We were tossing up whether to brave the rainy Melbourne weather on Saturday night to head out and try a new Japanese restaurant. After deliberating and procrastinating for about an hour, we decided to make a last minute dash to the train station and see if we could score a table at a place we have only ever heard good things about.
Wet, cold and hungry, a little after 5:30pm, we found the hidden glass doorway down some nondescript stairs on Russell Street. We pushed aside the black curtain behind the door, and headed down another flight of stairs. Japanese chefs and waitstaff flanked the long, black, narrow bar / kitchen / dining space. Welcome to Izakaya Den.
With a handful of diners already seated (tables of two at the bar, tables of 4 against the outer wall), and the projectors streaming a mix of pretty colours and specials on the wall, we took our seats at the bar-slash-table. Our menus came quickly – rolled up in a scroll with Japanese writing on the outside – as did two glasses of water in amazingly cute Japanese glasses.
We started with the drinks – Izakaya, after all, roughly translates to “pub” in Japan. Ritsy ordered a Bloody Mary ($14), and I decided a beer was in order. I chose a 500ml Orion “Happy Time” Draught Beer ($13) from the beer list – a surprisingly interesting list that doesn’t just have the usual Asahi / Kirin / Sapporo combination. The beer came in a tiny little glass, which I thought was pretty cool.
When Ritsy’s bloody mary finally arrived (in fairness the wait was probably only 15 minutes), so did our food. The first dish, virtually prepared at our table by the serious looking Japanese chef working opposite us, was the “Kingfish Sashimi, Asian style dressing” ($17). Talk about setting a great standard from the get-go – the Kingfish was dipped in the aforementioned Asian style dressing (I’m guessing fish sauce and a touch of chilli), and then some sesame oil that had been bubbling away on the stove was poured over the sashimi. It was finished with some sesame seeds and Ritsy’s favourite thing in the world, microherbs. It was out of this world.
From the specials wall, “Spicy Tuna Tartare with Daikon and Taro Chips” ($16) was the next item of deliciousness to grace our table. I alternated spreading mine out onto the nori rolls and the daikon cylinders, eating the crunchy taro chips in between sips of my quickly depleting beer. Not exactly the worlds most beautiful looking dish (it is a tartare after all), but it was very well flavoured.
Arriving just before our tuna tartare was finished were the “Spinach, Fried Bean Curd and Dashi” ($10) and the “Kurobuta Pork Char-Siew” ($15). The spinach & bean curd dish was ultimately forgettable – bland, lifeless, soppy greens and spongy beancurd was not very appetising – the pork, however, was awesome! The braised, flavourful, melt in the mouth meat combined in perfect harmony with the horseradish paste – just the ticket on this wintry Melbourne night.
The last of the savoury dishes we ordered was the “Sweet Corn Kaki-Age with Green Tea Salt” ($7). The green tea salt added a nice dimension to the sweet, crispy corn fritters, which were the perfect accompaniment to my last tiny cup of beer.
Still a little bit hungry, we ran over the menu one more time and decided to order some dessert. The desserts are not your typical Australian-Japanese restaurant desserts – no green tea ice cream, and no tempura banana fritters. What you get instead is much more interesting – I ordered the “Black Sesame Brulee, Orange Peel” ($10) which came with a tiny brunoise of strawberries. It was quite a successful dessert, with it’s textbook crispy caramelised sugar layer and the creamy, powerful sesame custard.
Ritsy’s “Tofu Mousse, Yuzu and Brown Sugar” ($10) was equally delicious, the yuzu providing a slightly more subtle acidity than a lemon or lime can.
It’s always a nice feeling when you go to a place that, despite the hype surrounding it, exceeds all your expectations. It’s no wonder that, by the time we left at 7:30, there was a large queue of people waiting for a seat to become available. I bet they would of had to wait quite a while though, because once you are seated, it’s pretty difficult to make yourself leave.
I’m certain Izakaya Den is the coolest, hippest restaurant in Melbourne at the moment, and it would not be out of place in a city like LA or Tokyo. We can’t wait till we are able to find the time to visit again, but until next time – Domo Arigato, Izakaya Den.