Forget the cliché that Japanese food is all about sushi served in hushed surroundings. In actual fact, there’s a kaleidoscope of flavours and eateries that range from refined to raucous – and you’ll find it all right here in Melbourne.
Ichi Ni Nana
The cool two-storey Ichi Ni Nana anchoring 127 Brunswick Street – the multi-level dining destination previously known as the Old Colonial Inn – sets the dial to party time. A greatest-hits menu includes karaage tori (fried chicken drumsticks), crisp sansho pepper whitebait with Kewpie and soft-shell crab tempura.
127 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy; (03) 9417 4127
Way down in the CBD’s lawyer-land lies this stayer, which has served fine sushi to the salarymen and women of Melbourne for longer than many would care to remember (since 1989, to be precise). The surroundings might be conservative but Hanabishi’s menu contains surprises such as cedar wood-wrapped miso-marinated sea perch, salt kiln barramundi and duck breast on king brown mushrooms.
187 King Street, Melbourne; (03) 9670 1167
As refined and revered as it is recherché (it hides its light under a backstreet Richmond bushel), it’s hard to get a seat at this sushi temple. That said, Minamishima is certainly worth the effort; persevere and you’ll be rewarded with Australia’s best sushi, from fatty flounder fin to rich tuna belly and scampi with bursts of finger lime.
4 Lord Street, Richmond; (03) 9429 5180
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Above the venerable Kappo lies the distinctly high-end Japanese bar known as Hihou, where the snacks are so good they can maketh a meal. Start with shichimi-spicy tuna sashimi cigars wrapped in brik pastry, move on to the vegetable gyoza with ponzu sauce and finish with the Hihou pork hotdog in sesame brioche.
First floor, 1 Flinders Lane, Melbourne; (03) 9654 5465
A moody sliver of a basement down a secluded set of steps, this izakaya brims with style. You’ll find the smart set gathered along the flame-blackened wooden counter to watch a team of bandana-wearing chefs wrangle a menu that practically demands a glass from the excellent saké selection. Whether it’s familiar fare done well (just-seared tiles of tuna tataki with a judicious slosh of garlic soy, fried school prawns dipped into yuzu mayonnaise or even a soul-nourishing miso soup) or the road less tasted (battered sweet- corn cakes with green-tea salt or smoky grilled ox tongue daubed with minced spring onion), this den aims to please. And to finish, look no further than the white-chocolate fondue spiked with matcha.
Basement, 114 Russell Street, Melbourne; (03) 9654 2977
Saké Hamer Hall
It doesn’t get much more glamorous than this sleek Saké outpost, which hugs the Yarra riverside at Hamer Hall. In surroundings that demand your best shoes, tuck in to luxe raw seafood – Hokkaido scallops with silken tofu and fried capers or the signature kingfish with jalapeno and yuzu soy – along with big-flavoured options such as Wagyu tataki with soy-cured egg and charred onion or pork belly with mustard miso.
100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne; (03) 8687 0775
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Wabi Sabi Salon
A Smith Street favourite, this homely den is the place to go for healthy Japanese food served with maximum cheer. Realign the chakras with Wabi Sabi Salon’s lunchtime salad of buckwheat soba noodles with carrot and ginger dressing or the tempeh and grain vegan salad. At night, a warming dish of Wagyu meatballs with red miso sauce is true comfort food.
94 Smith Street, Collingwood; (03) 9417 6119
Look for the queues outside this ramen specialist, which has a reputation as Melbourne’s best. Hakata Gensuke’s tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen is the order of the day, the long-simmered stock rich and creamy with collagen. You can customise it with varying chilli levels and noodles, then add ingredients such as pork chashu, nori sheets, soft-boiled egg and cloud ear mushrooms.
168 Russell Street, Melbourne; (03) 9663 6342
QV Square, 200 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne; (03) 9650 4579
4/860 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn; (03) 9819 2558
Westfield Doncaster, Shop FC8, 619 Doncaster Road
Kappo is from the same stable as Izakaya Den but it’s a world apart: a rarified, ritualistic Japanese dining experience where the menu is in the hands of the kitchen and all the diner has to do is sit back and be cosseted, from the icebreaker of the chopstick selection to the temptation of a post-dinner drink at upstairs bar Hihou. Choose from five, seven or nine courses and let the show unfold; ever-changing, always seasonal, it might involve a lightly fried quail leg with fried g; a bite of poached sea bream topped with a dab of sea urchin; or ruby red duck with red miso sauce. Mannered without being stuffy, Kappo offers some of the best service in town – and owner Simon Denton is on hand to propel the meal in the direction of fun rather than fusty.
Ground floor, 1 Flinders Lane, Melbourne; (03) 9639 9500
There are younger and funkier restaurants in Melbourne, to be sure. But at 35 august years of age, Kenzan has proved its staying power, refusing to chase trends and reliably serving some of the best sushi in town. From the counter, witness the crack team of meticulous knife men place slivers of lightly torched eel or sparklingly fresh tuna on vinegared rice. Alternatively, hit the main menu – and maybe one of the private tatami rooms – for all the classics, such as fat king prawns and mixed vegetables in a tempura batter so light it’s almost levitating or agedashi tofu in a soulful mushroom sauce. After a recent revamp, Kenzan has cemented its place at the top of the city’s Japanese pops.
Collins Place, 56 Flinders Lane, Melbourne; (03) 9654 8933