Kingfish jalepeno at Sake, Hamer Hall.
Kingfish jalepeno at Sake, Hamer Hall. Photo: Eddie Jim EJZ

100 St Kilda Rd Southbank, VIC 3004

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(03) 8687 0775
Opening hours Daily noon-3pm and 5.30pm-late
Features Licensed, Gluten-free options, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Shaun Presland and Rose Ang
Payments AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, Diner's Club, eftpos

THERE’S NOTHING NEW IN THIS tale. A young man devotes himself to learning his craft at the feet of the masters, immersing himself in their cloistered world for several years before making his own way. As it is in Japanese folklore, so it is with chef Shaun Presland, whose  journey into Japanese cuisine led from the ascetic purity of the ryokan to the door of Nobu Matsuhisa, the chef and restaurateur known worldwide for his Japanese-Peruvian fusion shtick.

There’s little new in Sake.  It is Nobu with an ABN, a local owner and a floor staff only marginally less international. The personal connection between Presland and Matsuhisa – the Australian headed one of his restaurants in the Bahamas – dignifies the genre-copying homage but, inevitably, what you think of Nobu will be what you think of Sake, which was born in Sydney in 2009, opened in Brisbane in 2010 and now graces the lower riverside level of the Hamer Hall redevelopment.

From its signature sake bomb beer shooter (not for the shy and retiring) to the staff chant as new diners enter their expensive honey trap, Sake is a posh izakaya on steroids. Like Trocadero directly above, the long and narrow space leaves the visual fireworks to the view of river and city. Dark timbers, a subtle mirrored wall refracting the river’s surface and what looks like an LED cherry blossom make it the very model of the upscale Japanese restaurant, despite the closeness of the tables.

Sake's dining room is slick.
Sake's dining room is slick. Photo: Eddie Jim

Many of you will be familiar with the way the menu splits between playing a traditional bat and ‘‘new style’’ dishes with more citrus-dominant South American accents. It’s a proven alliance. A mouth-stripping yuzu soy drizzled over pristine kingfish sashimi, each piece overlaid with a coriander leaf and green chilli slice – a dish pushed by floor staff with quasi-religious fervour – makes the brain’s pleasure centres light up like a Christmas tree.

For the best picture of the tone of the place, go directly to the sashimi tacos – raw salmon or tuna in a tiny rice taco that’s a touch Sao-like. You squeeze the lemon, bite the taco and take a sip from a sugar-encrusted sake glass. Even the non-food wankers at the table agreed the rice wine changed the flavour profile, bumping up the umami.

It’s jet-set Japanese for the cocktail crowd but I reckon Sake missed an opportunity to localise the Nobu experience. Sashimi scallops from Hokkaido nestle against slices of lime on a Carmen Miranda-esque display of sculpted ice and orchids – very nice but at these prices fresh wasabi would be nicer. Alaskan silver cod stands in for the famed black miso cod, a small wodge of buttery-fleshed white fish, glossy with the caramelised marinade. The texture is sublime but I’d like to see what it can do for local species (sibling Sakes have used barramundi and butterfish).

Fore the best picture of the tone of the place, go directly to the sashimi tacos ....

Presland was a sushi master before fusion took him to the dark side and the maki (hand rolls) are magic. A fat inside-out roll of fried soft-shell crab with cucumber and mayo benefits from the warmth of the lightly vinegared rice. Or the nigiri sushi. Soft pieces of grilled eel slicked with miso marinade are a great ambassador for the cause.

The dependable quality of the produce doesn’t always find its best translation. The precise balance of salt, sweet and tart skews off-centre in the wagyu tataki, using locally produced Sher. Partially cooked with its dressing of hot sesame and olive oils, it is pummeled by the big sour citrus notes of yuzu.

The chirashi salad combines a dazzling number of elements – salmon and kingfish sashimi, buckwheat soba noodles, leaves, flying fish roe, smoked tofu, omelet, tempura batter and sweet eel sauce – into a big, mucky mess. The more memorable dishes fall at the simpler end of the spectrum. Salt and pepper tofu is all about the batter, a wonderfully textured, incredibly crisp shell made with sweet potato flour. Fried bits of bug tail with a spicy mayo and a squeeze of lime likewise have user-friendliness sewn up but can be monotonous as a main; they’re best for sharing.

And save yourself the trouble of dessert. Neither of the two we tried, including a messy muddle of bubble milk tea, converted new believers to the Japanese take on Western desserts. Sake is held in pretty high esteem in Sydney and Bris-Vegas but the handbrake on its Melbourne success comes down to the staff, who struggle to give advice beyond ‘‘it’s good’’, the knife-edge balance the food requires and the nosebleed expense. The potential is there, certainly, but right now the journey continues.

The lowdown

The best bit Maki and sake
The worst bit
Go-to dish
Kingfish jalapeno, $22
Wine list
A lengthy, nuanced collection of sake backed by a nicely composed, mostly Oz, wine list
Four starters, one main