From the best Japanese restaurant in Australia to the fun and funky izakayas where the music is loud and the beer is ice-cold, Melbourne's Japanese offerings are diverse, inspired and all-round delights. Here are some of our favourites that scored high in the 2020 Good Food Guide.
Koichi Minamishima at the sushi counter at Minamishima, Richmond. Photo: Supplied
Minamishima (Three Hats)
Though securing a seat at Australia's best Japanese restaurant can take the patience of a Zen master, it's a wait that's always worth it for the seafood fans who revere Koichi Minamishima's hushed confidence with fish and rice. Over 15-odd omakase courses at this three-hatted temple, flavours range from delicate (sake-steamed Hokkaido scallops, say, or sweet ama ebi prawn with cod roe) to knock-you-sideways sublime – case in point, a swatch of buttery bluefin tuna belly, sourced direct from Tokyo and swiftly seared to bring out the best of itself. Sommelier Randolph Cheung oversees a list of superb sake and wine, and starch-collared staff move with poise and grace. Total elegance.
Go-to dish: You only live once – splash out for the optional fugu course, if it's offered.
4 Lord Street, Richmond; 03 9429 5180; minamishima.com.au
Oyster, yuzu and daiginjo sabayon from Kisume. Photo: Darrian Traynor
The Chef's Table at Kisume (Two Hats)
During this exquisite omakase experience for just 12 diners, Shinya Nakano, a talented and creative Kyoto-born sushi chef, presents 18 or so morsels in a choreographed showcase of Australian seafood. The menu is a spirited reinterpretation of sushi traditions. Raw tuna belly is laid over rice, seared tuna is placed on top of it, and this radical double is then topped with old-school Kyoto-style pickles. A hand roll of Moreton Bay bug tempura is passed to each diner by the chef, in a gesture that breaks the fourth wall in a delicious fashion. Everything – the timing, the presentation, even the plates and vessels – is highly considered and breathtakingly beautiful.
Go-to dish: The 19-course omakase selection changes regularly, but try the Japanese-style oysters sabayon, where champagne is subbed for premium sake while yuzu brings spark.
175 Flinders Lane, Melbourne; 03 9671 4888; kisume.com.au
Zensai served at Ishizuka. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Ishizuka (Two Hats)
A meal here has the gentle arc of a ceremony. Diners are welcomed into the venerated tradition of kaiseki dining, a formal progression of seasonal dishes. Each course is created with ceremonial care in front of just 16 diners ringing an open kitchen. Intricate vegetable carving, artful jellies, elaborate garnishes and delicate plateware are key kaiseki projects and a big part of the experience. You might start with a tiny sphere of bonito jelly enclosing jewel-like vegetables and topped with caviar and gold leaf. More miniature masterpieces follow, perhaps poached daikon topped with foie gras or spectacular sashimi. Ask about the elaborate takeaway bento boxes
Go-to dish: The outrageously rich wagyu beef course is served with a choice of five salts.
Basement, 139 Bourke Street, Melbourne; 03 8594 0895; ishizuka.com.au
The wagyu dish at Kazuki's in Carlton. Photo: Peter Tarasiuk
Kazuki's (One Hat)
The food here has always been difficult to categorise, but is quintessentially Kazuki Tsuya's, who has evolved his menu to greater heights of refinement since opening his new address at the centre of the city. Start with the plentiful and intricate snack offerings, from a silken lick of taramasalata on a nori crisp bejewelled with salmon roe to an ethereal chicken liver macaron. Kazuki's mark is on everything, from the left-field brilliance of pickled mussels with meaty tomatoes to hapuka in yuzu-spiked beurre blanc with salty pops of avruga.
Go-to dish: We love the simple, slippery luxe of Moreton Bay bug wontons.
121 Lygon Street, Carlton; 03 9349 2223; kazukis.com.au
A prawn dish at Tempura Hajime. Photo: Marina Oliphant
Behind a nondescript door, chef Shigeo Yoshihara-san prepares and plates delicious morsels in measured progression to a 12-seat counter. Courses may be as simple as a spear of asparagus or a perfect prawn, lightly battered, judiciously fried and coaxed to magnificence. The arc of each meal also includes multi-faceted dishes, perhaps tuna wrapped around avocado and sheathed in nori or scallop stuffed with sea urchin. In every case, the produce is the main story, the restaurant its reverent stage. Delicate zensai (snacks), simple but beautiful sashimi and elegant desserts – perhaps yoghurt jelly dressed with Cointreau – are part of the parade.
