114 Russell St, Melbourne
Phone: 9654 2977
Sometimes life deals you some heavy blows. Your world comes crashing down around you, and everything seems a little surreal. It’s at those times that you remember the great people you have around you, who are there for you not because they have to be, but because they want to be.
I’ve been going through one of those times in recent weeks, and because my sister and brother-in-law are such absolute champions, they’ve been keeping me busy, and my mind off things I shouldn’t be dwelling on for now. One such outing was to Izakaya Den.
Since it opened in late 2009, Izakaya Den’s been on my list of places to visit. It took me long enough, but now that I’ve been, I can gladly say I was not disappointed, and were it not for my impending mortgage-ownership, I’d be a frequent visitor. There’s very little not to like about this place, unless of course, you have an aversion to sleek, modern interpretations of Japanese cuisine, or a sizeable mortgage to finance. This is your warning, people: be careful of your credit card here.
That being said, let’s talk about the food. Because the food is so worth walking about! We started off with some Japanese pickles. Daikon, cucumber, garlic shoots, and one other thing I can’t quite remember. They were all interesting, but not really a highlight. A nice way to start, though.
Then came the duck breast, peppered with pomegranate arils, resting on a little bed of cracked wheat. This dish was exceptional.
Swiftly thereafter, arrived the lamb short ribs. A deliciously sweet, sticky sauce, we ordered two serves of this in the end, because my sister missed out on the first one (they come in threes).
One of the things I love about izakaya dining is that you order a few dishes, drink some beer, sake or shochu, and then gauge where you’re at. At this point, we were all still wanting more food. Next came the quail.
Quail is always a winner for me, though I’m kind of used to the Chinese roasted/fried style. These were perfectly grilled, with sansho (Sichuan) pepper and the same pickled garlic shoots from before.
Beetroot with mushrooms. Not a typical Japanese dish, in my experience, but one that worked beautifully. The sweetness of the beetroot mingled in with the intense umami of the mushrooms; the whole thing just sings!
I had read about the tuna tataki over at Melbourne gastronome
, so at Claire’s behest, I insisted that we order it. The dish has changed since she tried it. It was no longer a garlicky soy, but rather chilli (on the left) and wasabi (on the right) mayonnaise dressings. While this dish was nice, I think there were definitely better items on the menu.
One of them being the dengaku. This isn’t your ordinary nasu dengaku, because mixed in with the eggplant were chunks of sweet potato, and some amazingly textured substance which had us guessing and debating for quite a while. The texture was close to that of braised tendon, though it lacked the quality of being an animal product. In the end, I concluded that it was most probably a very stiff agar-based jelly. Anyone else tried this dish and care to enlighten me?
We had some grilled octopus next – by this stage we were a few drinks in, and still in need of food – which was amazingly tender, and laced with a delicate smokiness. This was better than even Greek grilled octopus, in my opinion. And nobody grills octopus like the Greeks. Except for the Japanese, apparently.
Tofu balls. These were a bit meh, for me, though my sister loved them. I found the texture a bit off-putting, as it was that cooked-then-broken-then-cooked-again tofu. The bonito shavings on the top did a merry dance for us as they arrived at the table, however.
Miso soup with pippies. This was a nice way to round out the savoury dishes, though there were an annoyingly large number of barely and semi-opened pippies.
After all of this, we decided that yes, we did still want desserts. Though the idea was floated that we head elsewhere for roast duck noodles, for about the same price, and fill our bellies. But the sweet siren song of dessert won out.
B-i-L and his friend shared the chocolate and yuzu fondue. It came with little mochi-like gelatinous balls to dip in the yuzu-flavoured chocolate. I tried one, and it wasn’t that inspired, to be honest.
Sis and I decided to split two desserts – the white sesame mousse with tapioca,and a ginger creme brulee.
Both were amazing! The white sesame mousse was much more delicately flavoured than most black sesame desserts you find at Asian restaurants, and there was a red bean surprise in the centre.
The ginger creme brulee was a cut above any creme brulee I’ve ever tasted. But I’m biased, because I’m a huge fan of ginger. So beyond the delightful crack of the bruleed top, and the delicate smooth creaminess of the custard, what I loved about this dessert was the absolutely uncompromising sharpness of the ginger. I can only assume that fresh ginger juice had been added at the last minute to the custard before it was set, because the zing was unlike anything you can achieve once you heat and cook ginger through. Anyway, enough gushing, it was sublime.