Izakaya Den

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.

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Gumshara

Eating World Food Court, Shop 209, 25-29 Dixon Street, Haymarket Sydney
Open Tuesday to Sunday 10am-8:30pm
Closed on Mondays

On my recent trip to Sydney, there were two goals I had – the first was to visit the Bourke St Bakery (post coming soon) and the other was to do some ramenhunting. I still remember the best ramen I’ve eaten in Australia, at Ryo’s in Crow’s Nest in Sydney. It was my introduction to the silky seductive joys of tonkotsu, and like a first love, it may be surpassed, but will never be forgotten.

Some quick online research and asking around led me to believe the place to go around the CBD was a little ramen stall in a food court, called Gumshara. Which happened to be just a few blocks from our hotel. Score! However, by the time we got down to the foodcourt on the Friday night, Gumshara was already closed.

The dream was put aside for awhile, and it wasn’t until Sunday afternoon, just before heading to the airport for our flight back to Melbourne which became and epic four hour stay at Sydney airport (thanks, Tiger), we stopped in on Sunday afternoon.

There are an array of ramen offerings at Gumshara. Of special interest is the pork spare rib, of which there are only 10 servings per day.
We managed to get two of them – I guess Sundays must be a little slow. This bad boy was mine. Of course, it comes with the sticky tonkotsu broth for which all good ramen pilgrims search.
My friends Miss J and Mr T shared one between them, with extra toppings of chashu and beautifully soft-boiled eggs.
Mr I went for the classic chashu ramen, again with tonkotsu. He had trouble finishing the bowl on his own. We swapped some chashu for some spare rib, and I have to say, the spare rib was good, but the chashu was better.
The ramen noodles were wonderfully springy to begin with, but they did fade somewhat as I worked my way through them. Still, they were a cut above most places I have tried in Melbourne.

The pork spare rib was a hefty chunk of meat, and I don’t think it’s really necessary, but things that are necessary are often boring. I did manage to get through it all, barely. It was a little too salty for my liking, to be honest.

There’s a sign at the stall, and the staff there mention it when they hand over the ramen; if the soup is too rich or salty, they are happy to adjust it for you. I didn’t think that was necessary. It certainly was rich, but that’s what I look for in a tonkotsu broth, no?

Apparently yes.

Gumshara is definitely worth the time to visit if you’re in Sydney and in need of ramen. And let’s face it, we’re all in need of ramen. All the time. Really.

Bucking the trend and taking advantage of the food court’s multitudinous offerings, Miss D and had a Singapore-style fried hokkien prawn mee, which she was extremely satisfied with. Apparently good prawn mee hard to get in Melbourne.

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Tokushima

70 Smith St, Collingwood
Phone: 9486 9933

Years ago, before it went up in flames and then closed down, I used to go indoor climbing at the Mill on Oxford St in Collingwood. After an hour or two of clinging on to the holds, we’d head down to the local Japanese joint Tokushima. Actually, I think it was still called Samurai back then, but that’s not really important right now.

I remember ordering the bento box, and then struggling to eat with chopsticks because my hands would tremble so much from too exerting my muscles too much climbing. Good times!

It’s been a few years since I’ve been back to Tokushima, largely because I’d been lured away by the nearby Wood Spoon Kitchen and Wabi Sabi Salon. But the novelty of fusion wears off, and sometimes you just want the classics. Like gyoza.

These had a nice filling, though the skins were a little on the under-cooked side, I think. We also had some harumaki (prawn spring rolls).
These were surprisingly good! I’m not usually one to order spring rolls, but Mr N had a craving, so harumaki were had. The filling was tastily prawny, which was off-set by the dollop of kewpie mayo which was served on the side.

Because we like to share, we ordered the sukiyaki beef, a dish for two to share. When it came out, we were both quite excited.

The waitress did some mixing of the raw beef around in the big cast iron pan, and then we dug into the sukiyaki, dipping the rare beef and vegetables in the raw egg. Deliciousness!
We ordered some rice to go along with the dish, because it just felt necessary, although the sukiyaki has some bean thread vermicelli in it. In hindsight, the rice wasn’t so necessary – we struggled to finish the dish. We almost got there, but not quite.

Tokushima is great value for money, and they dish up some great classic Japanese dishes, though on our last visit, they seemed a little understaffed, as the one waitress was rushing around a bit. Still, though the service was a little harried, it was flawlessly polite and friendly. So Japanese.

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Gaijin Japanese Fusion

135 Commercial Rd, South Yarra
Phone: 9804 8873
http://www.gaijinmelbourne.com

With the exception of one aberrant year when I was living in the suburban wilds of Noble Park, I have spent the entirety of my time in Melbourne firmly entrenched on the North side of the Yarra. I have an unjustified and irrational dislike for things on the South, much like a Yook has for a Zook. Every now and then, I venture to the other side, however, and even more rarely, I find something I truly delight in. Gaijin is one of those things.

Nestled in the heart of the gay club district of Commercial Road, Gaijin serves up some innovative sushi, as well as some old classics, and some new classics. Mr N and I stumbled upon it last week, but having already eaten, had to wait until this week to come back. I was a little dubious at first, as I am at all Asian fusion restaurants, and their modern branding reminded me of the epically annoying Cho Gao ‘Asian beer bar’ in Melbourne Central. But one look at the menu, and trepidation quickly changed to anticipation.

I ordered the sushi platter, as my belly was feeling rather cavernous. The sushi platter lets you choose any four sushi rolls off the menu, of which you get a half-serve. Unless, like me, you choose one of the baked items, which comes only in a whole serve, and then you only get three types.


A the back, on the left is the Spider vs. Dragon Roll,and the right is the Tasmanian Roll. At the front it the Baked Dynamite Roll. Here’s a look from another angle for you:

Spider vs. Dragon combines two of my favourite seafoods: soft-shelled crab and unagi (eel). That was always going to be a winner in my book. I was a curious about the Tasmanian Roll, because it sounded a lot like the New Yorker (with salmon and cream cheese) which I’d tried at other contemporary sushi joints, and is probably a ‘new classic’ – only with avocado and crab stick, and DEEP FRIED. Oh yeah. It was quite good, though I would have omitted the crab stick, really. I’m no a fan of seafood extender, really.

Which is why my final choice was somewhat of a gamble. The Baked Dynamite is a California roll (inverted rice) topped with baked scallop, crab stick and negi. Essentially, a creamy scrambled eggs with seafood. Almost Mornay-ish, but it totally works. The eggs were supremely creamy and *almost* runny. Luscious.

All the ingredients tasted very fresh, although I must say with such interesting flavour combinations at work, I can’t really comment on the quality of the seafood. Also, I was a little put off by the fact I had to ask for wasabi. But I guess the chef didn’t feel it necessary or appropriate with the cheesy sauce and the deep-fried sushi. Silly chef! Wasabi is always appropriate! (Caveat: my father has wasabi with his steak.)

Mr N wasn’t feeling quite as hungry as I, so he ordered the Teriyaki Chicken. I tried a piece, and I have to report it was underwhelming. A little over-cooked, and just too damn salty.


So my advice? Get the too Gaijin, but stick to the sushi. The donburi was not that impressive. Oh, and for those insatiable gluttons out there like myself, Gaijin currently is running a promotion from Tuesday to Thursday where you can have all-you-can-eat sushi (from a select menu – don’t worry, it’s got all the good stuff on it) for $35 per head, providing the whole table chooses this option. I’m definitely heading back!

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