Izakaya Den opens a new chapter

Pork and tofu meatballs.
Pork and tofu meatballs. Photo: Chris Hopkins

THEME: CHEFS IN NEW DIGS

When 20-year-old city fine diner Ezard announced its permanent closure in June it was big news in food circles. It made less of a splash when all the Japanese chefs at decade-old basement hideaway Izakaya Den obeyed PM Morrison's inhospitable edict and flew home to see out the pandemic.

As it turned out, these two sad events created a happy confluence: talented Ezard head chef Jarrod di Blasi shifted to Izakaya Den to helm its new chapter.

Chef Jarrod di Blasi (right) at Izakaya Den.
Chef Jarrod di Blasi (right) at Izakaya Den. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Di Blasi has a history with Den owners Simon Denton, Miyuki Nakahara and Takashi Omi. He worked for Denton at previous restaurant Verge, and reckons he ate at Izakaya Den 150 times before coming on as an employee. Di Blasi is a long-time Japanophile; the influence was evident at Ezard but it's now blossoming.

After an eight-month closure, Izakaya Den reopened in December with 2029 appended to its name. The numerals suggest optimistic rebirth plus a nod to Blade Runner 2049.

Snacky Den classics such as battered sweet corn sit on an "homage" list but the core offering is an $80 menu, booked and prepaid. This structure isn't typical for an izakaya but it makes excellent business sense in a rebuilding CBD.

Snapper sashimi on ice.
Snapper sashimi on ice. Photo: Chris Hopkins

The food shows the attention to detail of di Blasi's cooking at Ezard but it's stripped back. Instead of 10 elements, there might be two, and the impression is of depth rather than breadth.

Take the sashimi: the day's best white fish is meditatively sliced and laid over ice so it appears to float. It's served with Tasmanian wasabi and a subtle mix of sake and soy. I was unsure about the ice bed – you don't want sashimi too cold – but if you eat it slowly, warming it in the mouth is part of its pleasure, a mindfulness exercise rendered in brain-spiked snapper.

Pork meatballs employ fine dining technique to make them surprisingly airy; the accompanying "funky" sauces are an awesome collision of low-brow flavour bombs and expert alchemy.

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Miso-marinated swordfish hits the grill; it's served simply – sublimely – with a bowl of coral lettuce tossed with tried-and-true Den pine nut dressing.

Kiritanpo is a street food snack made with half-mashed rice moulded onto skewers, miso-glazed and grilled. It's unfussy, tasty and typically respectful to tradition without being beholden.

Dining out in Melbourne this year will see many changes and not all will be as easy to swallow as this one. Izakaya Den 2029 has turned the adversity of 2020 into positivity and I definitely have an appetite for that.

Kiritanpo (miso glazed rice skewers).
Kiritanpo (miso glazed rice skewers). Photo: Chris Hopkins

Izakaya Den 2029

Address basement, 118 Russell Street, Melbourne, 03 9654 2977, izakayaden.com.au

Open Tuesday-Saturday 6pm-late, bookings essential

Prices Dinner $80; dessert $15

Scoring is paused while the industry gets back on its feet.

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