I had a distinctly New York vibe once parting the curtains to descend the stairs to Izakaya Den. It was like stepping into a secret party. Or not so secret, for the place was jammed by 7pm.
I sat at the long bench separating the narrow kitchen galley from the diner while waiting for Katie Christmas (we met on Christmas day so the name stuck) and pleasantly observed the calm of the Japanese cooks. Pleasant, only if you can ignore the faint scent of sewage. I don’t mean to turn you off, and testament to this is that I will certainly go back. I just hope for their sake it is a rectifiable problem.
I decided that drink of choice was sake. Because my palette for sake is not yet defined I can’t quaff it down thus staving off tipsy a while longer. I also drank sake in New York earlier this year so it seemed kinda fitting. From my quizzing of the bar staff, sake to the Japanese is like wine to the um, er, Italians, the French, Germans, Australians, Americans….you get the picture. I was firmly advised the house Sake was no good, so hey, try the $21 a glass sake? What? No! I’m on a budget. I went for middle of the road, and was most pleased with my choice of Shikisakura with its hint of melon and “ginjo flavour” – ginjo being a premium class of sake. I thoroughly enjoyed the smooth mouth feel. And there was not an intimation of rocket fuel anywhere.
I don’t proclaim to be a Japanese food expert, but the style here is unlike other Japanese I’ve eaten. Don’t ask me to qualify that because I don’t know Japanese that well.
For our starters we chose the grilled broad beans that are in season right now. Delivered whole left us wondering if we are meant to eat the shells (as you do with prawns in Japanese cuisine). We opted no, after testing the waters and found the shell to be furry and a bitter goo on the inside. But the beans themselves were amazing as always. The grill softened the usually rubbery outer shell, so you could pop them into your mouth whole. Love a good broadie.
Second starter was cocktail potatoes with anchovy butter. Whole baby potato fried in a way only the Japanese can do without presenting a stodgy starch-ball. A little hole was dug out and filled with a plug of anchovy butter that oozed when you cut it.
For mains we chose char grilled ocean trout that was delicious and melt-in-your-mouth-tender, but it sort of lacked any pizzazz for its price tag. Same with the eggplant.
On that note, I always love how Asians do eggplant, especially at dumpling temple, Hu Tong (14 – 16 Market Lane, Melbourne. Opp Flower Drum).
After feeling a bit deflated over our mains we decided to try our luck with one of the specials projected onto the wall. Katie picked the spicy tuna with crispy taro, that had seaveg of some sort and white radish on the plate also. We struck a winner! The creamy raw tuna with a hint of fresh wasabi (oh you can tell the difference!) was exhilarating and everything the two aforementioned dishes lacked. Layer with white radish and crispy taro, roll up in a sheet of seaweed and you have a very nice makeshift nori roll. No soy sauce necessary.
The meal was finished off with Genmai tea and deserts. This is the business end of the meal. The tea was brought out to exclamations of “cuuuuute”. Little cups and teapots never fail to amuse us chicks! For me, the combination of Japanese and French theme for the deserts were the foodie highlight of Izakaya Den.
Desert #1 was Fuji apple sorbet layered with thin crisps of taro (not sure on the taro but it was a root vegetable of some kind) drizzled about with some honey and a couple of thoughtfully-placed strawberry cubes. Quite simple but presented in a fashion which had that wow factor.
While the Fuji apple mille-feuille was zesty and refreshing our second desert, White Sesame Mousse with Tapioca, was dulcet and comforting with a distinctive but not overpowering sesame flavour. The rubbery beads of tapioca were an interesting textural mix and buried beneath the creamy fluffy mousse was sweetened adzuki beans. I love it how Asian cuisine happily incorporates legumes into their deserts!
Staff were fantastic, very polite and gave us plenty of their time. The language barrier does make for an authentic experience and caused me leave on a rather embarrassing note; asking the waitress to split a $10 note was mistaken as a generous tip. Her colleague had to correct her and I slunk out of there thinking what a tight arse I am. After all, the Natural Gourmet Institute in 2011 awaits!
The simple flavours and combinations used in Asian cuisine never fails to amaze me. I think sometimes we can get engrossed in tricking up food – especially in Melbourne – that we forget that 2 or 3 clean flavours combined are not only genius in their simplicity, but you walk away from a pretty big meal and feel light as a feather because your haven’t bogged down your digestion. How foodiecure is that?
Izakaya Den, Basement 114 Russell Street, Melbourne. Tel: 9654 2977.
Please comment, I do love to hear from you!