14 Steam Mill Lane
Haymarket, NSW 2000
I’m always up for an izakaya meal. There’s really not much out there better than a parade of plates and nibbles, ordered over a long meal with great conversation, and maybe a drink or two.
Nakano Darling is one of the new kids on the block, located in the shiny Darling Square dining precinct. The décor may not be classically Japanese, but the vibe it evokes is unmistakeable. It is undeniably cool with its collection of neon street signs, tatami seating with wooden crates for tables, and quirky Japanese ads projected onto the concrete walls. It stops just shy of trying too hard, and the result is very appealing indeed.
Unlike restaurants that build their wine lists with winning awards in mind, the drinks at Nakano is all about having fun without breaking the bank. Not only is there an impressive range of umeshu and sake, there are also plenty of simple and affordable cocktails. My Umeshu Soda ($12) was like a soft drink for grown-ups, the sweet plum flavour of the liquor brightened by the addition of sparkling water.
If Nakano is known for anything, it’s their Karaage ($8.5, 5pcs), which you can pimp out with one of four different toppings, or just have as is, like we did. For the price, this is a remarkably generous serving, and the quality isn’t lacking either. Not only was the batter impressively crunchy, the chicken in the middle also remained tender and juicy. Admittedly I wasn’t a huge fan of the marinade, which tasted oddly sweet to me, but it’s nothing a side of Kewpie Mayo (or a topping of salty spring onions!) couldn’t fix.
Just as popular as the karaage are the Gyoza ($8.5, 5pcs), which were much more to my liking. Proudly made in-house, you can really taste the difference in the delicate pastry and juicy filling of pork, and the crisp, lacy bottom was the cherry on top.
I ordered the Avocado and Japanese Pickles ($7) expecting… I don’t know what, but not this. I can only assume this is a very Aussie take on the traditional Japanese potato salad, which is also served as a pickle-studded scoop. This was nice because hey, avocado and pickles, but also very, very bizarre.
Conversely, the Corn Butter Cheese ($11.5) summed the dish up completely. It was literally corn kernels and melted butter, covered in an unholy amount of cheese and served on a hotplate. It was absolutely delicious, but you’ll need a strong stomach if you want to polish the whole thing off by yourself.
I’m a fan of finishing off an izakaya meal with fried noodles, mainly because it doesn’t compromise too much on the spirit of sharing that is so quintessential of the experience. I was pleasantly surprised at how good the Fried Udon with Pork Slices ($13.5) was. The noodles were tossed in a sauce that was a harmonious balance between sweet and savoury-umami, and infused with a gentle smokiness. And not only was the bitter cabbage a welcome deviation from the richness of the meal, it also had a delightful char that made it taste much better than you’d expect of plain cabbage leaves. In fact, if it weren’t for the slightly overcooked noodles, this would be worthy of a nice Japanese restaurant.
All up, I’m a big fan of Nakano Darling. Despite the food being fairly run-of-the-mill, it was tasty enough, and plentiful enough to ensure a fun night. The ambience was also a huge plus; not only was it a cool venue with great music, the fact that everyone seemed to be having a good time added enormously to the overall vibe. It’s definitely the kind of place I can see myself dropping in to on a whim, when I’m after an enjoyable night without the fuss.
Rating: 13/20 – darling of the bunch.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.