Go-to dish: The mushroom filled with minced prawn is a perennial favourite.
60 Park Street, South Melbourne; 03 9696 0051; tempurahajime.com.au
Hoji tea-smoked duck breast with pickled quandong and sansho peppercorn jus at Wa Kenbo, Fitzroy. Photo: John Donegan
On the minimalist menu by Kyoto-trained chef-owner Kenji Ito, you'll find traditional Japanese dishes such as crisp, delicate tempura mixed with the likes of hoji tea-smoked duck breast with duck neck chorizo and pickled quandong on the sushi platters. Yes, there's technical knife work and fussy plating but all of that technique feels incidental when the black ceramic lid is lifted from a shared pot of tender charred octopus tentacles, big clusters of enoki mushrooms, burdock and umami-rich rice. Pungent fish floss for seasoning and pickled daikon are served on the side. It's moreish, and as comforting and understated as Ito's quiet restaurant.
Go-to dish: Sink your teeth into a delicately fried creamy lobe of tempura uni.
69 Victoria Street, Fitzroy; 03 9041 9495; wakenbo.com.au
Kenzan's chawan mushi. Photo: Simon Schluter
This sushi bar may be nudging 40, but shows few signs of weariness, quietly rolling out the classics with confidence and finesse its Flinders Lane neighbours should envy. Case in point, deftly sliced slips of sashimi, all killer, no filler crab hand rolls, and whisper-light tempura vegetables. Those who like a hands-on approach (or first date ice-breaker) can share cook-at-the-table nabe ryori – wafer-thin beef slices with assorted vegetables and piquant sauces. Perched at the bar for the theatre of live-action sashimi-slicing, or settled into the warmly lit room under the watchful eyes of discreet, sweet waitstaff, it's low fuss, high comfort stuff.
Go-to dish: The chawan mushi, a steamed egg and dashi custard concealing seafood, is a Melbourne benchmark.
Collins Place, 56 Flinders Lane, Melbourne; 03 9654 8933; kenzan.com.au
Chirashi zushi at Shira Nui Japanese restaurant in Glen Waverley. Photo: Anu Kumar
The ever-expanding international food hub around Glen Waverley station holds many treasures. While hardly a secret, Shira Nui remains one of its most glittering. With two seatings at lunchtime and two at dinner, cheerful staff need to keep plates moving. Nasu dengaku (that's baked eggplant with a miso glaze) is practically a savoury pudding and the tight, tasty gyoza may beckon, but it's chef Nishikura's omakase menu that keeps the reservation book full. A gently paced parade delivers such sushi jewels as garfish seasoned with salt and lemon, ark clam with a cod mayo, seared steak with spring onions, marinated kingfish, salmon draped in sweet seaweed, and a seared oyster and house-made mayo wrapped in nori.
Go-to dish: Order the omakase and revel in Nishikura's fresh sashimi.
247 Springvale Road, Glen Waverley; 03 9886 7755
Tonkatsu croquettes at Tokyo Tina. Photo: Supplied
It's as much about having a good time as it is about the food here at this bright izakaya. Alongside a vibe as busy as the Tokyo streetscape mural running along one wall, highlights from the menu, which primarily jumps between Japan and Korea, come from the hibachi grill. Cuttlefish and wagyu skewers come in sets of two, and there's even a whole spatchcock basted in a sticky-sweet bulgogi glaze. Modern dining's catchphrase "designed to share" really does apply here. Interactive dishes like the hulking, crisp pork hock ssam, served with ssamjang, pancakes, ginger, cucumber, and kimchi facilitate fun at the table and guest interaction.
Go-to dish: Marinated in brown sugar caramel, gochujang, soy, mirin and sake the hibachi-grilled whole spatchcock has satisfying char.
66A Chapel Street, Windsor; 03 9525 2774; tokyotina.com.au
Japanese breakfast plate. Photo: Mark Roper
Collingwood's favourite Japanese cafe and homewares store has moved to a bigger space and now there's even more room for what it does well. Simple, clean, flavoursome Japanese dishes – like their traditional salmon breakfast or nourishing rice bowls – are a great refuel before you browse their range of covetable stuff for the home. With Japanese cooking classes, specialised groceries and fresh produce, this is your friendly neighbourhood Japanese retreat.
Go-to dish: Keep things light and bright with the tofu balls rice bowl with shiitake mushroom and teriyaki sauce.
31-39 Keele St, Collingwood; 0481 398 686; shop.cibi.com.au