430 Little Collins St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Tue-Thu 11.30am-midnight; Fri-Sat 11.30am-1am.|
|Features||Licensed, Groups, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||03 9691 3838|
Possibly you knew that Shannon Bennett's Bistro Vue was becoming fish-focused eatery Iki Jime, a term that relates to the humane dispatching of fish for minimal stress, maximum deliciousness. But did you, or anyone, realise quite how seriously they were taking that seafood mantra? Iki Jime is the fish, the whole fish and almost literally nothing but the fish, set against a luxe, inky black room that's like being caught in the slipstream of a squid that's had a fright.
And I wonder. Could this actually be Vue group's most appealing package? The specificity may seem daunting – I have no idea what you're supposed to do if you don't eat fish. There's no steak. No chicken. Even your bread is slathered in dark seaweed butter and a side of peas is covered in seafood bisque.
But with nowhere else in Melbourne pushing the ocean angle with quite such force, teamed with all those things that the Vue group does really well (the backbending service that sees you presented with endless icy towels; wine lists rich with all the Champagne and chablis you could want for seafood) it's instantly become a peerless place to drop bank on bugs and barramundi.
This isn't the fin-to-gill cooking being nailed so hard at Sydney's Saint Peter by Josh Niland, nor the old-school stuff of Melbourne's seafood champion Michael Bacash. The moves here, being pulled off by head chef Sam Homan, are distinctly Vue: premium product given a half Australian, vaguely French accent, often presented with drama – and occasionally even on fire.
Do we need to talk oysters? Take them as a given. Better to focus on the likes of the bug tart. In a buttery, flaky base licked with an umamiful "seaweed fudge" nest sweet curls of barely set bug meat with finger lime and microplaned radish bringing tang and heat.
The rich oily nature of blue mackerel is tempered flavour-wise with a sharp Davidson plum puree. Texturally the skin has been crisped while the meat sits on ice to keep the underside chill and raw.
There's a nice amount of texture play here. Better still, things to eat with your hands. Load a creme-fraiched dice of cold-smoked salmon, peppered with fried buckwheat and salmon roe for explosive fun, onto fluffy fermented potato rafts. Or down tools, roll sleeves and get a fish selfie with the most ugly-delicious "appetiser" of the year.
Here, a barramundi head has been brined, then pasted in a yeast and apple glaze to form a salty, flavoursome skin when the whole thing is deep-fried. Break its neck, gouge out the cheeks, dip in a bright chimichurri. Good times.
We're straddling an old-new divide here. There's the punk-ish, red neon sign that's a calling card of design firm Projects of Imagination. There's a soundtrack of spacey electro tunes and the waiters' shirts resemble vintage Japanese souvenir jackets. But no one's forgotten well-drilled service moves.
Stand and staff melt from the darkness to guide you to toilets and swoop to remove spent napkins with silvery tools. That ingratiating service style can feel intense. But if there's the occasional awkward moment of forced bonhomie, guaranteed no one is going to drop a stitch when Vue's regular high rollers roll in.
And they will. And they should. But so should anyone with a passing interest in what can happen when that French-Oz connection really comes together, as it does in another barra dish. The muddy northern swimmer comes to the table embalmed in a still-smouldering jacket of paperbark, that mixes a little bush smoke with a lemon verbena oil and a classic clam veloute, added last minute at the table.
It's a pretty seamless effort from go to roe. Tater tots are a stoner snack for the ages – saltbush and freeze-dried vinegar-coated cubes of squish and crunch. Marron, ruby red and grilled on the Josper eases out of the shell in a flood of fermented pepper-tainted butter. Are the peas in a shellfish glaze a fin-ite bit too far? That's up to your funk meter.
It's not cheap. Especially if you plumb the depths of the wine list. But then there's plenty by glass in the $15 (not $35) range. And while a single marron shocks at $66, you'll have paid triple before for lobster only double the size. It's premium product, pretty fairly priced.
Add to that a bar, dark, sultry, stuffed with fat gold cushions and that the fact they haven't axed the tarte tatin and I'd say Iki Jime's going to catch you hook, line and sinker.
Drinks: Classics in the cocktail bar, and user-friendly Old-New world wine list.
Vegetarian: Vegetarian alterations available on request, but it's a very fishy time.
Pro Tip: Come early for the cocktail bar.
Go-to Dish: Barramundi head with yeast and apple and chimichurri, $16.