The tidy fit-out sticks to the Aussie-Japanese script of heavy wooden tables marshalled in a row against a beige backdrop. Photo: Eddie Jim
There are so many curiosities about Japanese cuisine. The mind-blowing complexities of ramen, for starters, and why sushi is eaten at the end of a meal, and all that table etiquette that can make the uninitiated feel like an elephant at a tea party. And you can add to the long list of enduring mysteries the standard - the high standard - of Japanese food found in Australia.
To put it in a broader context, bad Italian is really bad, bad Greek can be kind of OK, bad Chinese is worth feigning death to escape the horror. But bad Japanese doesn't really exist. That is, unless you count some of the takeaway sushi shops run by non-Japanese people, and you shouldn't really count them.
Thoroughly decent Japanese restaurants can be found hiding in pockets across the state - from Inverloch to Swan Hill - and behind thoroughly unimpressive facades, like Oishii Japan in Geelong's CBD.
Scampi ngiri sushi. Photo: Eddie Jim
Oishii Japan (''delicious Japan'') took over the former Riviera on Yarra last year to become a sterling example of why you shouldn't judge a restaurant by its cover. There's a lot about it that sends warning signals, from the large, slightly out-of-focus photos of dishes pinned to the balustrade to the forlorn collection of tables on the balcony looking up the street to a McDonald's and down the street to the bay.
Inside, the tidy fit-out sticks to the Aussie-Japanese script of heavy wooden tables marshalled in a row against a beige backdrop of carpet and cane room dividers. The rest of the Oishii package is just as traditional, down to the repeat appearance of the curly parsley garnish and the sweet but obtuse service that chugs along in second gear, unable to clear the language barrier.
Not that there's too much by the way of explanation needed with the menu. It's a lengthy and faithful tour of Japanese cuisine unencumbered by any Nobu-esque new style flutters; a comfortable rendition of the greatest hits based in fine produce and a kitchen pride so tangible you can almost touch it.
Chicken yakitori, for example, doesn't get more exciting than thigh meat - no hearts, giblets or skin here - but it is a tastily sauced thing with plenty of smoky appeal. Tempura tiger prawns are primo produce wrapped in the finest whisper-light batter, with a drinkable bowl of ginger-spiked dashi for dunking.
The beef tataki is composed of tearable slices of charcoal-perfumed meat, lightly seared on the edges giving way to a dark artery red of full-force beefiness. It's the rugged version of a classic, often executed as a delicate modern thing; with that striated meat, white onion and quail eggs subsumed into a swampy sauce slick with citrusy ponzu soy, it's got oodles of oomph.
Head chef Jo Hum has spent time at Melbourne's esteemed Shoya, which means the sushi isn't to be missed. Under the nigiri sushi selection there's a fat, palest pink Hokkaido scallop, neatly dissected with intricate knifework before being ever-so-lightly torched. Clinging to a puck of the perfect sushi rice - lightly vinegared, handclasp warmth, with just a whisper of wasabi - it's perfection; ditto the scampi, tail on, flecked with the pinhead-sized orange jewels of flying fish roe.
The scampi's fried heads hop along for the ride, each one gazing skywards next to its dismembered body. Macabre decoration? Not really - prying inside with chopsticks yields the buttery head meat. It's the aquatic answer to nose-to-tail eating.
There's a teppanyaki bar upstairs that really can be a hoot, I hear. Next time. Because there will be a next time. This isn't the sort of place you go to feel pampered, or cool, or smug about your choices in that way the best restaurants can make you feel. But behind that bland facade you're in on a secret at Oishii Japan. Let's call it another one to add to the list.
The best bit Sushi-master style
The worst bit Lacks atmosphere during the day
Go-to dish Scampi nigiri sushi
- 03 5223 2808
- Cuisine - Japanese
- Prices - Typical starter, $10; sushi main, $29; dessert, $10
- Features - Accepts bookings, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating, Gluten-free options, Licensed
- Chef(s) - Jo Hum & Rex Han
- Owners - Allan Li & Eric Han
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Daily noon-2.30pm; 6-9pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki