Minamishima

Chef's choice: After starting out as a dishwasher, Koichi Minamishima now has his own name on the door.
Chef's choice: After starting out as a dishwasher, Koichi Minamishima now has his own name on the door. Photo: Melissa Davis

4 Lord Street Richmond, Victoria 3121

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Opening hours Tues-Sat 6pm-10pm
Features Accepts bookings, Licensed, Gluten-free options, Degustation, Private dining, Romance-first date, Wheelchair access
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Koichi Minamishima, Yoshiki Tano
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9429 5180

That Minamishima managed to stay off-radar for its first two months of operation is a Melbourne miracle. Its opening was kept quiet intentionally. At the helm of this brand new, old-school sushi restaurant is owner-chef-owner Koichi Minamishima and sommelier Randolph Cheung, and the veterans know that perfecting product takes time.

Cheung has trod the boards at Azalea, Flower Drum and the Atlantic. Minamishima hails from the Aichi prefecture in Japan, was previously head sushi chef at Kenzan, and now, after a quarter century working his way from dishwasher to sushi master, he's slicing up the ocean's tastiest bounty behind a door with his own name.

This is the big league; an omakase situation (chef's choice) where you're throwing down $150 a head before drinks. If that seems jarring, remember that what you're eating is to a California hand roll as Grange is to a cask of classic dry red. We're sitting next to Toyota's chairman on our visit. And he is pleased.

Otoro nigiri (tuna belly nigiri).
Otoro nigiri (tuna belly nigiri). Photo: Melissa Davis

Beyond the black glass entrance that helps camouflage Minamishima in its already obscure back alley Richmond location, there's is the dining room, where groups can work through pretty platters of mixed nigiri and a few more hot dishes than you get at the bar. It's the same price to go this route – there's a private tatami room for eight, too – but if you're a purist, you'll want to sit courtside where you'll face down 15 rounds of sushi, and get to watch Minamishima skin garfish fillets with his bare hands like he's peeling the wax paper off Blu Tack.

Things kick off gently. First comes a mottled plate holding lightly smoked tomatoes, pickled mustard leaves and baby eggplant, paired to a dry, sparkling sake. After that, it's a wild ride, albeit delivered one bite at a time. What unfolds in front of you is closer to surgery than food prep. Those near-translucent garfish fillets disappear into Minamishima's palms and emerge as wasabi-napped nigiri, the naturally sweet fish wrapped in big loops over the rice to up the ocean taste.

This isn't rockstar sushi. You'll find few dressings save a tweezer pinch of ginger or a lick of soy. Zero avocado. Here it's all about the fish, some of which has been imported from Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, and Minamishima's ability to coax the best out of each protein. Often that simply comes down to knife work.

Perch at the bar and be mesmerised by the chefs' knife skills.
Perch at the bar and be mesmerised by the chefs' knife skills. Photo: Melissa Davis

Calamari becomes a multi-dimensional experience through intricate feathering, a quick grating from a solid block of pink salt and a single pass of the blowtorch so you get cool, sticky underbelly with warm, almost nutty accents from the nubbly top. Or he might, in the case of King George whiting, cure the fillets between sheets of kombu till they turn pale yellow, then amp the umami with a little sesame. 

Working alongside Minamishima is Hajime Horiguchi, the ex-chef from Wasabi in Noosa with the prettiest hands in the land. Their rhythm together is mesmerising. Horiguchi palms the rice while Minamishima transforms geoduck into something you want to eat. Here, the ridiculously phallic clam is cut into fine strips to load into a little nori-collared boat. It has an almost crunchy squeak and is so naturally bright it's floral, grounded with more sesame seeds. 

There's a nice balance between the rare, the weird and the familiar. There may be dark-frilled Japanese cockles enveloping rice like tiny, salty aliens, chased by a meaty, slow-cooked slab of abalone in a thick soy glaze. There's flamed flounder's fin, which smells like a toasted marshmallow and tastes like butter, followed by two rounds of fatty tuna belly nigiri, the first served raw, the second quickly torched.

Cheung counters at every turn. At one point, there's a yeasty Naka Shuzo sake from the smallest brewery in Japan, producing only four barrels a year, and a dirty, new school number made with heirloom red rice by one of Japan's few female brewers. Then Minamishima lays down a big crumbling length of lightly smoked eel with a petrichor taste of rocks after rain, and he hits back with the Pennyweight Constance fino sherry.

Much of what's great here is the result of good supplier relationships and several years of meticulous planning. It's all in the details. Doors to the kitchen are hidden panels that close automatically like something from the Starship Enterprise. The room is a canvas of blonde woods and black banquettes with a backdrop of rippled rock. Even the silken rice milk blancmange at the end is good, capped with a perfectly bisected raspberry. That's some masterful slicing. In this town, it doesn't get any better.

THE LOW-DOWN
The best bit
 Sake and sushi go punch for punch
The worst bit They're closed till January 20
Go-to dish Otoro nigiri (tuna belly nigiri), part of a set 15-course menu.

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor. 
12
 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best

http://www.minamishima.com.au/