Kitami Japanese Restaurant, Cooks Hill

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bottles $7; beers including Japanese; cherry blossom wine $7; sake $5-$10.

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With red and black tones, brushwork art hanging on the walls and rice paper screens, Kitami Japanese Restaurant feels like a Zen garden.

In fact, there is a garden with rocks, statues and carefully strewn swirls in the sand.

The calmness that extends from this little slice of nirvana permeates the dining area, and is not threatened by the huge open kitchen that wraps around diners.

The kitchen staff work with a muted determination, like modern samurai, focused on preparing the fresh, flavoursome food that is to come.

The place has long been a Newcastle institution, and even with a location shift and downsize four years ago, the quality of the food and service make it well worthwhile.

We order warm sake that arrives in a delicate white and cornflower-blue jug that belies the punch contained within.

In no time at all, plates of agedashi (deep fried tofu) and gyoza (dumplings) arrive. The rectangular silken tofu is covered in a thin, golden batter that is crispy and light. The pork dumplings are served with rice and a tangy soy

dipping sauce. Unlike the usual rice wonton skin, these parcels are covered in a floury pastry, similar to a shortcrust, allowing the subtle sweetness of the pork to shine.

A dish of salmon don arrives like a box of precious jewels – an inlaid black chest containing gleaming thinly sliced salmon on a bed of rice with nose-tingling wasabi,

cucumber, roe and pickled ginger.

All dishes are presented in beautifully patterned, authentic crockery, adding to the theatre of the dining experience.

There are tempura, katsu and udon options on the menu, but our chosen sushi and sashimi plates display technique and more than enough flavour. The nori (seaweed) is packed with umami-goodness, the rolls are generous and well-proportioned and the rice is perfectly

cooked. The salmon, tuna and calamari sashimi are tender, and as my dining companion proffered ‘‘nice and clean and cool on the tongue’’ and perfectly scored.

A teriyaki chicken curry is served, like most mains on the menu, with miso and rice and is quite hearty in size. The sticky teriyaki chicken is tasty and tender and so finger-licking good that adding the curry sauce to it is probably unnecessary. There are also teriyaki dishes on the menu that stand on their own.

The lightness of Japanese food means there is usually room for dessert and Kitami offers some real treats.

Chewy house-made glutinous rice balls (daifuku) filled with sweet red bean paste come in four flavours – traditional, tiramisu, chocolate and green tea – and are bite-sized fun, while green tea ice-cream with bitter swirls of green tea paste tempered by sweet vanilla creaminess provides a refreshing end to a most enjoyable meal.

Kitami may be hidden down a laneway, but the steady flow of diners and takeaway orders indicate that owner and chef Shin Ito and his team have remained in the hearts and stomachs of Newcastle people.

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