One of my greatest disappointment in Australia to date has been the poor quality of authentic Japanese cuisine, particularly in Melbourne. Sure, Sydney has a handful of old school institutions like Juju but when it came to the matter of sushi, Australia has a lot of catching up to do. I was therefore very excited when I heard about a place in Richmond, Melbourne that opened up in 2014 and had attained two hats almost immediately. It specialised in edomae sushi. This, I thought, was the answer to my prayers…
Unlike many overseas sushi restaurants that have been opened up by successful chefs from Tokyo, Minamishima is headed up by chef Koichi Minamishima who spent his formative years at Kenzan, Melbourne. This was a sticking point for me as Kenzan had not impressed me in the past. More importantly it wasn’t known for sushi. However, I had heard good things so I decided to keep an open mind.
There’s only one menu at Minamishima which both makes it easy for the undecided and ensures the best seasonal fish is utilised for all customers. AUD $150 buys you a 15 course meal which can be complimented with matching sake or wine. There were also three additional courses offered that evening, two starters and a dessert, for an additional cost…..which cumulatively matched the price of the 15 course menu.1st Course – Ootoro with Italian beluga black caviar (supplementary course at extra cost): It wasn’t cheap but was definitely worth every cent. The tuna was sourced that same week from Tsukiji market in Tokyo. The fatty ootoro (tuna belly) and the salty black caviar went ever so well together. The mother pearl shell spoon was obviously a must when eating black caviar for the purists.2nd Course – Grilled broad beans with shiitake salt: Not too dissimilar to edamame and I liked the earthy salt in combination with the beans.
3rd Course – Fugu tempura (Supplementary course at extra cost): Minamishima-san explained that the fugu had been professionally prepared in Japan by a qualified professional before it was delivered to him in Melbourne. Much like most fugu’s I’ve previously tried, the flavour was very subtle and delicate. The tempura was surprisingly of good quality, not oily and quite crispy.
4th Course – King Dory: Cured king dory, a native fish only found in the southern Australian coast, New Zealand and South Africa with no Japanese name. A pinch of sesame and a squirt of lime blew some life into this thin slice of white meat.
5th Course – Garfish / Sayori (サヨリ): Topped with thinly chopped spring onion and ginger, and some shiso hiding underneath the fish. The fish had been dressed with Minamishima’s home made soy sauce. Another delicate fish with a jelly like texture.
7th Course – Sea Perch / Suzuki (鱸): Finally on to a decent piece of sushi. This was what I was hoping to encounter! Great meaty texture and fattiness. The classic combination of ponzu and grated daikon (Japanese radish) with the sea perch worked well. Here’s to hoping there were plenty more like this ahead!
9th Course – Calamari / Aori Ika (アオリイカ): Served with sea salt and shiso leaves. A decent nigiri but not the best calamari I’ve had by a long shot. It had a beautiful creamy texture but I found the flavour rather bland.
10th Course – Scampi / Tenaga Ebi (手長蝦): The scampi was sourced from New Zealand and was sweet, juicy and slightly crunchy. However, it’s definitely no contender to the classic superior choice of the kuruma-ebi which has a far more inviting aroma.
11th Course – Scallop / Hotate (帆立): The scallop, sourced from Hokkaido was, in my view, not treated with respect. The charring left a slight burnt aftertaste and ruined the soft and creamy texture that scallops are renown for. I did however like the smoky component and think this dish could be refined to a lighter degree of charring to make it perfect.
12th Course – Flounder / Karei (カレイ): Finally what I was waiting for. Something to blow me away! This was definitely my favourite dish of the entire evening and my god what a nigiri that was! The chef utilised the fin of the flounder from Hokkaido which is normally discarded. He then proceeded by intricately scoring it, lightly searing with a blowtorch and wrapping it with nori. The smell was ever so inviting and looked delicately beautiful. It packed a punch of rich, smoky, oily flavour, and a meltingly soft texture from the natural fat of the fish.
13th and 14th Course – Chutoro (中とろ) and Otoro (大とろ): The blue fin tuna (hon-maguro) was sourced again from Tsukiji. The quality was decent but I was amazed to find quite a bit of sinew in the ootoro. This was a cardinal sin and disappointing. The chutoro was, however, delightful.
15th Course – Seared Ootoro / Aburi Ootoro (炙り大とろ): Whilst I would normally prefer my ootoro untouched and served as it is, this was far more enjoyable than the previous course as any remaining sinew fortunately had melted to create a juicy and fatty slice of ootoro.
16th Course – Sea Urchin / Uni (ウニ): Sea urchin sourced from Tasmania. Lovely creaminess and absent of myoban and its bitter aftertaste, which is typically used to preserve the freshness of uni for those that are imported from overseas like Hokkaido. The flavour however was not as bold and distinct as the fresh ones you get in Japan.
17th Course – Mackerel pressed sushi / Saba Oshizushi (さばの押し寿司): Also known as battera (バッテラ), this is one of my all time favourite sushi that I always order if available. The mackerel was cured well allowing the meat to retain its shape. The rice was infused with the lovely oily flavour of the fish and balanced against the sharpness of the vinegar from the curing process.
18th Course – Salt Water Eel / Anago (穴子): The final dish of the set menu was another pressed sushi of eel. As noted in my previous write up, there’s a lot of skill required to preparing eel that takes years of practice and experience. I found the kabayaki sauce on the lighter side compared to the usual sticky rich sauce you get in Japan. In addition, the flavour of the eel was bland.
As we pondered on what additional nigiri’s we were going to order, Chef Minamishima’s right hand man Hajime Horiguchi (middle above) joined the chefs to keep up with the order that were piling in. They worked meticulously in sync and the speed at which the sushi’s were being sent out to the bigger tables was truly amazing.
19th Course – Sweet Egg Cake / Tamagoyaki (卵焼き): This one was with a twist. The tamagoyaki was made more like a castella-styled cake which the Portuguese brought to Japan in the 16th Century. It had a lovely sweetness and moisture.
20th Course – Salmon Roe / Ikura (イクラ): In addition to re-ordering the flounder, sea perch and seared ootoro, I could not go away without asking for my childhood favourite of the salmon roe. The salmon roe sourced from Tasmania was firm enough to be individually savoured but in my opinion, marinating the salmon roe in soy sauce would have elevated this dish further.
22nd Course – Yokan and Cherry Blossom ice cream: The yokan (red bean paste cake) was smooth and washed down ever so well with the hot tea. The cherry blossom ice cream left a floral aftertaste and the bitter matcha (green tea) contrasted ever so well to the sweet and rich yokan.
All in all Minamishima for me was a success despite a couple of missteps, the sinew of the ootoro for instance comes to mind. However, it shows a lot of promise and certainly exceed the level of sushi I’ve encountered in Melbourne, let alone Australia. Sure, it wasn’t on par with Kanesaka in Singapore or Sushi Tetsu in London but it showed promise with great innovations like the flounder’s fin nigiri which literally just blew me away. It would be interesting to see what creative dishes Chef Minamishima comes up with in the future.
Tempura is one of the three cuisines that originated from and defined the Edo period (also known as Edo no Zanmai – 江戸の三味) when Tokyo became the capital (1603 – 1868), alongside sushi and soba. Given the importance of the cuisine, there was no way that we would be missing out on at least one good tempura experience in Tokyo where it all began centuries ago. Fortunately there are a number of 2-Michelin starred tempura restaurants in the capital. In the end we decided to opt for Rakutei (楽亭) in Akasaka, which specialised in Edomae tempura; that is utilising seafood and vegetables that were available and caught in the vicinity of Tokyo during the Edo period.
Reservation is necessary for this 11-seater restaurant. Just like the chef’s from other famous tempura restaurants like Kondo and Fukamachi, chef-owner Ishikura Shuuji trained at the famous Hilltop Hotel restaurant before going independent in 1970. There were only two options from the menu, starting with the cheapest at 11,000 yen and the most expensive being 13,000 yen. Given the difference between them was only the number of prawns you got, we opted for the cheapest one to leave room for dinner.
As soon as our orders were taken, Ishikura-san began preparing the oil and its temperature. As Ishikura-san had to adjust the temperature of the oil for each course, the meal could not commence until every diner was present as everyone’s meal was served simultaneously. A wet hand towel was brought out to everyone with me being the exception (this wasn’t rectified until half way through the meal when I had to point it out). The apprentice, and only aid behind the counter, wasted no time in preparing our appetiser of Bonito salad, or Sakizuke no katsuo nuta ae (先付の鰹ぬた和え). Unfortunately, it was rather chewy and I felt the fish was dominated by the white miso dressing.
