforcing the food’s authenticity. Almost smokeless due to the use of prized binchotan charcoal, the distinctive aromas of the slowly grilling meat pervade the restaurant. Most noticeable on our Wagyu beef, the subtle smoky char flavour licks our palates, teasing and enticing, a foil for the succulent meat.
Though the restaurant’s cooking methods may be traditional Japanese, its food philosophy a quest for the essence of umami (the savoury sense), the social dynamics in this bar are very different.
It’s a Saturday night and, although we’ve dined early, the flock soon descends in a flash of colour. Cut into, the space fills with lorikeet chatter and laughter, bouncing from wall to wall. Wait staff cut briskly through the bar crowd, attending to the influx. The venue has risen from restaurant to bar, from intimacy to party. It’s a lesson in ‘choose your time to dine’: in our case early or mid-week to maximise the intimacy of the venue; for the social set, from 7.30 ‘til late when the bar’s a roaring hub of action.
Of course Etsu is a bar. Etsu Izakaya literally means ‘sitting in the Etsu sake shop’. It’s a modern Aussie take on the bars owners Mitch and Nerissa McClusky have enjoyed while snowboarding in Japan; they have taken the symbols of Japanese culture and transformed them into our own.
“We spent a lot of time and effort on the fit out,” Mitch tells me, “but the whole experience [after opening] has been surreal. We look around us and see everyone having a good time. It’s a great atmosphere.”
In many ways, the McCluskey’s journey has been like the slow building up of a wave. Standing tonight in Etsu, it’s hard to believe their journey since Commune opened in April 2011.
As sophisticated as the unfolding of an enchanting timeless story, Etsu may not be the Gold Coast’s first izakaya lounge, but it’s certainly got the whole package!
2440 Gold Coast Highway, Mermaid Beach Ph: 07 5526 0944
Open: Mon – Sun 5pm – midnight
Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, [colour woodblock print] 1826 – 1833, used under Creative Commons license.