I have been travelling frequently to Melbourne for work over the last few months and when I am down there I get to try what Melbourne has to offer in their dining scene. The debate of who has the better restaurants, Melbourne or Sydney and I say both have cater for different tastes. I find Melbournians are more adventurous for their food and encourage a lot of creativity whilst Sydneysiders gets the basics rights. I first heard about Izakaya Den when reading Gourmet Traveller magazine and I thought it wasn’t going to be traditional Izakaya’s I have frequented in Japan and it was tailored more to Western tastes and charging exorbitant prices. But when I think about it, what is an Izakaya? All it is a drinking establishment where they serve snacks to accompany the drinks, sort of like a tapas, as long as it does just that, it ticks the box.
I met up with my colleague and we walked along Russell st, looking for the place. We nearly walked past it and stood outside the entrance debating whether or not that was it. There was lack of signage and all we could see was the street number and stairs leading down a passage. We walked down the stairs, through another door and passing a wall of sake confirmed we were in the right place. It was a Wednesday night and the atmosphere was buzzing with people relieving their stress with a glass of sake or two. The front of the restaurant doubles as a bar and the waiting area which allows people to have a few cocktails whilst waiting for a table as they have a no booking policy.
The restaurant has a series of tall tables along the wall and counter seats along the open kitchen. We seemed to arrived just in time as we took one of the last remaining seats on the counter. We were presented with 2 menus rolled up in a scroll, 1 for food and 1 for drinks. The drinks menu contains 55 types of sake, various types of umeshu (including one which is sugar free), Japanese beer, sochu and your usual suspects of cocktails and wine.
Their menu is centred around mini dishes along the lines of small, char grill, cold, hot, vegetables and sweet. Specials for the day are projected along the wall (über cool).
The sweet corn kaki-ege is a must have, served with a side of green tea salt. The corn is freshly cut and coated in a light tempura batter and fried until golden brown. I could eat these by the bucket full and goes perfectly with my chilled sake.
Next up, daikon salad. Daikon is a type of radish which grows length ways like a carrot and has a white flesh. The craftmanship of the chef’s knife skills are shown through the intricate sticks all cut to the same shape and size. The daikon is dressed lightly in a ponzu dressing and the crunch and cleaness of the daikon provided a great palate cleanser to go to and from the main dishes.
I love scallops and I couldn’t pass up the chance to order this. The raw scallops were lightly marinated, perched upon egglant puree, served on a dried eggplant chip. The scallops were very plump and juicy and the sweetness of the eggplant complimented the scallops very well.
Our hot dish of the evening is quail, 3 sauces. The quail had a nice char to it without drying out the meat on the inside. The sauces which accompanied the quail were: perilla, sansho and yuzu mayo. I prefered the quail without the sauces as it already had enough flavour through the meat.
We ordered the next dish, purely out of interest. We were debating if it was going to be normal fried rice but in a black sauce or actual black sticky rice. When the dish arrived it was the latter. The fried rice was very fragrant with wok hei (鑊氣). What on earth is she talking about you say? Well in Chinese cooking where food is cooked in a wok over a high flame, it imparts an essence to the food. The essence is essentially a char like taste which can only be achieved over naked flame and tossing the food quickly. The fried rice was not overly oily and I quite enjoyed the chewiness of the sticky rice.
I get excited when I eat out with my friends because it means I usually can eat dessert! Mr Dough is not a sweets lover so more often than not I miss out because I can never finish the whole portion myself. The tofu mousse was almost cheesecake like with the texture more dense than light like a mousse. Tofu traditionally has no taste but this dessert was very creamy and the brown sugar on the bottom reminded me of an upside down creme caramel. The yuzu dressing was like a dollop of marmalade and the citrus provided a nice tang to the dessert.
We finished our meal by 8pm and the place was brimming with people around the bar area waiting for tables. I had to check my phone (again) just to make sure this was a Wednesday night.
114 Russell Street
Melbourne, VIC 3000
Tues-Fri, noon-2.30pm; Tues-Sat, 5.30pm-1am; Sun, 5.30pm-11pm