Sydney’s Wave of Euro-Japanese Restaurants Is a Reflection of Our Globetrotting Nature

European-Japanese fusion restaurants are sprouting up like wildflowers in Sydney of late, and it has a lot to do with Australia’s deep-seated obsession with both European and Japanese cultures, particularly their cuisines and libations. However, our obsession with these places isn’t exactly new, nor is the cuisine on Australian shores. So the question remains: why are we seeing more Euro-Japanese restaurants sprouting in Surry Hills and the CBD than in previous years?

Tetsuya Wakuda, a culinary maverick, has often been heralded as the trailblazer who brought the fusion of French and Japanese culinary arts to Australia over two decades ago when he opened Tetsuya’s on Kent Street. It is his innovative approach that laid the foundation for a culinary journey many are now eager to explore.

Zachary Tan, Executive Group Chef and Co-Founder of Devon Group, credits the burgeoning demand for exotic flavours and culinary combinations to the global jet-setting generation. “Who doesn’t have friends that either went to Europe or Japan in 2023?” he muses.

Tan’s own culinary journey includes stints alongside the renowned chef Guillaume Brahimi at Guillaume at Bennelong and Bistro Guillaume. With experience in both French and Japanese cuisines, he spearheaded Dopa Donburi and Milkbar, the Japanese rendition of the iconic Aussie milk bar created by The Devon Group, boasting six locations across Sydney.

european japanese restaurants
Photo: Steven Woodburn

Tan’s recent venture, Bistro Nido, is a charming and atmospheric corner bistro burrowed in the buzzing halls of Regent Place.

“We (Devon Group) love the romanticised idea of a French bistro and adore Japanese culture, especially the “shokunin” artisanal/craftsmanship ways of the people from the land of the rising sun,” Tan says.

The dishes, like roasted duck breast with pickled Kyoho grapes or Hibachi grilled Murray cod with a side of potato mille-feuille, subtly intertwine the culinary traditions of both cultures.

“Culture defines what we deem to be cool to eat. As a young culture—post-colonial Australia— we as a people have more open and pliable minds. We aren’t burdened with tradition,” says Tan.

Luc San, another addition to the European-Japanese fusion scene in Sydney, is the brainchild of Luke Mangan, who believes that these two culinary giants complement each other perfectly.

“The harmonious marriage of buttery French richness with Japan’s signature umami-laden flavours crafts a culinary symphony that leaves patrons spellbound,” says Mangan, a leading Australian restaurateur and chef with a long list of restaurants up his sleeve.

european japanese restaurants

Luc San swung open its doors in October of this year under the iconic Coca-Cola sign, yet out of sight from the Kings Cross hustle. Mangan describes it as a neighbourhood French Izakaya, with all dishes shareable, combining influences from Japan and France and made from local, sustainable ingredients–including wasabi leaves grown in Mangan’s own garden.

“I gathered all my experience from owning the restaurant Salt in Japan, combining it with my classic French training under Michel Roux,” he says. “I placed a big emphasis on healthy, quality ingredients.”

Luc San stands as a unique venture for Mangan, whose other establishments, such as Luke’s Kitchen at Kimpton Margot Hotel Sydney and Luke’s Table at the Pylon Lookout (Sydney Harbour Bridge), primarily focus on modern Australian cuisine. This foray into Japanese-European fusion cuisine represents an exciting departure for the accomplished chef.

When asked about his motivation for opening Luc San, Mangan candidly expresses, “They’re my two personal favourite cuisines.” This sentiment underscores the deeply personal and passionate approach he has taken with this endeavour.

european japanese restaurants

Mangan is buoyed by the dynamism of the Sydney hospitality scene, which he regards as one of the most vibrant in the world.

“I think the Sydney hospitality scene is one of the most dynamic in the world!” he says. “Diners in Sydney expect the best, so chefs like myself are challenged to evolve and create new dining and cuisine concepts.”

In a similar vein, Itō, a friendly Japanese Izakaya situated in Surry Hills, offers a fresh twist by way of an Italian chef. Helmed by ESCA Group, renowned for their Middle Eastern culinary ventures like Nour, Aalia, and Henrietta, Itō marks their maiden foray into the realm of Japanese-Italian cuisine.

Ibby Moubadder, Co-Founder of Esca Group, admits that their venture into the Japanese-French fusion trend was unintentional. The decision to reinvigorate the iconic corner space was driven by a different narrative.

“We felt it was the right time to reinvigorate this iconic corner, but we didn’t plan it to be Japanese-Euro cuisine,” says Moubadder. “I met chef Erik Ortolani and fell in love with his story and his idea to combine his heritage with a cuisine he fell in love with and moved to Australia for.”

european japanese restaurants
Photo Jiwon Kim

Italian-born Erik Ortolani, while deeply connected to his Italian heritage, found a profound passion for Japanese cooking after moving to Australia. His culinary journey led him to the kitchens of Cho Cho San in Potts Point. Ortolani envisions a menu that seamlessly integrates both culinary traditions to create a distinctive and signature Japanese experience.

“Whilst my heritage is Italian, my passion is Japanese cooking,” said Ortolani. “It
feels natural to me to use a combination of the two as a vehicle for creating a really unique menu that is still very signature Japanese, and that’s exactly what we’ve done with Itō.”

Unlike the fusion concept explored in French-Japanese restaurants, Itō, named after Ito Mancio, the Japanese Jesuit diplomat who journeyed to Rome in the 1580s, primarily embraces Japanese cuisine, with subtle Italian influences intertwined. The Aglio e olio spaghetti, inherently Italian, receives a Japanese touch with the addition of togarashi. The dining room and its decor may be all minimalist Japanese wood, but the menu creates a culinary narrative that bridges both traditions.

As the Australian palate continues to evolve, these eateries serve as a testament to the diverse and ever-expanding world of culinary possibilities, born from a deep love for both European and Japanese traditions.

What’s next on the horizon remains a delicious mystery, one we eagerly await, fork, knife, and chopsticks, at the ready.