In this preview from the upcoming national Good Food Guide we present 10 of our favourite places for Japanese food around town, from omakase (chef's choice) to skewer-based snacks.
In this always-on world, stillness can be simultaneously welcoming and unnerving. Carpeted floors and ricepaper screens encourage a slowing down of body and mind. Flash photography is banned – phones in general are discouraged – but it's hard to resist the urge to take a sneaky snap of a tasting plate of seafood tartare with a surprise black rice crunch, a tempura fig, and vegetables in a miso sauce that tastes for all the world like a ginger pudding. The menus are set – two hours is advised for the five-course option – but there's room to opt out of any ingredients that boggle the stomach or the mind.
1 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 03 9639 9500, kappo.com.au
A selection of dishes at Kappo. Photo: Supplied
It's not the shock of the new, but that's hardly the point. For 37 years this top-end-of-town stalwart tucked inside Collins Place shopping centre has been serving a faithful menu of Japanese classics, aided and abetted by some of the best sushi in town. Whether seated at the sushi counter or in the conservative dining room with its carpeted hush, it pays to go hard on a raw menu that takes the road less travelled, from buttery ark clam sushi with perfect room-temperature vinegared rice to sashimi with velvety swatches of bluefin tuna belly.
Collins Place, 56 Flinders Lane Melbourne, 03 9654 8933, kenzan.com.au
Melbourne's Japanese scene has splintered into two denominations. On one hand, the temples of hyper-specialisation, focused tightly on single items. On the other, the broad churches insistent that quality can be maintained across the spectrum of Japanese cuisine. Komeyui, and the Japanese expatriates over-represented among its following, constitute a generously spirited, familial argument for the latter. Here, as at Kenzan, where chef Motomu Kumano spent six influential years, you'll eat happily across a diversity of Japanese favourites. Beef tataki sees clean slices of just-seared wagyu, layered with wisps of crunchy potato and soy sauce-cured egg yolk.
396 Bay Street, Port Melbourne, 03 9646 2296, komeyui.com.au
Koichi Minamishima at work at his eponymous Minamishima. Photo: Anu Kumar
Koichi Minamishima's omakase menu is a Melbourne benchmark sought by many, and experienced by few. His barely signposted restaurant is notoriously hard to get into, but worth the wait. Here, you can ask the masters questions, and receive clear instructions: 'with soy', 'without soy', 'use your fingers'. There might be vivid orange roe of bafun-uni (sea urchin) caught off the Hokkaido coast, buttery scallop, fleshy Queensland king prawns palmed over vinegared rice, or geoduck, a pricey, bumper-sized clam.
4 Lord Street, Richmond, 03 9429 5180, minamishima.com.au
Tuna sashimi salad at Neko Neko. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Among the Japanese eateries, vegan options and general ramen frenzy on Smith Street, Neko Neko wins the trifecta. Run by a Japanese husband and wife, the menu focuses on sensational teishoku (meal sets) for vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians alike – as well as ramen, okonomiyaki and salads.
83A Smith Street, Fitzroy, 03 9415 6026
Sake Restaurant & Bar
A glass-fronted riverside rectangle overlooking the city's southern skyline, the Hamer Hall site is a well-oiled Rockpool Dining Group operation, although the fast pace may grate if you wish to linger after your nigiri. Sake promises traditional Japanese food with a contemporary twist and Neil Perry's nori crisps are a standout example, piling a dice of fresh tuna and kingfish on a crunchy seaweed base, all finished with a dusting of chilli powder. Steamed prawn dumplings are generously stuffed while a tempura snapper's salty batter is tempered by a citrusy ponzu sauce.
100 St Kilda Road, 03 8687 0775, sakerestaurant.com.au
Shiitake mushrooms at Supernormal Canteen. Photo: Nikki To
Andrew McConnell, the perennial reinventor, has turned St Kilda's Luxembourg into Supernormal Canteen – a reboot of the low-key Japanese pop-up in Fitzroy that was a precursor to Supernormal in the city. The pitch is far more casual than the Flinders Lane operation. You order from tick-a-box menus. There are communal tables joining the two tops and seats at the long bar. The dishes you've seen before are stayers for a reason but newcomers like a cup of springy noodles with complex dashi and slices of abalone, or whole Crystal Bay prawns cooked over the yakitori grill are the new benchmarks of dining here. And nothing says party dining like $5 taiyaki – fish-shaped cake waffles with a chocolate heart.
Shop 2, 157 Fitzroy Street, 03 9525 4488, supernormal.net.au/canteen
A pair of tempura prawns at Tempura Hajime. Photo: Marina Oliphant
Never been to Tempura Hajime? Spy the heavy timber door hidden among the tower blocks, hit the buzzer and head through the low-lit foyer into an all ecru and blondwood inner sanctum. The intimate 12-seat dining room is an exercise in purity and restraint, much like Osaka-born Shigeo Yoshihara's food. Nab a plush high-back stool at the counter, order sake or a Coedo craft beer, leave yourself in the hands of the tempura master and let the omakase adventure begin. A lush line-up of gleaming nigiri might include yellowfin tuna alongside swordfish and Sher wagyu seared for subtle charred smokiness.
60 Park Street, South Melbourne, 03 9696 0051, tempurahajime.com.au
Take a seat at the Table. Photo: supplied
The Table at Kisume
Chris Lucas dropped a bomb to create this premium Japanese restaurant, and while there's plenty to be said for doing omakase downstairs at the main sushi counter (Kisume), it's the 12-seat dining experience, the Table, where the money really talks. Here, Korean chef K. S. Moon delivers a three-hour performance from behind a solid bamboo bar. It's a kaiseki menu, Japan's answer to the grand tour degustation, comprising 15 courses of top-shelf ingredients dramatically combined. Trappings are lavish, from daiginjo sakes in heavy gold cups and white burgundies in the wine match, to royal blue scampi roe garnishing dishes.
Level 1, 175 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 03 9671 4444, kisume.com.au
Meringue pie with yuzu curd, white chocolate mousse and shiso marshmallow. Photo: Bonnie Savage
There is more pan-Asian competition along the Windsor strip since Tina opened in 2015 but she still pops like a Harujuku girl on a spring Sunday. Toe-tapping beats and an eclectic crew make sure any wait is rewarded with a swift drink order and plenty of snack suggestions. The pick of the tightly edited entrees is fluffy bao, which comes DIY in the form of a pork belly brickette, skin salty and crackly, daikon discs and dishes of Kewpie mayo and sweet soy. Snack through small plates or opt for a half chicken, the teriyaki sauce more broth than syrup but with complex flavours. A yuzu-accented meringue pie has subtle white chocolate for an even finish to a rollicking ride.
66A Chapel Street, Windsor, 03 9525 2774, tokyotina.com.au
The Good Food Guide goes national this year with hats awarded across Australia. The Good Food Guide 2018 will be launched in October with our presenting partners Citi and Vittoria and will be on sale in newsagents and bookstores.