Ishikura-san’s wife then brought out a lacquered tray for each of us. On the tray were essentially all the condiments to go with the tempura. Basically you could have your tempura with grated radish in home made tentsuyu (天つゆ), which is a tempura dip made from a specific ratio of dashi, mirin and soy sauce, or just lemon to squeeze over…
There was no doubt the ingredients being used here was fresh. The prawns were still moving when Ishikura-san brought them out. Each prawn was handled with the utmost care and prepared methodically. The chef made the process look effortless but the slicing, trimming and peeling was done at speed with flawless precision that captivated all of us. He must have done this thousands of times. Each prawn was lightly slashed across the belly before being coated in the light batter.
For the cheaper menu, two Prawn Tempura’s (海老) were served in comparison to four, and in hindsight we made the right choice. The prawn had a natural sweetness and worked particularly well with just salt as it allowed you to appreciate its freshness and natural flavour. Despite this, I was not blown away from essentially what should have been the star dish of any tempura restaurant. I found the texture of the prawn a little drier than I’d like, absent of that expected juicy explosion at first bite.
The meal did however pick up with a serving of the delicious and salty Prawn Head (海老の頭) and Matsutake mushroom (松茸). The prawn head was divine with its crunchy texture and depth of crustacean flavour, far superior to the body of the prawn itself. I did wonder though, why did we only get one head when we had been served two prawns? The matsutake was satisfyingly meaty and oozed of its delicious juice. This was more like it!
You could distinctly notice the change in the application of the batter and the temperature of the oil with the Garfish, also known as Kisu (鱚). There was a thicker coating of the batter and it had been fried at a much higher temperature to penetrate the thicker fillet of the fish. Lemon and salt did the perfect trick for this course. What surprised me most was the absence of oiliness despite the thick batter, leaving you with just the flavour of the fish.
One of the two stand-out dishes of the meal was undoubtedly the Long Aubergine or Naga-nasu (大長茄子) from Kumamoto prefecture. I loved the contrasting texture of the soft moist flesh against the crispy batter. The aubergine has been deep-fried to retain as much moisture as it could before it was sliced in half for plating. A ginger stem tempura was then served to clean the palate. Ishikura-san changed his oil after this course to maintain the freshness of the next few courses. Shame the same level of attention wasn’t paid to the service as we had run out of water and tea for some time and there was no sign of any impending top up.
The second star dish of the meal was the Ink Squid or Sumi-ika (スミイカ). I’d never encountered such a delicate texture with the flesh having hardly any resistance to bite. The entire piece just dissolved in my mouth effortlessly and we were all left speechless. Wow.
The Conger eel or Anago (穴子) in comparison felt slightly too oily, unrefined and tough compared to the other courses. The toughness in truth was due to the fact that it had been cooked slightly longer than it probably should have. Mind you, at least the flavour was good and its only saving grace, although admittedly it was difficult to hide our disappointment.
To finish our meal we were served a plate of Japanese Pickles or tsukemono (漬物) and given a choice of having our Kakiage (かき揚げ), essentially a concoction of various ingredients, in this case clams, being deep-fried together in a batter, prepared in a Tendon (天丼) which is on a bed of rice, or Tencha (天茶), which is in a bowl with a tiny bed of rice and tea.
I opted to have my Kakiage as a Tendon. The Kakiage was made from the muscular part of the round clam, known as Kobashira (小柱) that had been sourced from Hokkaido. Whilst the flesh was very soft and sweet, I felt there was far too much batter for the amount of the delicate clam, making it rather more doughy than i would like, albeit crunchy on the outside.
We reflected over our meal as we sipped on our red miso soup, Akadashi (赤だし) and waited for our bill. We all had mixed feelings about the meal. There were some clear winners like the sumi-ika and naga-nasu that were a world apart from any tempura we had ever tried previously but we couldn’t overlook the inconsistency in the quality of the tempura, not to mention the simple mistakes in the service such as my missing wet hand towel and tea not being topped up. For the same price we had a far better and memorable meal at Ishibashi.