60 Park Street South Melbourne, Victoria 320503 9696 0051
|Opening hours||L D Tues-Fri; D Sat|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||AMEX, Mastercard, Visa|
WHERE AND WHAT
Most restaurants court attention, but a few are happier outside the spotlight. Opened in 2007, the shy and retiring Tempura Hajime, which seats only 14, is a temple to the Japanese art of frying, although to call it frying is a disservice to the ethereal gossamer crunch of good tempura. A change of ownership meant Shigeo Yoshihara took the reins in 2010, and he's held a steady course. If you haven't yet experienced Tempura Hajime, it's time to go.
WHERE TO SIT
Tempura Hajime lurks behind a simple wooden door in a nondescript office building on a quiet South Melbourne street. A hostess will show you through to the well-lit inner sanctum, a plain room where just 14 seats are lined around a curving wooden bar, behind which Yoshihara works his magic from two oil-filled brass pans.
WHEN TO GO
Tuesday to Friday noon-2pm; Tuesday-Saturday 6-10pm.
Sake and shochu (a clear, distilled spirit) have a healthy showing; the wine list is a mostly predictable showing of Australian labels.
There's something beguiling about being fed one morsel at a time. With nothing to do but sit back and savour, the diner's only role is to choose between the mild dipping sauce with minced daikon, or Murray River salt flakes and lemon juice. The tempura roll-call includes mushroom topped with minced prawn; a chunk of pale sweet potato; and a cross-section of zucchini, partly hollowed and filled with spicy salmon. The perfect single prawn. King Dory. A spear of asparagus. And the most revelatory? A tie, between the scallop bisected with a piece of nori (seaweed) and sea urchin - just sublime - and a deck of corn kernels, sweet and earthy. Oh yes, and the freshwater eel. The set menu has its non-tempura bookends: sashimi at the start - a small selection of salmon and kingfish and a little tumble of hapuka anointed with plum sauce - as well as a small bowl of shredded chicken breast in a creamy sesame dressing. At the end arrives a gutsier collection of sushi, including smoky wagyu. Dessert comes after a refreshing shot glass of plum wine spritzer - a clean and cooling yoghurt pannacotta with muscatel grapes and a splash of Cointreau.
The food-curious, keen to engage with the chef.
To experience frying as an art form.