Kura Robata and Sake review

Beef tongue, chicken liver and chicken skin skewers.
Beef tongue, chicken liver and chicken skin skewers. Photo: Simon Schluter

22-30 Lygon St Brunswick East, VIC 3057

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Opening hours Dinner Tue-Sun
Features Bar, Licensed, Accepts bookings
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9972 1629

The sign on the door to Kura, the new robata and sake bar in Brunswick East, asks for your patience and understanding. Like practically every restaurant in the city, the venue is coping with staff shortages thanks to a lack of workers, and COVID-19 illness and absence among the workers they do have.

This situation is tough on so many businesses, but it must be particularly challenging for a new restaurant – at least the more established places have their procedures in place. Trying to navigate the creation of those systems must feel like trying to plug multiple holes on a sinking (brand new) boat.

I appreciate the direct approach of Kura's sign, and I'm taking their message to heart. This is a restaurant with so much potential. And most of the issues with dining here – and there are a few – are ones that will likely be rectified once the place is fully staffed.

The best seats in the house are at the counter facing the action.
The best seats in the house are at the counter facing the action. Photo: Simon Schluter

So, let's focus on that potential, starting with something that's already extremely impressive: the sake list. I don't think there's another list in town as wide-ranging and exciting as this one, and certainly none with the kind of premium sakes that Kura has on offer.

This is the purview of co-owner Kevin Low, who now aims to do for sake what he's helped do for whisky at his other establishment, The Elysian Whisky Bar.

The staff are happy to help direct you, and there's a diagram on the menu that places the list's sakes on an axis of rich/light/dry/fruity. If you can't find something here that you like, then you probably don't like sake. All the more for me.

Sashimi combo.
Sashimi combo. Photo: Simon Schluter

The long dining room, set in the bottom of one of Brunswick East's many new (and slightly lifeless) apartment buildings, is built around the open kitchen and bar, and the best seats in the house are at the counter facing the action.

The main draw here, food-wise, is the robata grill and the skewers coming off it. Different cuts of meat and vegetables are cooked over binchotan charcoal, which imparts a wonderful, smoky flavour. While you can get chicken thigh, pork belly or salmon, the more interesting way to go is to delve into the chicken offal offerings: liver, heart, gizzard.

There's also beef tongue and tsukune, a traditional chicken meatball served with a soft onsen egg, its runny yolk used for dipping the meatballs. It creates a kind of chicken-to-the-power-of-chicken situation, the yolk acting as glossy sauce to the juicy meat.

Oysters with ponzu.
Oysters with ponzu. Photo: Simon Schluter

I enjoyed the robata skewers ($5 each) I had at Kura, although all of them came out a little cold. I was excited for the chicken skin version, but it wasn't nearly crispy enough, making for a couple of bites that should have been shattery but instead were a little flabby and sad.

Temperature was a constant issue – the raw oysters with ponzu were too warm, the lovely hunk of cod in yuzu kosho butter ($30) from the "large plates" section of the menu was too cool.

The kitchen was slammed, the room was full, and I think these things will be remedied when the chef (co-owner Ken Ibuki) is assisted by trained and healthy kitchen staff. The technique is there. The execution is close.

Flank steak.
Flank steak. Photo: Simon Schluter

The one part of the menu that isn't suffering at all is the raw fish. Ibuki is serving lovely sashimi, some of which I've not seen before on Melbourne sushi menus. A daily special of kinmedai (alfonsino, $22) was delicate and soft, its sweet, subtle flavour a wonderful respite from the farmed salmon and previously frozen tuna that so many sushi bars rely upon.

Even on this busy, understaffed evening, the sense of hospitality at Kura was fully intact. You might have to wait for a table – but you'll have an accurate accounting of how long it will take and a drink in your hand from a friendly server in no time. When that table becomes ready, there will be someone enthusiastic and knowledgeable to walk you through the sake list, or recommend a shochu (another delicious Japanese distilled drink).

Because of these things, I'm more than confident that the slight missteps in the kitchen will be remedied sooner rather than later.

Once that happens, Kura will be one of the most fun places to eat and drink around. In the meantime, have some patience and understanding. In these bizarre times, we're all just trying our best.

Drinks Fantastic sake list, a couple of pared-back cocktails, Japanese beer and shochu, limited wine selection

Cost About $50 a head, plus drinks.

Vibe: Modern, sparse and sleek

Go-to Dish: Robata skewers