The back streets of Japanese cities are filled with tiny eateries, each specialising in different dishes. They’re the inspiration for travellers who have gone home to create their own version of Japanese culture with ramen and yakitori bars, sushi and teppanyaki restaurants, shabu-shabu and izakaya popping up around the world, the latter being one of the last to reach our shores.
Although traditionally, izakaya were bars where men stopped on their way home from work for a drink and a little food to accompany it, Gold Coast izakaya owners have taken the best of Japanese izakaya, the notion of having a good time sharing Japanese food and drink, adapting it to our dining culture.
In a tenancy off James Street that previously hosted ‘Harvest Moon’, Oi Izakaya is testament to co-owners Stephen Thompson and Troy O’Shea’s love of Japanese food. A tousle in a triathlon led to an unlikely friendship, the pair skiing Japan and bonding over okonomiyaki and whiskey.
Before long they hatched the idea of opening an izakaya and, with the help of O. J. Thompson (who’d helped design Etsu, Iku, Baked at Ancora and Ally Chow), Oi Izakaya was born.
“It’s well and truly exceeded our expectations,” says Stephen, looking around at the dimly lit moody bar with its burned wood interior and noren framed doorways. Running lengthwise along the arcade, Oi’s bar is placed at one end, its open-plan kitchen and chef’s bar at the other.
The theming is consistent throughout. From menus and place mats to chopstick holders and plates, there’s a well-formed sense of place and purpose.
“We got lucky with both our branding and our chef,” Stephen tells us, referring to the highly-skilled Japanese-born Head Chef Ran Kubota, whose father owns a Michelin star restaurant in Hiroshima.
He’s constructed a menu of dishes to share: ‘Otsumami’ or snacks such as spicy edamame, crunchy lotus root fries, edamame cheese chips, takoyaki, karaage chicken and bean sprout salad.
Next comes ‘Osyokuji’, larger plates which are also shared – okonomiyaki (a pancake-like dish) and yakisoba, a traditional noodle dish used to soak up alcohol at the end of the evening, with dessert if you can fit it in!
We dine Omakase or Banquet style (3 rounds for $40 or 4 rounds for $49; extra with matching sake). It’s a great way to try a chef’s selection of dishes, at least the first time you dine. After that you will no doubt pick out your favourites, as we did on the night.
With the chef away when we dine, it’s Stephen who mans the teppan to make okonomiyaki, the restaurant’s signature dish.
A savoury batter pancake packed full of cabbage, seafood and/or meat, ‘okonomi’ literally means ‘to one’s liking’. There’s lots of choice of filling at Oi, including an Hiroshima style with noodles, but we choose a seafood version with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise, topped with shavings of shaved smoked bonito and pickles.
Okonomiyaka is available all over Japan, but the two largest okonomiyaki hubs are Osaka and Hiroshima, each with their own version of the dish. It’s pertinent for Oi that the pancake is particularly loved in Hiroshima, Chef Ran’s hometown, where street stalls selling okonomiyaki stood on ground burned by the atomic bomb. With a relatively simple recipe of flour dough and a few vegetables, this humble dish helped feed the people of Hiroshima when food was scarce.
For an eating house where beer and whiskey are traditionally the main event, we had a feast, finding lots of little delights in the menu. Our favourites of the night were the rich crispy edamame cheese chips, gyoza, lotus root fries and karaage chicken. Okonomiyaki is hearty enough to share between two or four people as a snack. When eaten alone, it forms a main course for a hungry person leaving little room for other treats. We’re busting to try the Mooloolaba tuna Sushi Sliders and Matcha Ice Cream Sundae next time we visit as they were not featured on our 3-round menu.
Oi Izakaya’s well-stocked bar, brimming with whisky, sake, local spirits and Suntory beer on tap also boasts delicious cocktails, such as Tokyo Southside and the exciting Spicy Margarita with more than an edge of chilli. We would return to savour them both again, to dine on specific dishes with friends or just to snuggle into this atmospheric bar at Happy Hour (4 – 5pm, 9 -10pm). Then we could imagine that we were really in the back streets of Tokyo.
4/30 James St, Burleigh Heads Ph: 07 3129 0628
Open: Tuesday – Saturday 5pm – 9pm; Sunday 12noon – 3pm, 5pm – 9pm
NOTE: Good Food Gold Coast dined as a guest of Oi Izakaya.