43 Gertrude St Fitzroy, VIC 3065
|Opening hours||Mon-Sat noon-11pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9417 1992|
It's a hands-on experience at Gertrude Street's new sake-fuelled izakaya, so get your mittens ready. Your pincers might be grabbing a Nujabes record from the wall for owner Fumi Tamura to play. You may need to ferry sushi to a neighbour wedged in one of the tighter nooks.
You will definitely be grasping an off-piste sake in one of your fists at most or all times, and possibly negotiating a nori roll, double dressed nigiri-style while you're at it.
Yep, Fitzroy has a real deal izakaya on its hands from a couple who knows how that holy structure works: where the good times and drinks paramount but quality eats form the load-bearing base.
Owners Fumi and his wife Takako Tamura are equipped to deliver this package. Fumi, a sake sommelier and one-time vocalist in a Japanese punk band, and Takako, a former DJ who runs the kitchen, are also behind Little Lonsdale Street izakaya gig venue Horse Bazaar.
Music plays just as heavy a role here. A collection of funk-heavy Japanese vinyl, gifted to the duo by DJs and music producers, lines the walls of the tiny former cafe. But Tamura Sake Bar is slightly more polished, less boho (there are no massage and dumpling nights) than their well-loved if somewhat grungy city bar.
The glittering back bar sparkles with whiskies, umeshus and gems from the premium importers at Black Market Sake, plus bonus bottles Fumi has sourced direct. A squared and polished wooden bar commands the room, ringed by 16 seats with more perches facing out. Calling it intimate is an understatement.
When fully occupied, diners on one side sit back to back and window perches have you looking into the eyes, plates and souls of diners at Marion across the lane. The kitchen, however, while still small, expands on the tiny space that Takako made do with in the city, and she's stretching out.
The menu here runs day to night and surprisingly deep, from drinking staples (Japanese fried chicken, gyoza, yakitori), to hefty ramens and sushi and tori sets comprising miso, yakitori, the salty and tender fried chicken, to little plates of pickles and sticky Japanese-style potato salad.
The pitch of it all is rustic and in cases a little oddball, but everything is fresh and house-made. Whole chickens are broken down and transformed into skewers of skin and thigh, and little wingettes that are a touch chewy but have a nice grill singe. Carcasses become the baseline for a ramen of depth.
The breast meat is flattened, panko-crumbed and positioned juicy and golden in a culture war of a dish with fragrant katsu curry gravy and purple rice on one side, but also napoli sauce, a coriander-studded salsa, and parmesan cheese on the other. Strange but alluring.
Takako became the cook at Horse Bazaar by putting her hand up, and her sometimes unconventional, always home-style spin on izakaya classics arguably built that bar into a success.
So here your purple rice nori rolls are sliced and garnished like nigiri-sushi hybrids. This is less Minamishima, more Purple Peanuts, but their toppings range from bright smashed avocado to nicely vinegared mackerel and dashi-dunked snapper or plump raw scallops dressed in sweet and salty kelp salt, shiokombu.
Go a la carte and crumbed calamari hits hot, golden and lifted with piquant spiced balsamic, kewpie mayo and green onions. Sticky fried gyoza are filled with a bright crunchy mix of veg – one of several vegan ports in a snacking storm. A few dishes fizzle. Fried eggplant discs are miso-sweet but greasy and a prawn dumpling is all bounce. But fat portobello mushrooms, their cups overflowing with grilled blue cheese round out a simple but solid snacking bracket.
In some ways this is a Japanophile's answer to Gerald's Bar in Carlton North. In place of Motown, it's Danger by the Doctor Umezu Band, but the ethos of opening prized bottles and encouraging drinkers and diners into something new is the same.
It pays to ask what's doing the rounds. On this night we jump between delicate, floral, unfiltered sakes to a Kikutaka sake from a producer who works to bring out tartness and great savoury depth.
Beyond sakes, there's a strong bracket of shochus, and beers are either small batch craft brews like Coedo's sweet potato amber ale or house collaborations with Temple Brewing.
With the housing market faltering and the world in grief, it bears remembering that good times are fleeting and good-time places are few. Tamura brings them in spades. Grab them while you can with both fists.
Vegetarian: A good selection across brackets, with vegan options.
Drinks: Sakes, shochu, craft Japanese beers and Japanese whiskies.
Pro Tip: Beyond the list, ask what's on pour that day.
Go-to Dish: Tori set (yakitori, kobachi and Japanese fried chicken with miso), $35.